April 19, 2024

The Juwan Howard interview: Regrets, lost trust and the end of his Michigan coaching career

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Juwan Howard entered a South State Street restaurant through the backdoor last week, slipping in to meet at a secluded second-floor table. The 51-year-old has had a lot of attention on him this year, over the last five seasons as Michigan head men’s basketball coach, and for most of his life as a 19-year NBA veteran, Michigan alum and McDonald’s All-American.

On March 15, Howard was fired after an 8-24 season that included a 3-17 mark in the Big Ten Conference. The ending, a meeting with athletic director Warde Manuel, was as abrupt as his beginning, a tear-filled May 2019 news conference welcoming a Fab Five icon back to campus, was ceremonious.

Howard, in his first one-on-one interview in at least two years, wanted to put his version of events on various issues and incidents of his tenure on the record as he moves on from Michigan. That’s what will be presented here.

The surgery

Early in the conversation, Howard lifted his shirt to reveal the incision running down the middle of his chest from beneath his collarbone to the bottom of his sternum.

In June 2023, Howard traveled to Los Angeles to accompany his son Jett and former Wolverine Kobe Bufkin for pre-NBA Draft workouts. He got winded on a hotel treadmill but attributed it to asthma. After returning to Michigan, it happened again. This time he was dizzy.

At Schembechler Hall, he met with U-M athletic doctors, who suggested he see a cardiologist. A CT scan revealed blood clots. He was put on blood thinners and scheduled for an MRI.

Howard told his wife, Jenine, that it was no big deal. He tried to believe that, too, but the day after his MRI, Howard learned that blood clots were found in his lungs and an unruptured aneurysm was discovered in his aorta. The blood clots, he says, were saving his life.

Howard was placed on medications and waited 14 weeks for the surgery, thinking every day that the aneurysm might burst.

“I was scared,” Howard says. “But I never admitted that. I didn’t show it in front of my wife or my family, and I never showed it in front of my staff.”

A Sept. 15 surgery resected an aortic aneurysm and repaired Howard’s aortic valve. That day, the school announced the successful surgery. Howard had told his players only one day earlier, a decision he now regrets.

“I didn’t want to scare the players in a way where they might not want to finish out their years here and enter the transfer portal, or where the players I was recruiting might not want to come,” he says. “To go through and explain if I’m going to be here or not, if I’m going to be coaching. I ultimately decided to keep it close to the vest.”

The decision to coach in 2023-24

The procedure lasted nine hours. Doctors set his recovery time at 6-12 weeks. He spent 15 days in the hospital post-op.

Howard told assistant coach Howard Eisley, a lifelong friend, that he would return in two weeks. He saw doctors’ recommendations as races to win, not timelines to live by. And he suffered for it.

“I thought I was a Marvel hero, but this was real life stuff I was dealing with, and I was extremely naive,” he says. “I was impatient with the process.”

Howard wasn’t fully recovered when he returned to the Michigan bench for a November trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, he says. Multiple complications emerged throughout the season. He rarely slept through the night. Doctors advised him to step away and undergo another surgery to address an atrial flutter that sapped his energy and caused severe discomfort. He was scheduled to undergo a 7 a.m. procedure following a Jan. 23 road game at Purdue, but heavy snow grounded Michigan’s return flight. Howard’s surgery was canceled and he declined to reschedule it in-season, against doctors’ recommendations and to Jenine’s displeasure.

The surgery is scheduled for April 19.

Doctors never advised Howard to take off the entire 2023-24 season, but implored him not to come back early. He did precisely that.

“You can allow your competitiveness and take control over, you know, what you know in your heart,” Howard says. “If I could go back and do it all over again, I would’ve taken time off to really get help. I should’ve listened more to the doctors and my wife. There were days that I wouldn’t get any sleep and could barely get out of bed, but I’d go in there and try to act like I was fine.”

The decision to coach in 2023-24, Howard says, was “an obligation to his players and staff.” Three players had committed to Michigan out of the transfer portal the prior spring.

