For years, college basketball has been waiting for a new wave of coaching talent to assert itself at the highest level of the sport. Prior to last month, every active Division I college men’s coach who had won an NCAA championship was eligible for senior citizen discounts — all eight are older than 55, with an average age of 65. Virginia’s Tony Bennett, 49, broke that trend.
Around college hoops, faith was dwindling in the conventional feeder method: Young assistants gaining experience on college benches, working their way up through the system, becoming head coaches and going from there. Some believe the assistant ranks had been overrun by recruiting shysters who could work a deal or had an in with an AAU program, but couldn’t diagram an out-of-bounds play to save their lives. Whatever the reason, lists of up-and-coming coaching prospects grew thinner; conversations about hot assistants grew shorter.
Maybe that’s why high-major college jobs now seem to be going to an altogether different applicant pool: Big names with NBA-only backgrounds. The new generation does not resemble the old generation.
The latest example is the new Michigan Man, Juwan Howard, hired Wednesday. The Fab Fiver and 19-year NBA player has spent the past six years as an assistant on the Miami Heat bench. He hasn’t spent a day coaching college basketball to this point.
Howard would follow Vanderbilt’s hire of Jerry Stackhouse, a former North Carolina All-American, NBA All-Star, G League head coach and NBA assistant. Anfernee Hardaway, former NBA All-Star turned AAU kingpin and high school coach, just completed his first season at Memphis. Patrick Ewing, a college national champion, NBA Dream Teamer and Naismith Hall of Famer, has coached two seasons at Georgetown.
That group follows a couple of other coaches with straight NBA pedigrees who didn’t work out so well, Chris Mullin at St. John’s and Avery Johnson at Alabama. Both are gone after four largely lackluster college seasons.
They, in turn, followed a mixed bag: the pleasant surprises of Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State (2010-15) and Dan Majerle (successful since 2013 at Grand Canyon); the Hall of Fame flop of Isiah Thomas at Florida International from 2010-12; and the listless Clyde Drexler tenure at Houston when the program was at a low ebb.
They aren’t all cookie-cutter hires. Some (Howard, Hardaway, Ewing, Mullin, Hoiberg, Drexler) returned to their alma maters; others (Johnson, Stackhouse, Majerle, Thomas) had no ties to their schools. Some (Howard, Ewing, Johnson, Stackhouse, Majerle, Thomas) had NBA coaching experience; some (Mullin, Hardaway, Hoiberg, Drexler) had none.
One thing they all have in common: trying to coach young players who, with only rare exception, are not and never will be as good as they are.
Will it work? Time will tell. Post-Hoiberg, the early returns are not dazzling.
Mullin, Johnson, Ewing and Hardaway have just two NCAA tournament berths and one tournament win between them in a combined 11 seasons as college head coaches. Hardaway has an opportunity for a breakout season in 2019-20 after signing the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation — now he just has to prove he can coach at an elite level. The expectation will be a Final Four before a group heavy on probable one-and-done recruits disperses.
Stackhouse takes over a program that went 0-19 in the Southeastern Conference last season, so he will be given some early latitude. Howard walks into a thriving program that has enjoyed its best run of success since the Fab Five itself was on campus.
Michigan tried the conventional route before landing on Howard. In the days since John Beilein left for the NBA, athletic director Warde Manuel inquired about multiple current college head coaches but couldn’t get any of them to come to Ann Arbor. The most recent to stay in his current job was Providence coach Ed Cooley, who interviewed with Manuel on Tuesday.
That cleared the way for Howard, who has several things going for him.
He is universally respected for his near-eternal career as a player, both in college and the NBA. Fab Five teammate Jalen Rose has referred to Howard as “the adult” of that collection of strong personalities, and in the pros he became the kind of wise, veteran leader front offices coveted. His time working in Miami with Eric Spoelstra, a well-respected veteran coach, should only be a plus.
And, somewhat like Hardaway, Howard has AAU experience and connections that could pay significant recruiting dividends. He has two sons who are players and college prospects, and he’s been a presence on the AAU circuit for several years both watching them and speaking to players. I saw Howard at the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League event in Westfield, Indiana, both this month and last year.
Simply put, he shouldn’t need the hand-holding in learning the recruiting territory that some of the other NBA guys have required.
For Manuel, this hire checks the Michigan Man box — something that always seems to matter to a self-congratulatory alumni base. But this Michigan Man does come with some baggage, having played on a team that had both its Final Fours vacated due to impermissible benefits received from booster Ed Martin.
Ultimately, none of that will matter if Howard wins. And if he wins big at Michigan, and Hardaway does the same at Memphis, and Stackhouse turns around Vanderbilt, and Ewing revives Georgetown, a copycat industry could be looking for even more hires from outside the conventional college coaching pipeline.
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