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Michigan’s transformational hire of Juwan Howard is a risk worth taking

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Replacing John Beilein was always going to be a near-impossible task for Michigan, which is why hiring someone completely different makes sense.

During college basketball’s offseason, the term “transformational hire” is typically reserved for a high-profile program in the midst of an atypically rough stretch, hoping things will turn around after bringing in a well thought-of new head coach with an approach that looks nothing like his predecessor’s.

This is what makes Michigan’s transformational hire so unique.

On Wednesday, it was made official that Juwan Howard, a prominent member of the Wolverines’ most famous starting five — and one of the most famous starting fives in college basketball history — will succeed John Beilein, the winningest coach the school has ever seen. In 10 days, the program went from a 66-year-old who has never been anything other than a head coach to a 46-year-old who has never called a timeout from the sidelines. The new leader of Michigan basketball also hasn’t been a regular on a college campus in 25 years.

Howard was brought to tears thinking about the moment at his introductory press conference:

What Howard lacks in experience he hopes to at least partially make up for in name recognition. When news began to spread on Wednesday that Howard was going to be the man in Ann Arbor, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and former Michigan teammate Chris Webber were among those who immediately voiced their support on social media. It bears mentioning that the first two members of that trio are the fathers of sons who are high-profile recruits set to begin college during the tenure of Howard’s reported five-year contract.

As many have been quick to point out, Howard’s hiring is the latest in a trend of former college and professional stars being handed the keys to a major college program despite having zero prior head coaching experience. Certainly, the powers that be at Michigan didn’t tab Howard for their gig out of any sort of follow-the-leader mentality, but it’s also safe to assume they wouldn’t have been as comfortable making the move had the early returns from similar situations across the country not been so positive.

At Memphis, former Tigers superstar Penny Hardaway has just pulled in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and figures to field the most interesting team in the country next season. At Georgetown, Patrick Ewing showcased steady improvement from year one to year two and has the Hoyas set for a return to the NCAA tournament in year three. And at Vanderbilt, Jerry Stackhouse has spent his first two months on the job getting commitments from three high-profile recruits and Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey.

What separates Michigan’s move to hand the keys to a former college basketball legend from the others mentioned is that the air surrounding the program in Ann Arbor doesn’t come anywhere close to resembling desperation.

Memphis was treading water under Tubby Smith and was destined to miss out on the best crop of local talent in the city’s history if it didn’t make the move to in Hardaway. In year three under Bryce Drew, Vanderbilt became the first program in SEC history to go 0-18 in conference play ... 0-19 if you count the league tournament. Georgetown hasn’t won multiple games in the NCAA tournament since its trip to the Final Four in 2007.

Michigan, conversely, is coming off a 12-year run under Beilein in which it won 278 games, four Big Ten titles and made two trips to the national championship game. The Wolverines’ 18 NCAA tournament wins since 2013 are tied with Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky for the most in college basketball.

Warde Manuel, Michigan’s third-year athletic director, had the option of hiring someone who would have attempted to hold steady on the path to success that was paved by Beilein. Providence’s Ed Cooley — who pulled his name out of the race earlier this week after interviewing but reportedly not after receiving an offer from the school — would have maintained Beilein’s sterling reputation for doing things the right way and building the program around three and four star recruits who blossom from good to great college players over the course of three or four years. Beilein assistants Saddi Washington and Luke Yaklich, the other reported finalists for the gig, would have also kept on in the spirit of their former boss.

Tasked with maintaining the program’s high-level of prosperity over the past decade, Manuel ultimately made the unorthodox move to bring in a frontman who will paint Michigan basketball with a completely different brush than the one utilized by his highly successful forerunner. Choosing the Howard path might be at least partially the product of timing — most major college hoops hires are made in March or April and the herd of available candidates has been undoubtedly thinned by May — but it also feels like a testament to how tremendous Beilein was at Michigan and how difficult the brass at the school figured it would be to duplicate his path to success.

You might need just one hand to count the number of people who could win at the level Beilein did at Michigan doing things the way Beilein did at Michigan. Identifying the non-McDonald’s All-Americans who can be turned into First Team All-Big Ten players and then turning that potential into reality with any degree of consistency is a task too tall for 99 percent of basketball coaches in America. It’s a chore that, cruelly, becomes even more arduous when you get so good at it that players like Jordan Poole and Iggy Brazdeikis are unexpectedly bolting to the NBA after just one or two seasons.

It’s this unique combination of factors that makes Michigan’s equally unique decision to depart completely from a philosophy that had been thriving easier to understand. If you hand the program to a head coach who wants to keep it chugging down the same path, you’re all but guaranteeing that Wolverine fans will unfairly compare every move that coach makes to what they think Beilien would have done. The odds of that head coach doing things the way Beilien did and achieving a similar level of success are miniscule.

With Howard, you’re bringing in a beloved former player who figures to get a longer leash from the fan base, especially when they take into account the total transformation in style. Howard also brings to the table the one desirable coaching trait Beilein didn’t have: The ability to make Michigan a perennial top 10 force in the recruiting world. Beilein brought “consistently in the Final Four conversation cool” to Ann Arbor, while Howard hopes to return “Fab Five cool” to the same place. In a perfect world, the new head coach will be able to blend the two.

Make no mistake about it, Michigan bringing in Howard to take over a basketball program that has established itself as one of the 10 best in the country over the past decade is a massive roll of the dice. But a close look at all the factors involved shows why it’s an understandable one.