The decision not to step aside midseason when his condition clearly wasn’t improving, he says, was “alpha male stuff.”

“That’s where that badge of honor comes in from,” Howard says, adding that he doesn’t regret finishing out the season once he decided to return. “Was that probably the right approach you take looking back on it? No, but if I had to do it again, I would do it again.”

The Jon Sanderson incident

On Dec. 7, three days before a game at Iowa, Howard had a confrontation with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson. The incident changed the contours of the 2023-24 season. While Sanderson’s version of events was reported via leaked internal documents, Howard has not previously spoken publicly about the incident.

While standing on the opposite side of the floor before a Thursday afternoon practice, Howard heard his son Jace Howard yelling at an athletic trainer. Howard says he shouted: “Yo, look, Jace, stop.”

“I’m his father, right?” he says. “He knew that look and knew that voice, right? So he stopped immediately.”

According to Howard, Sanderson got involved, adding: “Jace, you don’t talk to a superior like that!”

“Which is true,” Howard says. “I agree. But then he kept going. Jon said, ‘Jace, that’s bullsh–!’ You don’t talk to a superior that way, this is the sh— I’m talking about.’”

Howard says he called off Sanderson, telling him he was handling it.

Here, according to Howard, Sanderson yelled that he’d recently endured “the same bullsh–” from another player.

Howard says he responded: “Yo, Jon, chill the f— out. I told you I got it.”

Howard says he had no intentions of escalating the tension.

“I’m like three weeks into returning to the facility and have an incision on my chest,” Howard says. “Also, I’m not stupid. After the Wisconsin situation, I said I would never, ever, ever put myself in a situation like that again, where I put my hands on anyone, where it results in any type of physical friction, and second, that I would never put our players in an unsafe environment, and the last part, to never embarrass the entire university and my family. So am I gonna try to fight (Sanderson)? (He’s) 6-8 and strong as sh–.”

Howard says he cursed at Sanderson, using “a bad choice of words,” and told him to “get the f— out of my gym.”

Howard says Sanderson “tried to come at me and fight,” but assistant coaches Saddi Washington and Eisley held him back. “I was like, whoa, this is serious.

“So then, I say, ‘Forget it, guys, let him go, we’re about to start practice.’ So we go to the other court in the practice facility, circle up like we always do, and went over the practice plan.”

Howard says he called Manuel that night. Sanderson sent his version of events to university human resources, and Manuel advised Howard to do the same.

“Then I come to find out Jon’s email to HR got leaked,” Howard says. “Juwan’s email to HR did not get leaked.”

Howard says that, after Sanderson missed practices that Friday and Saturday, he sent a text message to Sanderson.

Pulling out his phone, Howard shared the text.

Unfortunately we haven’t seen you in two days. Hopefully we can meet when you return!

Sanderson did not reply.

On Dec. 15, following a human resources review, the university cleared Howard of any wrongdoing. He returned to full-time head coaching capacities the following day for a home game against Eastern Michigan.

Sanderson left the men’s basketball program, shifting to work with some of the school’s Olympic sports teams. He resigned on March 1, reaching a settlement agreement with the university that included a non-disclosure clause.

The Wisconsin situation

Following a 77-63 loss in February 2022 at Kohl Center, Howard exchanged words with Wisconsin coach Greg Gard in the postgame handshake line. In an ensuing skirmish, Howard struck Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft in the head.

“I will always regret how that situation happened, and I will always take full blame for it, because (I) can automatically say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t me,’” he says. “But, yes, it was. I could’ve controlled that and handled that situation better. That’s what I’ll always bang my head about. I had the opportunity to apologize publicly, but I also did so privately to the coaches at Wisconsin. We talked. And we moved on and got past the situation. But I can’t sit here and ask people to forget that that ever happened. I take full ownership of it.”

People did not forget. What happened at Wisconsin followed some heated 2020-21 exchanges between Howard and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, including a restrained Howard yelling to Turgeon, “I’ll f—ing kill you,” during a Big Ten tournament game.

Howard feels he’ll likely never shake the stigma of what happened that day and thinks about it often.

