The Wolverine

June-July 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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66 THE WOLVERINE JUNE/JULY 2021 T he first sign that Michigan head coach Juwan Howard might have been the perfect successor to John Beilein came be- fore he even set foot on campus. He was still brimming with excitement at the possibility of being next in line when he called Beilein himself, and then several others in the profession, in search of an experienced coach as his potential right-hand man. Asked why he went that route af- ter finding his perfect fit in Phil Mar- telli, Howard explained he needed someone experienced to help him, the first-time head coach acknowl- edging he could use a veteran who had been there and done that. "I can't fail," he said, adding it wasn't an option to lose at his alma mater. That was a stunning display of hu- mility in a profession that's lacking a lot of it, and of Howard's genuine nature he's shown since he arrived. It's been evident in everything he's done, and while some on the na- tional stage insist he still has some- thing to prove — mainly, winning with his "own guys" — it's clear he's a winner, already with one Big Ten championship under his belt. Martelli has been around a num- ber of staffs in his 44-year coaching career, and is an East Coast legend. He tells it like it is, and he provides the ultimate feel-good story for Michigan basketball fans who are pinching themselves wondering, "Is this really as good as it seems?" His reply —an emphatic, "Yes!" "It's easy to say seamless, but it feels everything is just so comfort- able. And again, like a cliché, we are comfortable getting uncomfortable," Martelli shared. "If it's in a recruit- ing situation, I would say where we are comfortable is we communicate. So if something doesn't happen and I'm two days behind I can ask, 'Where did that come from?' "We communicate on a daily basis about recruiting. We communicate in scouting. We communicate when we're discussing each of our indi- vidual guys academically." Assistant Saddi Washington has been with the Michigan program since 2016, the lone holdover from Beilein's staff. An NCAA assistant since 2006, he could have left to be a head coach a few times over, including at Western Michigan, his alma mater. Instead, he's stayed to become the liaison be- tween the past and the present. Recruits consistently bring Washington up as one with whom they've bonded, his honest ap- proach having been an asset. It's common throughout, he said, and it starts with the boss. "This is one of the best staffs I've been on, and I've been on some re- ally, really good staffs throughout my career," he praised. "I think the tone was set at the top with Coach Juwan when in our first staff meet- ing, he said, 'We've all got to check our egos at the door. If we can do that, we have an opportunity for some success to happen.' "I think that's one thing all of us have been able to do; just really give of ourselves to one another, give of ourselves to the kids and the pro- gram. There's a lot of good knowl- edge amongst our staff and that includes [director of player person- nel and development] Jay [Smith], [director of basketball operations] Chris [Hunter] and [video analyst] Jaaron [Simmons]. We just really do a good job vibing off one another and really being open to ideas and suggestions." That includes Howard Eisley, whose meetings with the media have been scarce. He was an NBA as- sistant for nine years before his first collegiate gig at Michigan, and he's been an invaluable resource both as a coach and on the recruiting trail. He's still learning on the latter, he admitted this season, but he's pick- ing it up. And don't mistake his si- lence for passivity, Martelli added. "He really, really, really, really cares," he said. "People might think he is quiet, and I can remember [one writer] saying he's an 'unknown.' But man, he is a sensational person because he really cares … he really drills into you when you're having a conversation." Martelli, like Washington, said the "caring" aspect starts at the top. How- ard loves what he's doing, according to those who know best, and he's working just as hard on the recruiting trail as his assistants. He gives his staff a voice as it pertains to the goings-on in the program, but when he makes a final decision, everyone's on board. He's earned that respect with the way he handles himself. "It's just comfortable," Martelli concluded. "We work with each other and we work for the players and for Michigan basketball, and therefore the University of Michi- gan. He'll say it too — we're not in there working for Juwan Howard. "But I think one of the subtle joys for me has been to watch the fami- lies and the kids respond to Juwan. That's been really cool in recruiting to watch these kids, and it's real. There's a real excitement." So … is Michigan now a basket- ball school? Maybe not yet. But foot- ball needs to pick it up to keep up the way it's trending. Howard and his staff have it rolling full steam ahead with a group of guys that have done the school proud. ❏ Chris Balas has been with The Wolver- ine since 1997. Contact him at cbalas@ and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. INSIDE MICHIGAN   CHRIS BALAS All For One Juwan Howard checked his ego at the door and surrounded himself with a staff that works great together and is clicking on all cylinders. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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