The University of Michigan and its fans sometimes take grief for, basically, how much they like to look in the mirror and admire their school’s combination of athletic success and institutional prestige. As such, the Michigan football team’s recent history of struggling (and usually failing) not to lose national TV games has been a renewable source of schadenfreude for the rest of the American sports world. Michigan men’s basketball games, in the last decade, have often gone better for the school’s fans, but have not necessarily changed the intellectual framework of root-againstability in which they existed. Coach John Beilein revived the hoops program with high-scoring underdog teams, and presented what was by industry standards a humble, soft-spoken persona. But he was also one of his profession’s most well-known believers in strict amateur propriety, and after leaving for the NBA amid reports that he was tired of managing star recruits, he stepped down from his job with the Cleveland Cavaliers under duress after (maybe accidentally) saying his team had played like “thugs.”* If you were inclined to think of Michigan Men as sanctimonious and comeuppance-deserving, the Beilein era probably did not, in the end, convince you not to.
Beilein’s successor as the Michigan men’s hoops coach will likely never be accused of disrespecting his players’ rights to self-expression and autonomy. This new head man is Juwan Howard, godfather of the Fab Five.
The Five—Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson—were a stylish and self-confident group of prospects from around the country who enrolled together at Michigan and in 1992 became the first all-freshman starting unit to play in an NCAA title game. Howard was the first of the group to commit to Michigan and, according to Jalen Rose, was its “adult in the room.” After college, he had a two-decade NBA career that ended with a respected emeritus backup role on the superstar collaboration that was the LeBron/Dwyane Wade–era Miami Heat, for whom he then became an assistant. It’s possible no one has ever had better credentials as a prospective “players’ coach” than Howard, who played key roles in the two most influential self-assembled concentrations of basketball talent to ever exist.
This season is making a case that Howard is good at the other parts of coaching too. Michigan, after winning the Big Ten title, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament; on Sunday, it pantsed a Top 15 Florida State team 76–58 to advance to the Elite Eight, where it’s a 7.5-point favorite over UCLA, pending any jinx created by this article, in a game that tips off late Tuesday night. According to the KenPom analytics site, Howard’s team this year has performed better, game by game, than any of Beilein’s did, including the 2013 and 2018 national runner-up squads, which featured seven still-active NBA players between them.
There is a Fab Five–style buzz around the program right now for which Howard deserves credit despite this being his first full, non-COVID season in charge. While some of this year’s Wolverines were recruited by Beilein, its point guard, leading scorer, and sixth man were brought on by his successor. Its best player overall may be sophomore forward Franz Wagner, who signed up to play for Beilein but has only practiced and played for Howard. Next year’s Michigan team is set to include three Howard-recruited freshmen who were McDonald’s All-Americans, the school’s first incoming players to have earned that mark of distinction since 2002, as well as, potentially, one or more sought-after additions from the increasingly busy transfer portal. As one of Michigan’s assistant coaches put it in a radio interview last week, “We’re hot right now. I don’t say that in any braggadocious way—we’re getting calls constantly about kids wanting to be a part of this program.”
Maybe it isn’t braggadocio, but Howard-era Michigan does behave with a certain forthrightness. Injured senior captain Isaiah Livers attended the team’s first tournament game in a T-shirt that said #NotNCAAProperty, which is the tagline for a player-led movement to pressure the NCAA into granting its athletes the right to be compensated for the many lucrative commercial uses of their names and images. According to a photographer who covers the team’s games, Howard himself has irritated some of the Big Ten’s more red-faced, hierarchy-obsessed coaches by talking to them during games. But “you don’t hire a Fab Five guy and not bring back that mentality,” the photographer wrote.
