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When Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel announced in May 2019 that Juwan Howard would replace John Beilein as the head coach of the men’s basketball team, a cacophony of doubts and naysayers met him. In response, he emphasized Howard’s deep connection to the University and solicited patience from the Wolverines’ fanbase.

“I’m already criticized,” Warde said at Howard’s introductory press conference. “I read about the ‘risk’ and ‘gamble’ and adjectives like that that have already been used. And that’s fine. But if I’m going to take a risk with somebody, you all see why I took the risk and the gamble and all the things you could say about what could possibly happen, I’m going to take that risk with Juwan Howard.”

Almost two years later, Howard has quelled any and all doubts about his coaching credentials. In just his second season at the helm, Howard has led Michigan to a 19-3 record and a Big Ten Regular Season Championship. For his efforts this season, he was also named Big Ten Coach of the Year

“No matter how much I believe in somebody, you never know the outcome in how it exactly is gonna play out,” Manuel told reporters on Tuesday. “But, if I could draw up an outcome for Juwan, it is this. I have been so pleased with what he has done, how he has gone about it, how he’s connected with his staff and the student athletes, the performance, the things that you don’t see, that I hear about and I see in terms of the student athletes and how they’re engaging, how they are enjoying being a part of this team.”

Howard’s managed to establish a close-knit culture within the program in a short period of time. Throughout the season, the Wolverines’ players and staff have highlighted how the team feels like a family. In a year shrouded by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating that atmosphere has been more important than ever. 

Manuel credited Howard’s prior coaching experiences and desire to improve for his success.

“I think from my perspective, his development in the role has been superb,” Manuel said. “He asks the right questions of me, he engages internally with our staff, externally he’s had conversations with many people that he knows in this business. 

“He came from Miami under Erik Spoelstra, who’s a tremendous coach. And so he has the pedigree, he understands, he’s a student of the game of basketball, but also a student when it comes to listening and giving advice about coaches and decisions. He engages in that way. And so for me, that’s probably been the most impressive.” 

In addition to praising Howard, Manuel also spoke about the upcoming NCAA Tournament, which will be played entirely in Indianapolis to minimize the chance of COVID-19 outbreaks. Manuel expressed his approval of the tournament committee’s efforts to ensure a safe environment for participants. 

“They are doing an exceptional job at trying, and first and foremost, putting the health and safety of our student athletes and staff as a priority, as they should, as we would expect,” Manuel said. “(NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt) and his staff and the committee have really been working hard to make sure that is the No. 1 priority. 

“… There’ll be testing, we’re gonna bubble the student athletes and staff so that we try to maintain a safe environment for them. … Arena, bus and hotel is a good way to put it.”

As far as what the athletic department’s plans are for the fan engagement during the postseason, Manuel stressed that health and safety come first. 

“Pep rallies and the normal things that would go on during the NCAA Tournament, during the Big Ten Tournament, it’s not gonna happen. We are not planning for any kind of engagement like that with our fans. And so it’s really gonna be all about making sure for those who are there that they are healthy and safe and that we minimize those kind of events so that we don’t have any outbreaks occurring because of this. 

“Glad to see that some fans will be allowed to be in attendance at the Big Ten Tournament as well as the NCAA Tournament depending on local county officials and state health officials, but we’re gonna continue to try to minimize the exposure of anybody to COVID-19.”