Juwan Howard

When former Michigan star and longtime NBA player Juwan Howard finally got his shot at a head coaching job last week, it wasn’t exactly what many anticipated. Howard played over 1200 NBA (1,208 to be exact) games and had been a member of two NBA title teams with the Miami Heat. After spending 19 years as a player, Howard worked six years as an assistant in the league, and interviewed for multiple openings. It was widely assumed he’d land at least one of them.

Instead, Howard ended up accepting the job as new head coach of his alma mater Michigan. Howard had previously been part of the “Fab 5,” joining Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson on a team that twice reached the NCAA title game. Still, it was a surprise Howard became a college rather than pro coach, and an even bigger surprise was some felt his lack of head coaching experience was why he hadn’t landed an NBA job.

Howard joined the growing ranks of former players who have grown tired of waiting for NBA jobs and instead turned to college. At a time when colleges are under fire for being so reluctant to hire Black head football coaches, more of them are opting for former Black NBA players to head their basketball teams. It makes perfect sense from the standpoint major colleges are still viewed as a pipeline to the NBA, and it’s hard not to feel former pros, especially those who’ve played for many years, would be able to not only spot but develop talent, and help college players emerge more polished and prepared for professional careers.

The list besides Howard also includes Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse, the University of Pacific’s Damon Stoudamire,  Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, Central Florida’s Johnny Dawkins, and Aaron Mckie at Temple, to cite only a few. It’s odd that currently there are more Black former NBA players coaching in college than in the league.  Only Doc Rivers with the Clippers, Nate McMillan with the Pacers and new Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams formerly played in the NBA. Now no one’s arguing you should have to be a former player to get a coaching job, and there are certainly outstanding Black coaches in pro basketball who weren’t players, but rose through the assistant ranks.

Still, the problem with the NBA seeming to ignore former players, and especially past Black ones, is that it looks as though a league that prides itself on being progressive and inclusive seems a bit less, at least when it comes to offering former Black players head coaching jobs. Some of this is related to the growing impact of analytics, which has also made its way into the NBA. The vast majority of front offices adopting this approach tend to recruit coaches from the ranks of people who are firm believers in increased emphasis on advanced stats over intangibles and areas that can’t be statistically measured. There’s also a new tendency to look overseas for coaches with Euroleague or international experience vs. former players who’ve only been assistants.

In addition, some former players rightly ask why they are being overlooked despite spending many years as assistants. Stackhouse was an assistant on two NBA teams, plus a head coach in the G League prior to taking the Vanderbilt job. Ewing was a longtime assistant who got bypassed three different times, and finally decided he’d rather be the head man in college than part of a pro coaching staff without ever getting a shot at being in charge. The same holds true with Stoudamire, who was a Memphis Grizzlies assistant.

It will be interesting to see if more former players continue to choose being head coaches in college over waiting until a pro spot becomes open. The biggest test for Howard and others won’t be recruiting, but navigating the tactical end of in-game coaching and handling the inevitable high expectations of fan bases with little patience.

How they deal with that will be the biggest test of whether this trend continues, and whether choosing a college job will really prove a good option for former players, rather than waiting until an NBA team comes calling.