Breaking down Juwan Howard’s firing and what’s next for Michigan

There had been a negative vibe around Michigan men’s basketball all year as Juwan Howard tried to wrestle through an eight-win season that ended with his dismissal on Friday. Coaches who stumble get fired every March. It’s part of the sport.

But Howard isn’t an ordinary head coach who returned to his alma mater. A member of the Fab Five in the early 1990s, he played a key role on one of the most exciting teams in college basketball history. They were all rock stars, even as their time together ended in controversy and an NCAA scandal. Howard went on to have a successful career in the NBA, making millions in the NBA and winning a pair of NBA titles with the Miami Heat.

When he returned to Michigan in 2019 after John Beilein left, the program’s supporters celebrated — even though it was his first college job. He started fast. By 2021, he’d led Michigan to the Elite Eight, where a 3-point attempt from Franz Wagner late in the game against UCLA nearly sent the Wolverines to the Final Four. A year later, they were in the Sweet 16.

But Howard couldn’t sustain the mojo. Last season’s subpar performance (18-16) bled into this year’s result, and the school finally decided to make a move. Now, Michigan will search for his replacement as coaches around the country are expected to show interest. But the Juwan Howard era is over at Michigan, perhaps sooner than some had anticipated.

ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, John Gasaway and Jeff Borzello look at what happened, and what’s next.

Find more analysis of the job and coaching candidates in ESPN’s coaching tracker.

John Gasaway: Michigan stopped being good at the things that got it so close to that national semifinal. This season, the Wolverines couldn’t defend the paint, couldn’t hang onto the ball and couldn’t score in close. Three years ago, UM featured Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner — who was at least succeeded by Caleb Houstan. When Dickinson transferred to Kansas, though, things went awry.

Myron Medcalf: Last season, Jett Howard, the head coach’s son, was always viewed as a possible one-and-done. Kobe Bufkin somewhat unexpectedly emerged as a first-round pick as well. Losing both was a big development for the program, but Dickinson’s departure stripped the Wolverines of a talented veteran to anchor the 2023-24 squad. The bottom line is that Juwan Howard underperformed with last year’s group, which missed the NCAA tournament, and lacked the talent to compete this year.

Jeff Borzello: The downturn started in 2022, with a Sweet 16 run papering over some of the cracks that had begun to show, following the Big Ten regular-season title and NCAA tournament 1-seed in 2021. The Wolverines fell off dramatically on the defensive end of the floor from 2021 and 2022, finishing 11th in league play in defensive efficiency and losing 14 games entering the 2022 NCAA tournament. While the personnel losses Myron mentioned impacted this season, one must keep in mind that Howard had those two first-round NBA draft picks and a college All-American — and still missed the NCAA tournament.

What was the turning point that led to the end of Howard’s tenure?

Medcalf: I don’t think it started on the basketball court. When Howard threw a punch at Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft after a 2022 loss, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel had to scrutinize Howard in a new light. Howard was suspended for multiple games after the nasty incident. I thought he had a chance to come back from the suspension and exhibit a level of repentance that might appease those above him as well as the fans. Instead, he didn’t acknowledge his mistakes the way he could have. It all just changed how he was viewed by folks who matter. Manuel had to start thinking: Is Howard the right fit for the program? When Howard was hired, he’d seemed like a unanimous choice. But things can change quickly in college basketball.

Borzello: It’s hard not to look back at the incident with Krabbenhoft as a turning point. It didn’t necessarily impact the Wolverines’ on-court performance the rest of the season (they did make a Sweet 16 run, after all), but it became a moment that is generally mentioned first when it comes to remembering Howard’s time at the helm. Howard also had to rely on an increasingly young roster beginning in Year 3, when he recruited two five-star freshmen — Moussa Diabate and Caleb Houstan — who faced a steep learning curve. When they came and went after one season and he had to start another two freshmen — Jett Howard and Dug McDaniel, it was more difficult to recapture the early momentum.

Gasaway: Howard’s tenure was marked by occurrences such as the altercation with Krabbenhoft and the incident with then-U-M strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson. Those weren’t the normal doings of a coach, clearly, and yet you have to wonder whether the turning point wasn’t something far more ordinary: Dickinson transferring. When that news first broke, it was so surprising. A player who has been featured from the first day of a three-year career at a successful program doesn’t usually transfer. Of course, it may have been the unusual incidents involving the coach that brought about the transfer. Still, Dickinson taking that step was a pivotal moment.

What are the challenges of this job?

Borzello: The fact that Michigan is a football school has long been a mixed bag for college coaches. Some see it as a place that has the resources of a big-time athletic program without the pressures. But in a name, image and likeness world where access to a deep pool of money is paramount to building a roster, basketball will always be second priority for boosters and fundraisers. That makes things difficult. Moreover, Michigan has had two high-profile players — Terrence Shannon Jr. and Caleb Love — commit to the Wolverines out of the transfer portal but get forced elsewhere after issues in the admissions process.

Gasaway: The weather in February? Honestly, coaches as varied as Steve Fisher, John Beilein and Howard have had success in Ann Arbor. There’s no explaining how this next bit happened, but somehow at this football school, the fans care deeply and they really know their hoops. Michigan won’t be lacking for outstanding coaches who want this job.

Medcalf: Michigan is a football school — though it’s a football school that also loves basketball. That’s not always the case for the powerhouses on the gridiron, but it’s real in Ann Arbor. Fans have nicknamed Crisler Arena “The House that Cazzie Built” after legend Cazzie Russell. When you combine that passion with the nonstop comparisons to whatever Tom Izzo is doing in East Lansing, you get a job where the expectations are understandably high, and where letdown years won’t be easily forgiven. So I think there is more pressure with this job than there appears to be on the surface.

What are the opportunities of this job?

Gasaway: The Wolverines are in The Club, they won it all in 1989, and they have made two national championship game appearances in the past 11 years. Big names have played at U-M, and recent big names are in the NBA. Howard’s outstanding 2021 recruiting class demonstrates blue-chip talent is ready to sign here. By the same token, transfers are more willing to come to Ann Arbor. Each of the past two Michigan coaches achieved unquestioned success — Howard was just unable to sustain his.

Medcalf: It’s Michigan. The campus is located in one of America’s most beautiful college towns. Plus, it’s just a short drive from Detroit and less than four hours from Chicago. You can recruit here: The school has produced 11 first-round picks since 2013. Michigan also has a large donor base that can invest a bunch of cash in NIL — and it will have to if the Wolverines hope to take the next step in the transfer portal/NIL era. Michigan is also a national brand. And the Wolverines have four Elite Eight appearances since 2013. Manuel won’t get a yes from every coach he calls. But every coach he calls will at least answer the phone and listen to what he has to say. That’s not a luxury every school with an opening has.

Borzello: There’s everything needed to be a big-time program in 2024. It’s one of the biggest athletic departments in the country, it’s a place that has steadily landed high-level recruits and it has a history of success. The Wolverines have won a national championship, they went to two national title games under John Beilein and they won a Big Ten title just three years ago. Resources won’t be an issue. Ninety-nine percent of coaches will at least listen to a sales pitch.

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