Juwan Howard could’ve easily been in Minnesota right now on the Timberwolves staff alongside first-year head coach Ryan Saunders.
Wolves President Gersson Rosas offered him the job of associate head coach after an interview last May in Chicago. That would have been a step up for Howard in the NBA, but nothing could top running Michigan’s men’s basketball program.
The day before Howard interviewed with the Wolves, John Beilein made a shocking move to leave the Wolverines and take over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Howard, a star from Michigan’s Fab Five teams in the 1990s and a 19-year NBA player, had become an NBA assistant coach, always keeping an eye on his former program. He told his family it was the only college job he wanted.
“It was unfair at the moment that at the time, I’m preparing for a Minnesota Timberwolves interview, and in the back of my mind, all I could think about was Michigan, Michigan, Michigan,” Howard said during his introductory news conference last spring. “[Rosas] understood why I chose Michigan. My heart is with Michigan and will always be that way.”
Now Howard comes to Minneapolis, not as an established NBA assistant but as a first-year college coach who has already experienced some highs and lows. The No. 19 Wolverines (11-4, 2-2 Big Ten) play Sunday against the Gophers (8-7, 2-3) at Williams Arena.
Unranked to start the season, Michigan knocked off North Carolina and Gonzaga, climbing to No. 4 in the AP poll. No team had skyrocketed like that — from unranked to No. 4 — since Kansas in 1989-90.
Gonzaga is now the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and Michigan is still the only team to beat the Zags. Some critics of Howard’s college coaching inexperience quickly turned into his biggest fans with those early upsets.
Expectations for the Wolverines post-Beilein were brought back down to earth when they lost four of five games against high major opponents Louisville, Oregon, Illinois and Michigan State.
The Wolverines might fall from the Top 25 if they lose to the Gophers, but Howard’s hiring already has paid dividends. He inherited veterans such as seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske and junior Isaiah Livers. The Wolverines still lacked depth, having to replace NBA draft picks Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole.
Livers, who is second on the team in scoring (13.6 points per game) and leads in three-pointers made (29), has missed the past two games, a loss at Michigan State and a double overtime win over Purdue, because of a groin injury.
For Howard, weathering these ups and downs is all part of the college coaching learning curve. Michigan’s program had waited decades after the Fab Five before Beilein returned the Wolverines to the Final Four. Beilein did that twice during his 12 seasons from 2007-19.
Howard welcomed Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and other Fab Five members back to Michigan after he took the job. He said he has even considered pushing for their Final Four banners to be raised again at Crisler Arena.
But that’s not why Howard came back to Ann Arbor. The 46-year-old former NBA big man wants to win Michigan’s first national title since 1989. He’s attracting an even higher level of talent already, highlighted by a 2020 recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and fourth nationally.
The way the Timberwolves are struggling, Howard could’ve been their coach-in-waiting if the franchise made a change. But nothing tops the opportunity he has to once again be the big man on campus with Michigan hoops.
“It’s not only because I went to school there that I’m in love with it,” Howard said. “This is Michigan. This is one of the top institutions in the country. Yes, it ranks up there with [Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina]. There’s only one place in college basketball I would’ve come back to coach.”