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What led to Juwan Howard and Michigan basketball’s decline?

Editor’s note: The University of Michigan announced Friday afternoon that Juwan Howard will not return as head basketball coach next season.

Crisler Center was mostly empty the night of March 4, 2021, but Michigan basketball brought the place to life. A win over rival Michigan State secured a conference title in a season shaped by pandemic restrictions, and players danced around a confetti-covered court, hoisting a “Big Ten Champions” sign. It was an achievement of resolve, one that would result in a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in program history.

Stepping away from the party, Juwan Howard surveyed a building with fewer than 200 people inside. He locked eyes with Warde Manuel, the Michigan athletic director who hired him. They pointed to one another. Then Howard squinted, looking up at Section 114, finding John Beilein, the man he replaced as Michigan coach and the program’s all-time wins leader. Beilein pointed down at him; Howard tapped his chest and pointed back.

The postgame celebration felt as much about where the program was going than what it had achieved.

When Howard, then 46, was hired by his alma mater in May 2019, he had never before coached college basketball. But he returned to Ann Arbor with a quarter-century of NBA experience, infinite respect in the game, and Fab Five roots that the program had long needed to reconnect with. At his introductory news conference, Howard brushed away what he called “tears of joy” and told the gathered crowd, “My heart is with Michigan and will always be that way.”

Any concerns about his staying power were dashed by a second season ending with a 23-5 record and a trip to the Elite Eight. He was named national coach of the year and lined up an incoming 2022 recruiting class featuring three McDonald’s All-Americans. Year 3 wasn’t so smooth, but ended in the Sweet 16, nevertheless. The program’s biggest concern was NBA teams swarming to poach the coach each offseason, but Howard swatted away rumors.

Three years later, it’s impossible to square such a promising beginning with the current view.

Having missed last year’s NCAA Tournament, Michigan fell to unthinkable depths this season. An 8-24 record is the program’s worst in 40 years. Its regular season ended with eight straight losses by an average deficit of nearly 19 points. A 3-17 Big Ten record cemented a last-place conference finish for the first time since 1966-67. Crisler Center has been empty and lifeless but for very different reasons than 2021.

On Wednesday night in Minneapolis, Michigan lost 66-57 to Penn State in a predictably brief visit to the Big Ten tournament.

The season began in flux after heart surgery sidelined Howard for the preseason and much of November and December. The roster wasn’t good enough. Over the last two summers, the program lost four underclassmen to the NBA, an All-American to the transfer portal, and suffered from school admissions blocking some portal additions. In early February, Howard noted that “buy-in has to be reciprocated (by players)” but said he isn’t questioning his approach. “This sh– works,” he told reporters.

But the program’s present issues seem to run deeper than its play on the court.

That’s why a makeshift meeting room was assembled inside Michigan Stadium last week. There, officials from Rankin Climate, an external firm specializing in organizational “climate assessments,” convened to conduct a probe into the culture of the men’s basketball program. Rankin officials asked some athletic department employees about their experiences in the program, Howard’s leadership and support offered by the athletic department. Those interviewed were told that participation was voluntary, according to multiple university employees granted anonymity because they are not permitted to speak about the investigation.

The review, following claims made by former Michigan strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, marked a new flashpoint for a program looking to find a floor in such a precarious fall. It also complicates the task facing Manuel, who must weigh what was versus what is, and how much trust and faith are owed to one of Michigan’s own.

Hired in May 2019, Howard built a staff that locked in for the long run. He retained assistant coach Saddi Washington, listened to advice from Kentucky coach John Calipari to hire an experienced consigliere named Phil Martelli, and tapped New York Knicks assistant Howard Eisley, a lifelong friend and Detroit native. Other internal support staff also remained in place, notably strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, whom Beilein hired in 2009.

Four years later, the staff remained entirely unchanged. The lack of turnover was considered a major asset when Howard was forced to step away following his September heart procedure.

But then came early December and a moment that now in many ways threatens the whole of the parts.

Following a Dec. 7 disagreement between a trainer and senior guard Jace Howard, Juwan’s 22-year-old son, tempers flared, resulting in a scene that Sanderson later described as “totally out of control.” In his account, described in an email to Manuel and later obtained by The Athletic, Sanderson intervened in the spat between Jace Howard and the trainer, which upset Juwan Howard. Sanderson wrote that he tried to de-escalate the situation, turning his back and walking away. But he said Juwan Howard came at him “angry and ready to fight,” repeatedly yelling as players and staff held him back. News of the incident emerged days later when Sanderson did not travel with the Wolverines to a road game at Iowa.

On Dec. 15, following a human resources review, the university cleared Howard of any wrongdoing. In a statement, Manuel said “nothing was found to warrant disciplinary action for anyone involved.”

Juwan Howard has never publicly addressed the incident, telling reporters to refer to Manuel’s statement, saying, “I think it was clear. It was precise.”

Sanderson spent the ensuing weeks working primarily with some of the school’s Olympic sports teams.

Two weeks ago, Sanderson officially parted ways with the university after 15 years. The athletic department said Sanderson resigned from his post; two sources briefed on the agreement confirmed he reached a settlement that included a non-disclosure clause.

While Sanderson’s departure seemingly put an end to the December incident, broader concerns voiced by Sanderson in the days after the altercation ultimately became the focus of the recent investigation into the program’s culture.