In light of this, and of the other teams Howard has been associated with, it might seem ironic that this year’s Michigan roster is not headlined by one or more superstars or frequent highlight-clip subjects. The team doesn’t even shoot that many 3-pointers, by modern standards. Its leading scorer, center Hunter Dickinson, is a throwback big man whose two main tools are drop steps and short jump hooks; he looks like the kind of guy whose game involves a lot of grunting. Wagner is an authentically freakish (and freakishly long-armed) athlete, but his role is that of a jack-of-all-trades multiphase contributor rather than a featured scorer. The point guard is a scrappy, undersized Ivy League transfer named “Mike Smith,” and the shooting guard is an almost equally undersized senior named Eli who likes to play golf. The team generally wins with synchronized offensive motion, ball movement, disciplined defense, and physical tenacity—all that crap—rather than through individual brilliance.
That this seems surprising ultimately speaks, though, to an insidious dichotomy implicit in some of the reaction to players who talk on the court, wear black socks, patronize Miami clubs, or use their leverage as skilled contractors to determine where (and with whom) they’re going to play. The idea (I held it myself, in the aftermath of LeBron’s extravagant “Decision”) is that such activities are correlated with an insubstantial, “me first” brand of actual basketball, one that exists in opposition to the kind played at John Wooden’s UCLA, or by Princeton in the 1980s, or whatever. Put all the trappings out of mind, though—the press conferences, the Nike logos, the Lil Jon bangers leaking seductively out of the club onto South Beach at 1:45 a.m.—and think about what the Fab Five and the Heat actually were like as players. They became iconic teams because they were, in fact, good at being teams—unselfish, resilient, and mindful of the necessity that different players have different roles. The Heat were great passers and aggressive, scary defenders; the Fab Five played with mental toughness and cohesion against older, more experienced players under a level of pressure and criticism that now seems almost unimaginable.
My favorite Michigan moment of the 2021 tournament occurred when Dickinson was whistled for a momentum-deflating offensive foul in the second half of the team’s second-round game against LSU. The camera cut to Howard, a situation that often finds a coach screaming at a referee for purportedly blowing the call. But because the arena was mostly empty, the viewer could hear what he was saying, and, in fact, he was speaking to Dickinson. “You didn’t have to do that, Hunter,” Howard said with exasperation, and a replay confirmed he was right: Dickinson had already set himself up to receive a pass and score by walling his defender away from the basket with his body, but, perhaps overcome by the intensity of the moment, added a shove with his forearm. Dickinson was a top high school player, but not a can’t-miss “one-and-done” five-star; Howard targeted him, named him a starter as a true freshman, and has continued to spotlight him in the team’s offense even as he’s sometimes struggled. That’s the players’ coach part. The other part is reminding him, firmly but not psychotically, not to be a dummy who forgets his fundamentals in the clutch. One doesn’t preclude the other.
The play-by-play announcer for Sunday’s victory over Florida State was Jim Nantz. As the voice of both the Masters and NCAA basketball, Nantz personifies white American sports paternalism. He was on the microphone for Michigan’s symbolically loaded ’92 final against the Christian Laettner/Bobby Hurley Duke Blue Devils, and during another Michigan-Duke game in 2011, he said the Fab Five had “ruined” Michigan basketball for two decades by getting caught taking money. That’s not really an accurate claim—from that group, only Webber was ever found to have taken cash under the table. But it reflects the distancing that the institution of Michigan and many of its fans (this writer included) did from the era, a moral backlash that contributed a great deal to the school’s reputation for self-satisfied piousness. It was some kind of resolution, then, to see a Nantz-led broadcast team praising the court awareness shown by Howard’s stylish, self-confident sixth-man transfer recruit, Chaundee Brown, as he cut backdoor for a layup, just like you would at Princeton or 1990s Duke. The game ended with Nantz extolling the atmosphere Howard has created among his players as they leapt off their COVID-distanced bench chairs to celebrate a basket scored by a walk-on. The walk-on was Howard’s son Jace. The Fab Five mentality? It’s a family mindset, and the family is thriving.
Correction, March 31, 2021: This piece originally misstated that Beilein was fired from his job coaching the Cavs..