NOTE: My next book, OVERTIME: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football, comes out September 3. You can pre-order now from amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local book store. We’re setting up the book tour now, which will include a big launch on Tuesday, September 3, 7 p.m., at Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, hosted by Literati, and introduced by WTKA’s Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub. Bring 3,000 of your best friends!
INTRODUCTION: Yesterday, University of Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel introduced his new men’s basketball coach, Juwan Howard – a man very well known to Michigan fans as a star from the Fab Five era. But Howard lacks experience as a college coach, or a head coach anywhere. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon says there was no perfect option, and Howard is as good a bet as any.
When U of M men’s basketball coach John Beilein announced he was leaving Ann Arbor for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, I was as shocked as anyone. But once the dust settled, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel had to make the most important decision of his four-year tenure.
In 2014, after interim athletic director Jim Hackett fired football coach Brady Hoke, Jim Harbaugh was Michigan fan’s first, second, and third choice — a unicorn who checked every box: a former Michigan quarterback, Big Ten MVP, and NFL star who went on to great success coaching college and the pros. The question was if Hackett could pull Harbaugh in. When he did so, against considerable odds, the fanbase went crazy.
Manuel faced completely different circumstances. Unlike the football program, which had bottomed out, the basketball program has never been healthier. That’s thanks to Beilein, whose peers named him the cleanest coach in the country, and Bill Martin, the athletic director who hired him and upgraded the facilities to keep him. Further, basketball had no unicorn candidate out there, just a bunch of guys who checked some boxes, but not all.
Manuel looked at candidates at the top of the college and pro ranks. But getting them would require a fortune in salary, plus expensive buy-outs, and they still might not fit Michigan’s culture – if they decided to come at all.
On the other hand, Manuel considered candidates who got the culture, but didn’t have the experience. Lavall Jordan, Beilein’s former assistant, had just completed his second season at Butler, but finished last in his league. You also had Beilein’s great assistant coaches, Saddi Washington and Luke Yaklich, but they have never been head coaches.
Then there was Juwan Howard, a member of the Fab Five, which captured the nation’s imagination when all five started as freshman on their way to the NCAA finals. A great defensive player, Howard played 20 years in the NBA, before putting in six years as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Miami Heat.
This impressed me, because Howard already had piles of money. He didn’t need the time-consuming, pressure-packed, and largely thankless job of carrying a clipboard on the bench for 82 games a year. But he paid his dues, and is now considered a top defensive coach.
Some fans fear Howard won’t maintain Beilein’s high ethical standards. After all, Michigan’s program lost years to an NCAA investigation and probation because some Michigan players breaking the rules — including Howard’s teammate Chris Webber, who admitted under oath to accepting $200,000. Would Howard make the same mistakes?
We can’t know until he starts coaching, of course, but it helps that he has retained strength coach Jon Sanderson, who knows how Beilein’s program succeeded without cheating, and it also seems likely he’ll keep assistant coach Saddi Washington.
Former FBI special agent Greg Stejskal led the investigation into Ed Martin, the basketball booster who gave Webber the money. He told me the FBI turned up no evidence that Howard took any money.
Stejskal also spoke to the Michigan basketball team before every season. Although his warnings were not very well received by many of Howard’s teammates, Howard was the only starter who always thanked him. Howard has always been considered a class act.
Any way you sliced it, Manuel was going to have to take a chance. Given his options, it looks like Howard could well be the safest bet on the table.
Only time will tell if Howard can compete while keeping it clean. But that was true of John Beilein 12 years ago – and that worked out pretty well.
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The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, a National Bestseller, is now out in paperback. We’re on our ninth printing. Get ’em while they’re hot! You can order signed copies from Nicola’s Books and Literati.
My latest book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” is on its second printing. Makes a fine Father’s Day gift.
Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later, I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.
I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!
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