As the final minutes of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season-opening 79-71 victory over Appalachian State ran off the clock on Tuesday, Juwan Howard was in his element. His imposing frame cast a long reflection over the shining hardwood floors at Crisler Center, his long arms stretched as he signaled to his players, his face was animated as he shouted directions over the chaos of the Maize Rage behind him.
Just a couple hours earlier, the newly-minted head coach’s body language told a much-different story. He wavered between sitting and standing for much of the beginning of the game – his first at the helm of this Michigan team. Sitting, he craned as far forward as he seemed physically capable of doing, trying to get a read on the court. Standing, he looked tense. His long arms either hung by his sides or fidgeted with his tie or the button of his jacket, but his body leaned forward as if he was physically restraining himself from running onto the court.
It was Howard’s first time as a head coach outside the NBA’s Summer League, and at times it’s showed, most notably (and most recently) when he named three different recruits in a press conference on Monday, violating NCAA rules. But as the the clock hit zero at Crisler on Tuesday night, Howard looked as much at home leading the Wolverines from the sidelines as he once looked leading them on the court.
“He’s always teaching. He loves to teach,” said senior center Jon Teske. “He’s giving us feedback, just continuing that trust we have. He loves to teach, and that translated to the game today, too.”
There are a lot of high expectations that go hand-in-hand with a member of the Fab Five coming back to Ann Arbor to replace the best basketball coach in school history. Howard is well aware of what his hiring represents. He expects a lot of his team, and even more of himself.
“There are areas where not just our players have to improve, but me as a coach,” Howard said. “That’s part of the process; I separate myself from the group. As a coach, I keep going back, hopefully I get some sleep tonight. Hopefully I will not play every play and possession back in my head. I know I will definitely have some sleep disturbances, because I have that mindset. I’m always critical. I’m always hard on myself.”
And so, as Howard drew ever closer to the first win of his head-coaching tenure, ever closer to ushering in what will one day be known in Ann Arbor as the Juwan Howard Era, his energy was almost palpable: no longer tentative or cautious, but excited, confident and most of all, hungry.
It was just an eight-point victory for a team that held a 30-point lead at one point. These Wolverines can do better, and will need to do better against tougher teams down the road. They’ll need to pass cleaner, shoot more effectively and turn the ball over less —among other things — if they want to be a relevant team in March. Howard knows it will be a challenge.
But he’s ready for it.
“Absolutely, I feel extremely comfortable and confident being the leader of this team,” Howard said. “Because I care. (I) care about this game, care what happens, care about this team, how we can improve.”
There are plenty more questions Howard will have to answer over the course of the season. But as for a head-coaching style, a leadership personality?
That’s coming along just fine.