In Bringing On a Head Coach to Steer Their Basketball Program, Michigan Matched Ohio State and Went Back to the Template

By Johnny Ginter on May 24, 2019 at 10:20 am
Michigan head basketball coach Juwan Howard

In the Six Million Dollar Man, astronaut Steve Austin is hideously maimed after trying to break up a fight between a raccoon and a half opened can of green beans. Government scientists decide to not just fix his crumpled form, but improve it in every conceivable way. The ways in which these government scientists conceive are actually kind of boring: super fast legs, bionic arm, telescopic vision, etc.

They could've given the dude bat wings or some kind of Inspector Gadget body or put a lighter in his butt so every time he farted it'd light up, but no, Steve Austin was destined to become a primetime staple on ABC, so no fun allowed.

I think about that show a lot (which, to be clear, I've never actually seen and am basing most of my knowledge on from a 10 second Simpsons joke) whenever a major college sports program has to make a head coaching decision regarding one of the revenue sports.

Michigan just had such a conundrum, for like five seconds. John Beilein, an excellent coach that guided them to significant March Madness success in his years in Ann Arbor, decided to roll the dice in the NBA and the Cavs. Good for that dude! Michigan was left somewhat in a lurch, however; there wasn't a ton of really good free agent coaching talent they could nab, and the Wolverines are acutely aware of their solid B-tier status as a college hoops program (maybe too much so).

Anyway, this presented them with an opportunity. Like Steve Austin, you could build your ideal coaching candidate from scratch. Whatever qualities the powers that be at Michigan wanted in a head coach, a wide open coaching search meant that they could pretty much go out and find that anywhere.

Juwan Howard, possessor of the two major and maybe one or two minor qualities that Michigan wanted, is that man.


Okay, a quick reminder in case you're not up to speed on Mr. Howard: not only has he never coached at the college level, he's also never been a head coach (outside of some D-League stuff), period. So in lieu of being able to talk about experience or results, the fallback is to get into hypotheticals about how teens in the 2020's are going to be really, really impressed by a dude who had a lengthy and pretty good NBA career, most of which took place before they were born. Buuuuuttt...

Jalen Rose saying this is not a shock for obvious reasons, but it speaks to the larger idea here that Howard is the cool badass guy recruits will glom on to, existing in stark contrast to the Dean Hardscrabble that John Beilein apparently was. Maybe!


Penny Hardaway went 22-14 in his first season as the head basketball coach of the Memphis Tigers, got to the NIT's second round, and that's about it. But, and this goes back to Upgrade 1, ol' Anfernee has been killing it in recruiting, creating the top ranked 2019 recruiting class and nabbing the highest overall rated recruit. The idea is that Juwan Howard should be able to recreate that Up North, given similar NBA and coaching bonafides.

The "former-player-as-coach" has had mixed success at best at the college level and the NBA (some would say that it's had almost zero success), but it has a certain appeal to Michigan specifically. I wonder why...


Aw hell yeah, you knew it was coming.

"If you let it stand for what it’s supposed to mean, here’s what it means: If you cut open the soul of the people that are ‘Michigan Men,’ so to speak, you find first selflessness. This was a point about how we stand for the team first. The second thing is the ability to win, be competitive. The competitive spirit in my lifetime and with others that you see around here that played, we knew that we had to work really hard. It wasn’t arrogance; it was about being competitive."

That's from former Michigan AD Jim Hackett, basically trying to handwave away the idea of the mythical Michigan Man after the firing of Brady Hoke but before the hiring of Jim Harbaugh. So actually, Michigan Men are good?

"As a 'Michigan Man' I know the place our program has in college basketball and I embrace the chance to build onto that history and lead us to championships both in the Big Ten and national level."

It's weird that Howard even brings it up, because at this point being a Michigan Man seems to be as solid a requirement for coaching the Wolverines in basketball and football as being a biped that breathes air might be.

Ultimately I don't really know how this Juwan Howard hire is going to work out for Michigan. I suspect not as great as they're hoping for, but probably not as badly as most of the people reading this would expect. Howard seems like a smart guy with an enormous wealth of playing experience, if not coaching experience. If he can get some elite players in Ann Arbor, that'll still count for something. If Michigan's lucky, they'll recoup their ten million dollar investment in the guy.

But the last part of this article is to point out that while Michigan picked some weird and arbitrary upgrades for their next head coach, so did Ohio State.

Chris Holtmann is a great coach and a perfect fit to continue the really great elements of what Thad Matta was able to build at Ohio State. Which is by design; Gene Smith and company were never going to bring in their own Penny Hardaway or Juwan Howard because they wanted a coach with a proven track record who would be good with players and not make a ton of waves. That worked out pretty well.

Ryan Day fits a perceived mold, too. You can rag on Michigan for hiring an extremely unproven head coach all you want, but Day (for as much as he looks and acts the part) hasn't really ever been a head coach, unless you count three games in which he was mostly able to set everything on autopilot and come out unscathed. He's incredibly likeable and smart, but at the end of the day your guess is as good as mine as to whether that translates into the number of wins that we expect from Ohio State football on a regular basis.

The truth is that every major sports program has an image of the ideal coach, and tries to find a person who matches it. Ohio State wanted to clone aspects of Thad Matta and Lincoln Riley, and they did just that. Michigan wanted their own Penny Hardaway, and went out and got him.

It's a risk, because long-term you're never really sure if what you want is really what the program needs. Juwan Howard could be great, but he could also very easily be in way over his head. Chris Holtmann looks like the real deal, but the jury is still largely out on Ryan Day.

In either case, this should be one hell of an offseason as we watch to see if the gambles made by Ohio State and Michigan's athletic departments end up hitting the jackpot.

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