The Wolverine

January 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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8 THE WOLVERINE JANUARY 2020 J uwan Howard sat on a stool in Michigan's locker room, pulling off sweat-soaked postgame socks. Only a freshman, he sported facial hair belying his years and projecting ferocity. This was the 1991-92 season. Michigan's locker room stood open after games, the Fab Five explod- ing as a phenomenon, and Howard reigning as the grizzled veteran among 18-year-olds. A first-year reporter on the Michi- gan beat probed him with questions, after the crowd trailed away. He an- swered patiently, right through the "just one more" inquiry. Then, the start of an exit, a re- called additional question and an attempt at blurting it out … "I thought you said one more question!" Howard barked, glaring with the intensity of Jack Nicholson getting grilled over a Code Red. A pause, and a move toward the door … Howard burst out laughing, al- most doubling over. He looked, beckoning back the then-young scribe. "I was just messing with you, man," he said, still laughing. Howard is still messing with people, still having fun. But he's definitely not messing around, with respect to building his basketball program in Ann Arbor. Only two men in program history ever got off to a better 10-game start than Howard, and he played for one of them. Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher each went 9-1 in their open- ing 10 at U-M. Fisher holds the upper hand there, of course. His first six games on the bench brought Michigan a national championship. Howard would love to replicate that at some point, but first things first. He's creating his own atmosphere — one of intense teaching, growing, encouragement. And occasionally busting chops. In an iconic moment that will be replayed if and when Howard makes a bigger NCAA stage, he danced with his team following Michigan's title in the Battle 4 At- lantis championship. The joy of that moment flowed through the fiercest competitors, including the pit bull — senior guard Zavier Simpson. "We love it!" Simpson observed. Reporters loved it when Howard recently responded to an inquiring young mind asking about a strategy move. "I'm not telling you that!" How- ard said, grinning and sparing the student reporter the faux scowl. "I'm not saying that." He's said plenty, though, through Michigan's start. Those opening eight wins didn't occur against Huckabuck State, the cupcake bas- ketball program Maceo Baston once invented. Creighton is no slouch, having beaten Nebraska by 21. Iowa State is always competitive, while North Carolina and Gonzaga were top-10 teams when the Wolverines took them down on Paradise Island. Howard's team lost its own two true road games — at No. 1 Louis- ville and at Illinois — but the road will claim more than a few victims this season. "Forty-four points in the paint," Howard muttered, looking at the box score in Champaign. "We're a better defensive team than that. If we want to battle and compete in the Big Ten, and have a chance to raise a trophy, we can't allow a team to score 44 points on us in the paint, and also have 16 second-chance points and 15 offensive rebounds. That's a recipe for a loss." Howard's recipe for wins is simple: start good, get better. He's already checked the first box. He has ferocity and competitiveness in deep supply. An Illinois-based reporter asked if he liked coming back to the old haunts of the Big Ten. "That's why I'm back, baby," Howard said. "I'm enjoying this. I enjoy competition. I enjoy playing in the Big Ten. That's why I chose to play in the Big Ten. It's a super- competitive conference with a ton of talent." If the new boss gets his share of talent — and it says here he will — he's got a chance to relive some glory days. *** Michigan's second straight free fall against the evil empire left jaws dropped from Ann Arbor to Antarc- tica. At least there's the reward of a bowl game … Against Alabama. That's a little like getting mauled by a grizzly bear — and finding the reward for escape involves a slide into a river of mammoth crocodiles. There are two Michigan fan camps regarding the matchup versus Bama and its eight or nine first-round draft choices. Cover your eyes, one insists. What better opportunity, the other proclaims. No, the Crimson Tide doesn't have its starting quarterback. Yes, Nick Saban still possesses a monster roster, one that would be battling in the College Football Playoff if it fea- tured Tua Tagovailoa behind center. In short, Michigan needs its best game of the year — and best of Jim Harbaugh's tenure in Ann Arbor — to win this one. ❏ Editor John Borton has been with The Wolverine since 1991. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @JB _ Wolverine. WOLVERINE WATCH   JOHN BORTON Juwan Howard Is Having A Ball In his first season as head coach, Howard's team quickly broke into the nation's top five with a 7-0 start that included two wins over top-10 foes. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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