According to documents obtained by The Athletic, which include emails between Sanderson and athletic department officials along with the letter from Steven Stapleton, Sanderson’s attorney, Sanderson alleged that Howard physically threatened one of Howard’s sons – then a player on the team – during a 2022-23 practice and bullied members of his basketball staff.

“There is a culture of fear within the MBB (men’s basketball) program and concern for retaliation by Coach Howard that has prevented staff from coming forward earlier, but now it is time to address that abhorrent culture,” Stapleton wrote in a letter emailed to Manuel on Dec. 11, 2023.

Sanderson claims Howard approached his son, Jett, visibly angry during a 2022-23 practice and threatened, “I’ll slap the sh– out of you,” adding the incident “sparked a lot of internal conversation.” Sanderson said one coach on staff said he saw Juwan Howard “manhandle” Jett on the side of the court; that coach expressed that he was upset with how Jett was being treated.

Other allegations levied by Sanderson include bullying behavior directed toward members of the coaching staff and others.

“There are troubling issues within the program and it is clear that Head Coach Juwan Howard has created an intolerable environment for both staff and Student Athletes,” Stapleton wrote in the letter.

Michigan declined to comment to The Athletic, citing a previous statement that Manuel plans to review the program after the season.

Sanderson, who recently joined Illinois basketball in a consulting role for 2024 postseason play, also declined to comment.

The complexity surrounding Sanderson’s claims is what preceded them. The most high-profile moment of Howard’s coaching tenure remains his actions following a game at Wisconsin in February 2022. Howard attempted to walk past Badgers coach Greg Gard in the handshake line but was stopped by the Wisconsin head coach in mid-stride. The two coaches exchanged heated words before things escalated. Amid the disorder, Howard struck Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft in the head. He said in a news conference afterward that someone touched him and “I thought it was time to protect myself.”

Manuel called the Wisconsin incident “unacceptable behavior” and the Big Ten suspended Howard for the final five games of the 2021-22 regular season and fined him $40,000. In a statement released by the university after his suspension was announced, Howard apologized. “After taking time to reflect on all that happened, I realize how unacceptable both my actions and words were, and how they affected so many,” he said. “I am truly sorry.”

That incident came only a year after Howard was involved in a blowup with Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. In the 2021 conference tournament, Turgeon stepped toward Howard, Howard stepped toward Turgeon, and both sidelines rushed in to separate the two. Howard was issued double technical fouls, ejected, and escorted off the floor, while Turgeon received a technical. According to a source involved in the matter, the official report submitted to the Big Ten office from the incident stated Howard yelled to Turgeon, “I’ll f—— kill you.” Howard was not punished following that incident.

Now the conversation is not only centered on another physical altercation, but on the culture of the program. It’s unclear how many individuals participated in last week’s external probe and what findings have been delivered to the school.

“You don’t see it, but behind closed doors, I feel like our culture is good,” said Terrance Williams II, a Michigan senior and member of Howard’s second recruiting class, after Wednesday’s season-ending loss. “I feel like Coach Howard is doing a good job, and he’s going to continue to do a good job.”

Juwan Howard was named national coach of the year in his second season at Michigan in 2021. (Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)

Juwan Howard walked across the Crisler Center floor a week before Christmas, pumping a fist both in celebration, and relief. An easy win over visiting Eastern Michigan marked his first game in a full head-coaching capacity since easing back from open-heart surgery. He would say later the procedure felt like getting “hit by a Mack truck” and that he lost over 30 pounds in a recovery that required 15 days in the hospital.

Celebrating the comeback, Michigan president Santa Ono embraced Howard before leaving the floor that day. It had been, at the time, less than 24 hours since Howard was cleared of wrongdoing in the Sanderson incident.

Now, three months later, Ono, the first-year university president, is entrusting Manuel to decide if Howard will spend a sixth season in Ann Arbor. The 51-year-old has two years remaining on a contract extension paying nearly $3.4 million annually. It was signed in November 2021, when he was the reigning national coach of the year.

Manuel, in his eighth year as athletic director, and himself a constant target of fan ire, told reporters in February that he hadn’t considered the idea of a change in leadership of the men’s basketball program. Whether that’s still the case, and whether Ono supports that stance, remains to be seen.

Michigan’s decline can’t be seen as a one-off event specific to 2023-24. Last year, despite having All-American center Hunter Dickinson and Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard, the Wolverines finished the regular season 17-14 and missed the NCAA Tournament. Dickinson transferred to Kansas in the offseason, while Bufkin and Howard were both selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Michigan’s slide has been a gradual one; one stemming as much from damning miscalculations in roster construction as anything else. Multiple times Howard went to great efforts recruiting underclassmen transfers who couldn’t clear Michigan’s admission requirements. But a program like Michigan doesn’t find itself in its current state due to one or two reasons. It’s a culmination.

Whether Manuel and Michigan afford Howard the chance to reboot the program or not comes with a dash of historical symmetry. In 2020, many Michigan fans and leaders were adamant the football program needed to move on from Jim Harbaugh. Instead, Manuel restructured the polarizing coach’s contract and stuck with him. Three years later, the program won a national title.

Howard told reporters in Minneapolis on Wednesday night that he had yet to speak to Manuel about his status as head coach and repeated his clear desire to be the one to fix Michigan basketball next year.

The question now is whether he is going to get that chance.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Rey Del Rio, G Flume / Getty Images)


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