“I should’ve shook (Gard’s) hand and kept going,” he says.

Asked why he struck Krabbenhoft, Howard says: “I just felt threatened. Someone’s approaching you, they’re saying some words at you, I felt a threat. But look, that’s all it was — just words. He didn’t put his hands on me, I shouldn’t have put my hands on him.”

Howard says he regrets that day’s postgame news conference, when he spoke of what happened casually. He says it wasn’t until a silent bus ride to the airport that afternoon when the gravity set in.

“I remember thinking, like, what did you do, man?” Howard says.

Howard says he told Manuel that day: “If you want to fire me or suspend me, you have every right. I apologize.”

Howard was told by Manuel to enter an anger management program during a five-game suspension. Howard agreed and met with a counselor. “After two sessions, she told me, ‘You don’t need anger management,’” he says. “Seriously. I wouldn’t bullsh— you.”

Howard says he is not a violent person, but understands why perceptions around him changed severely after Wisconsin.

“It hurt me in a lot of ways,” he says. “I know that’s part of the ‘angry Black man’ perception that’s out there. It left people with a perception that anything I do — whether it’s get a technical, which, a lot of coaches get technicals, or the situation with Jon, where you hear his side of it and his lawyer’s side of it — anything I’m involved in, it’s Juwan who started it.”

The perception problem

Howard says that since he was a college and NBA player he’s strongly and purposefully avoided attention.

“There was a lot of pressure, a lot of scrutiny, so I kind of created a bubble, where I didn’t let a lot of folks in,” Howard says. “I was super protective. With that, came a lot of criticism. So I lost trust.”

At Michigan, Howard’s public persona was about as limited as any coach in his position.

“Folks really don’t know me at all, whatsoever, and part of that is my fault,” Howard says. “Could I have been more politically correct like some of these other guys at other programs, done a better job of playing that game? Letting the world into my private life? If that would’ve saved my job, then yeah, I should’ve.”

Yet Howard also feels “people put a shield up on me that I didn’t ask for,” one that existed even internally at Michigan, creating communication problems within the program, problems that ultimately emerged in the fallout of the Sanderson incident.

“Whether it was their own insecurities or what,” Howard says. “Because no one ever came to me and said like, ‘Hey, I’m having a hard time communicating with you.’ No one ever said to me that they were under the impression that I didn’t want to work with them. I think there might have been a degree of intimidation, whether it’s my stature, whether it was me coming from the NBA world, whether it was what I did in my NBA career as a player and a coach, that folks felt a little intimidated by it. I never wanted to give that impression. Granted, I’m not the most talkative or outgoing, but I think I’m engaging.”

In the end, Howard says he wishes he’d opened up more. He wishes people knew junior forward Will Tschetter keeps a garden in his backyard, where he and Jenine grow jalapeño, kale, bell peppers, lettuce. He wishes he’d been more open about his feelings on going from one-game shy of the Elite Eight in March 2021 to outcast in March 2022. He wishes he hadn’t been so reticent about his heart surgery. He wishes people knew that, during the interview, former captain Eli Brooks called to check in on him.

He says he wishes he let people get to know him.

The NIL hurdle

Howard first spoke out publicly about Michigan athletics’ approach to Name, Image and Likeness funding in August 2022, saying the school needed to better embrace college athletics’ tide change. He says now the issue remained throughout his tenure.

“I’ll say this — we needed help,” Howard says. “I asked for help when it came to the NIL two years ago. We didn’t get the help. It ruffled some feathers with some folks.”

After losing in the 2023 NIT, Howard says he met with Michigan president Santa Ono, Manuel, six regents and a variety of coaches from the athletic department, including representatives from football. Howard said men’s basketball needed to upgrade its locker room, but also needed NIL help. But help never came.

“We lost one of our best players because he felt he wasn’t being valued when it comes to NIL,” Howard says, alluding to All-American center Hunter Dickinson, now at Kansas.

“I didn’t have the resources to go and build a roster for this past season,” he says. “The guys that committed were guys I had past relationships with.

