ROSEMONT, Ill. — As Juwan Howard situated himself behind the podium Wednesday morning, grinning from ear to ear, he innocently prefaced his opening statement with four simple words: “Well, I’m the rookie.”
It may seem strange to consider a seasoned, 19-year NBA veteran with five years of coaching experience as an assistant for the Miami Heat a “rookie” in anything basketball related and yet, at his first Big Ten Media Day as Michigan’s head basketball coach, Howard was in fact the lone newcomer amongst the league’s 14 head coaches.
Despite the newness of it all, though, representing Michigan — where he was an All-American and a member of the “Fab Five” in the early 90’s — is something Howard is accustomed to.
“I’m excited about this opportunity,” Howard said. “It’s a dream come true for me to have a chance to come back to my alma mater. I’m proud to call myself a ‘Michigan man’ and now I get an opportunity to help develop some of the best, world-class athletes.”
It’s rare for a first-year head coach to take over a Big Ten program. It’s even rarer for that program to be in the position the Wolverines are in entering this season — coming off three Sweet Sixteen appearances, two Big Ten Tournament titles, and a National Championship game appearance all within the past three years. By now, you’re (hopefully) aware that the man who led Michigan to such heights — the widely respected John Beilein — swapped Ann Arbor for Cleveland this past summer to take the Cavaliers job. It is now Juwan Howard’s job to try to lead the Wolverines to similar success.
With that said, Howard doesn’t seem fazed by the steep task ahead of him.
“(Beilein’s) one of the best basketball minds out there,” Howard said. “Now, I’m sure a lot of people think, ‘You have a lot of pressure on you to fill those shoes.’ All I can say is this: I’m not going to try and be like Coach Beilein. He has his philosophy, his way of doing things. I have my philosophy that I feel works for our team moving forward. But, I do respect the gentlemen who was there before me.”
While at Michigan, Beilein achieved a level of admiration from rival coaches that few in the profession are ever been able to attain. As a result, his departure for the NBA, while somewhat surprising, was well-deserved, according to his former colleagues.
“I never saw it coming with Beilein,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “I don’t think any of us did. We were just at league meetings two days before that and the way he was fighting for stuff, you thought he was 100-percent coming back. But, I’m happy for John, he’s one of my favorite guys in the business.”
Added Illinois coach Brad Underwood: “What John did over the course of 11 or 12 years he was there was really pretty remarkable. I look at their program as kinda like a guiding point for us. He worked to get his culture exactly right and then actually got it to the nationally elite level.
“I couldn’t be happier for him. When the opportunity comes and those decisions become personal, it’s hard to turn down. But, I have a lot of admiration for how he built that program up. He did it his way and was very distinctive about that. I appreciated that aspect. And I’m damn glad he’s not in the league anymore.”
Glowing words for Beilein were almost always followed by positive inklings regarding Howard. And while acknowledging Beilein’s greatness as a coach and mentor, almost all of Howard’s new adversaries shared similar advice for the newcomer.
“What I would tell Juwan is, ‘Be Juwan, don’t be John,’ ” said Penn State coach Pat Chambers. “You’ve been been a big time player at Michigan and in the NBA. You’ve been a coach for a while too. Don’t try to be John Beilein. Whatever you’re comfortable with, be that.”
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who knows all too well about replacing a legendary coach having taken over for Bo Ryan in Madison, advised: “You can’t try to replicate, duplicate or emulate the guy that was in front of you. You can value some of the same things and take some of the foundational principles, but at the same time you have to be comfortable in your own skin.”
As Howard gets comfortable in that skin, he’ll have the benefit of leaning on a number of proven Wolverines. With preseason All-Big Ten selection Zavier Simpson returning at the point and key contributors like Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers seemingly ready for breakout seasons, the cabinet is far from bare. The values and lessons learned by those three and others under Beilein will undoubtedly help Howard in the early going.
“They’re veterans that have won at a high level,” Turgeon said. “There will be times since it’s still new for Juwan — and I know he has all the experience in the world, but it’s still going to be different — and those guys have gone to Maryland and won at Maryland, and they’ve been to Michigan State and won there too. They’re going to give him a bit of a security blanket because they’ve been so successful in our league as players.”
Howard is not his predecessor. In fact, he’s far from it. But, it’s not about what Howard isn’t, it’s about what he is. While, this season will bring about a slew of new experiences for him and will inevitably require an adjustment period, Howard’s NBA background, strong connection to Michigan and name recognition with a younger generation of recruits carries weight.
“As far as Juwan goes, I talked to him last night about ‘What do you think it’s harder to go from, college to the pros or from pro to college?’ ” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “I’m convinced it’s harder to go from pro to college, because we have so many different things to keep track of. In pro ball, everything’s not his fault. If someone leaves his garbage in the hallway, it’s my fault.
“So those things will be different and there are a lot more people tugging at you. It’ll be interesting to see how Juwan handles that, but I think he’s good enough to handle it.”