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Instead of Erasing Its Fab Five Past, Michigan Embraces It With Juwan Howard Hire

Howard is the latest former NBA All-Star to coach his alma mater. His return is an opportunity for the Wolverines to embrace a period in their basketball history that they have long tried to forget.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Michigan basketball lost the best coach in its program’s history to the NBA last week after John Beilein accepted an offer to become the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new head coach. (My conspiracy theory: The hire was a move by Cavaliers owner/Michigan State alumnus/high-key doofus Dan Gilbert to undermine his alma mater’s rival.) Beilein, a career college coach, surprised many by taking an NBA job, and Michigan replaced him with someone who’s never worked in the college ranks, and who many expected to become an NBA head coach: former Michigan All-American Juwan Howard.

Howard joins several 1990s NBA All-Stars who have returned to coach the schools where they achieved college glory: Penny Hardaway, born and bred in Memphis, has put together the no. 1 recruiting class in college basketball for his hometown Tigers, and Patrick Ewing has improved Georgetown in his two seasons in charge of the Hoyas. (We won’t discuss the coaching careers of Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler, who went back to their colleges with poor results.)

But Howard is different. While Hardaway and Ewing are great fits at their schools, neither was considered much of a prospect for other coaching jobs—Hardaway had only coached at the high school level before landing the Memphis job, and Ewing spent more than a decade as an NBA assistant without sparking much interest for a head job. Howard, meanwhile, has been highly sought after for NBA coaching vacancies. He’d been an assistant for the Miami Heat since he ended his 19-year NBA career in 2013—and if we’re being honest, he was already basically an assistant during the last few years he spent with the team, wearing suits and providing veteran wisdom to LeBron James during a pair of championship runs. In the past few months, Howard interviewed with the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers for their head coaching openings. It was going to be a matter of time before he’d land a top job somewhere.

Instead, he’ll head to the college ranks. It’s a complicated detour in the arc of his coaching career because college coaching isn’t strictly about basketball acumen. College coaches have to recruit players—it’s the most important part of the job. But I suspect Howard will be fine at this because he’s got a prebuilt pitch. He understands how the NBA works and can identify what traits will be critical in the pro game. And he knows firsthand what turns “Michigan Men” into NBA stars, having been a part of the glory days of Michigan hoops during his time as a player.

Ah, yes, the glory days of Michigan basketball. Howard was a member of the Fab Five, the Wolverines’ 1991 recruiting class that took the basketball world by storm with their swagger and skills. He was one of three top-tier recruits from that class who went on to have long NBA careers, alongside Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. They wore baggy shorts and black socks and talked trash, which threw people off. They started as freshmen and went to back-to-back national championship games in 1992 and 1993—the second- and third-most watched college basketball games of all time, behind the Magic Johnson–Larry Bird final in 1979. The Wolverines didn’t win either title, but somehow, when most people think of “Michigan basketball,” they think of the Fab Five and not the Glen Rice–led 1989 Wolverines team that actually did win a championship. Webber went pro after his sophomore year, Rose and Howard as juniors.

This period is theoretically supposed to be considered dark days in Michigan’s basketball history. The NCAA vacated both Final Four runs because Webber and a few post–Fab Five Michigan players received loans from a booster while in college. (Some of the most watched games of all time, and the NCAA wants you to think they didn’t exist.) Michigan was banned from public association with Webber until 2013, and it wasn’t until this past November that he made his first public appearance at the school. He still hasn’t officially reconnected with the basketball program. The school’s former president vehemently argued against the school ever hanging banners to honor the Final Four teams, calling the basketball scandal a “great shame” for the school.

Howard wasn’t accused of taking money from anybody. He was merely a member of this famous-turned-infamous team. But it’s still odd to see the school shift so swiftly from hand-wringing over the “great shame” the Fab Five era caused to hiring one of its members to lead the basketball team. (The highlight reel that Michigan’s official basketball account tweeted to announce Howard’s hiring notably includes an announcer freaking out about a Final Four trip.)

By today’s college basketball standards, Michigan’s scandal seems quaint. Some amateur basketball players got paid money. In 2019, the mainstream reaction to learning of a player receiving NCAA-banned payment is somewhere between “yeah, we know” and “cool!” In 2017, the FBI made massive headlines by arresting 10 people in connection to an investigation into the practice of shoe companies and agencies funneling money to prospective signees during the college recruiting process, and … essentially nothing happened. Some assistant coaches lost their jobs, some middlemen were convicted of fraud and corruption charges, and some blue-chip recruits decommitted from schools. (Louisville coach Rick Pitino lost his job, but probably wouldn’t have if not for prior instances of skeezy behavior.) No program had to self-flagellate the way Michigan still does over an equivalent scandal from 25 years ago.

At the time, Michigan was held up as an example of everything wrong with college basketball. This was a sport for developing fine young gentlemen through the pristine institution of scholar-athleticism. And here was a program that handed itself over to brash recruits intent on dominating the world from day one, trying to go pro sooner rather than later instead of spending four years absorbing wisdom en route to a degree, having the audacity to wear their shorts longer than knee length—and some of them were getting cash while doing it.

But a lifetime later, every top-tier college program is like those Michigan teams to a certain extent, and not just because short shorts have been dead for 20-plus years. These days, elite freshmen are expected to play a year, contend for national titles, and go pro. It would be more surprising to learn that an elite player wasn’t offered money from anybody during his recruitment than not.

And looking back, we see that the path the players from the Fab Five blazed isn’t so bad. Rose is one of ESPN’s best basketball commentators, founded a high school, and has received honors for his off-court philanthropy. Webber is … well, he’s not one of TNT’s best announcers, but he’s a notable on-air personality. And Howard is viewed as one of the brightest basketball minds around, a highly sought-after coaching prospect who is now going back to school to help others along his path. These are the results of the Great Shame of Michigan Athletics? This is what the NCAA wants to stop? The NCAA would have us ignore the Fab Five’s accomplishments at Michigan because one of them broke a rule nobody cares about anymore. They should be the poster children (poster adults?) for what someone can accomplish after a high-profile college basketball career, rather than an example of the systemic failure of not adhering to the NCAA’s rules. It’s probable that few recruits today know much about the Fab Five. They probably don’t even remember the NBA careers of the Fab Five. But it’s still possible to use those great moments as a selling point. I promise none of them will care that Chris Webber got paid.

There are scandals in college athletics that are the cause of great shame—player deaths; sexual assault and abuse by players and coaches—serious crimes that require schools to enact measures to ensure they avoid repeating the same failures. A player-payment scandal is not a moral crisis. What happened at Michigan in the 1990s isn’t something to hide or be ashamed of—it was an iconic moment in college basketball history, and the admirable post-college careers of the players who participated in it prove the NCAA’s rigid adherence to outdated ideals of amateurism can be happily ignored.

Howard would be a great get for Michigan solely from a basketball perspective, but he also represents a mind-set that took Michigan 25 years to hit upon: It is OK to acknowledge that the coolest thing ever to happen to Michigan basketball was, in fact, cool.