“We had two more scholarships, but as we were going through the recruiting process with other players, we got all the way to third base, but couldn’t bring them home because they were looking for an NIL commitment and I couldn’t offer it.”

Howard says he landed high-profile transfer commitments from Texas Tech’s Terrence Shannon Jr. (now at Illinois) and North Carolina’s Caleb Love (Arizona) without NIL guarantees.

While there was NIL money available for players in his program, Howard says the program did not have the support of an aggressive, basketball-focused collective like some other marquee men’s basketball programs. He says he proposed adding a program general manager three years ago but was told “we did not have the funding for a new hire.” In February, after Manuel hired new coach Dusty May, Michigan announced it would team with Altius Sports Partners to hire an on-campus executive general manager for NIL.

As for some perceptions that Howard, himself, wasn’t assertive in raising NIL funds, he rejected the theory and says he embraced fundraising. He added the program is falling far behind in facilities, notably locker rooms, weight rooms, practice spaces, and he attempted to raise funds for renovations.

Howard said he hopes May has more funds available to build a roster.

“He’ll need it.”

Juwan Howard with Michigan junior forward Will Tschetter, who kept a garden in the coach’s backyard. (Luke Hales / Getty Images)

The ending

On March 15, Howard met with Manuel to present his plan to fix Michigan basketball. He laid out his ideas, mainly stressing the need for more NIL support. Howard says he told Manuel that a few people had approached him looking to help men’s basketball, especially after the football national championship.

After about 45 minutes, Manuel stepped away briefly. When he returned, he told Howard the school was going to move in a different direction.

“I asked him why,” Howard says. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t trust this will work.’”

Howard says his tenure is full of great memories, but lots of what-ifs. Michigan was on the doorstep of the 2021 Final Four. The next year, it was supposed to “build up around a young core” of Caleb Houstan, Moussa Diabate, Bufkin and Frankie Collins as Dickinson anchored things.

Except Houstan and Diabate turned pro after one year, Bufkin turned pro after two years, and Collins transferred. The next year, his son Jett went to the NBA after one season in Ann Arbor.

“We were fortunate to be in a situation to empower and teach and develop, because those were our guys and we were able to put them in position to pursue their goals and dreams,” Howard says. “But, really, it was never the plan to recruit one-and-dones.”

All that outgoing talent, and university admission issues with possible transfers like Love and Shannon Jr. along with what Howard calls “some other bad breaks along the way,” make him wonder, what if?

Howard shrugs and smiles.

“I’m not here today to fight for my legacy,” he says. “What I’ve done, and what this university has done for me, there are no regrets. I’m happy. I’m also grateful, and will be forever grateful.”

The future

Howard attended a Michigan women’s NCAA Tournament game after being fired. He went because one of the first messages he received after surgery was a video from coach Kim Barnes Arico and the women’s team, all wishing him well. It was the first time he cried after the surgery, and he hasn’t forgotten it.

“Listen, I’ll forever be a fan of Kim and her program, so I’m going to go and support them,” Howard says. “I’m not going to hide under a freakin’ rock. No way.”

Howard says he’ll likely be at a men’s game next season to support his former players. His son Jace could still be on the team. He’ll be at graduation in the spring.

As far as work goes, Howard has no immediate plans.

“I’m going to focus on my health,” he says. “I’m still in (rehabilitative) therapy. That’s my main priority. I’m not where I want to be health-wise, but I’m getting there.”

He will, in time, return to coaching, most likely in the NBA.

“This is not the end, and it will not be the end-all, be-all of my coaching career,” he says.

Howard says he has “a ton of respect” for May, the coach now occupying his old office, and wishes him well.

“I’m never going to be bitter about the situation and how it ended,” Howard says. “I respect that people have jobs to do. Sometimes in this profession, you have to make tough decisions. I’m not saying this was a tough decision, it was probably an easy decision. Who knows? But I’m a Michigan man through and through. … I’m just sad I’m leaving a lot sooner than I expected to.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Luke Hales / Getty Images)