| The Detroit News
When Juwan Howard was hired as Michigan’s basketball coach in May 2019, there was skepticism.
Many questioned the decision since Howard had no prior head-coaching experience and had never coached at the college level. His resume, at that point, included six years as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat.
It led some to wonder whether he was qualified enough to lead the program after John Beilein’s sudden departure and if he would be the next former NBA standout to find limited success in the college coaching ranks, following the likes of Isiah Thomas (Florida International), Chris Mullin (St. John’s) and Danny Manning (Tulsa/Wake Forest).
Fast forward to now — past the midway point of Howard’s second season — the Wolverines are on top of the Big Ten standings and are ranked No. 3 in the nation with a 14-1 record heading into Thursday night’s game against Rutgers. Not to mention, Michigan has the No. 1 recruiting class on the way, all of which has Howard in the coach of the year conversations.
When asked if he heard that initial criticism and if it still motivates him, Howard responded with a nearly three-minute answer.
“Of course I’ve heard it,” Howard said Wednesday. “Yeah, I hear the doubters. I’m not going to sit here and act like I don’t hear the noise before I got hired. Still to this day I hear the backhanded compliments. Am I competitive? Of course I am.”
Howard said the mental toughness he forged growing up in Chicago, where he played tackle football with no pads at the park as a kid, helped prepare him for anything and everything that has been thrown at him in life.
While he’s aware of his critics, Howard said his focus is on improving as a coach, preparing his team for success and representing his alma mater with class.
“That’s my No. 1 goal,” Howard said. “That’s what thrives me. That’s what really excites me.”
That’s why Howard, a self-described perfectionist, has found himself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about offensive plays and defensive situations or losing sleep thinking of ways to make his team better.
His coaching, both in games and during practices, has been praised by his players and has even exceeded some of their expectations.
“We do every drill with a purpose, everything with a purpose,” senior guard Chaundee Brown said. “Sometimes at other schools, coaches do drills just to buy time. Coach (Howard) has an explanation for every drill and why it applies to ourselves or to the game.”
Grad transfer guard Mike Smith said Howard treats everyone the same and holds every player, from the starters to the walk-ons, to the same standard.
“He’s a players’ coach,” Smith said. “He understands somedays you don’t want to come in and do this, but it’s a necessity. You need to be able to come in and want to practice and do the right things all the time. ‘Every time, all the time,’ is what he always says. When you have somebody that has played at the level that he has, it’s hard to deny that he’s done what we’ve done.”
All Howard has done in Year 2, following an up-and-down first season that was cut short due to the pandemic, is recruit and win at a high level. And that speaks louder than any naysayers’ words.
“My wife says I have this Type A personality,” Howard said. “That’s how I’m wired. I wouldn’t have been able to last 19 years in the NBA if I didn’t have a certain edge about me.
“I worked at this. I’m going to continue to keep working. I love it. People will always doubt or have their opinions and they have every right to voice their opinion.”’
Following Sunday’s contest at Ohio State, Michigan will have a six-day gap between games. That presents an ideal window where one or two of the Wolverines’ five postponed games could possibly be rescheduled.
Howard said “different scenarios” have been discussed for makeup games, but nothing has been finalized.
“They haven’t buckled down and said what is the true schedule moving forward,” Howard said. “Nothing is set in stone at this time.”
Howard and players have expressed their concerns with having to play a full 20-game league slate, which is the goal the Big Ten set before the season. But to reach that mark, the Wolverines would have to play 10 games in 18 days, starting with Thursday’s contest against Rutgers.
“At the end of the day, our players they have a voice and they should have a voice in this because this is their season and this is their story,” Howard said. “They should not be muzzled — I’m not saying that they are — on what they feel is right for their schedule moving forward.
“Because there is a pandemic and things happen, not all schools have gone through it like we have. It’s challenging. Everyone has to pivot, and I think the Big Ten has to do the same.”
Smith said he thinks the players should have input on how the games are made up — “We probably won’t,” he added — but is fine with playing as long as it’s safe and the “circumstances work.” Brown added he could see the team having just one day off between games at some point.
“I don’t know how they’re going to do this because I know we still have to stay on track to play these other (five scheduled) games,” Brown said. “But I know that any time we step on the court, no matter where it is, Michigan basketball is ready to play.”
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