Meek: With Juwan Howard, Michigan and Warde Manuel may soon need to face the facts

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Warde Manuel is a patient man. Patient to a fault, some would say.

The job of an athletic director, as Manuel sees it, is to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Sports fans are fickle. They want what they want, and they want it now. When public pressure is at its highest, Manuel believes in taking a step back, collecting his thoughts and making a clear-eyed decision.

“You’ve got to go for the facts,” Manuel said recently. “You can’t overreact to emotions.”

Sometime soon, Manuel will need to do that with Juwan Howard. Because the facts are the facts, and emotion cuts both ways.

Everybody at Michigan wants Howard to succeed. He’s one of Michigan’s all-time great players. He’s had a tough year, recovering from heart surgery while trying to coach a team amid a major transition. At a human level, it’s natural and admirable for Manuel to empathize with the coach he hired.

“I’d be callous as hell if I didn’t worry about him,” Manuel said.

If Manuel is true to his word, he will need to set those emotions aside and look at the totality of Michigan’s men’s basketball program. What he’ll see is a team that’s going nowhere, sitting at 8-18 and 3-12 in the Big Ten after Saturday’s 73-63 loss to Michigan State.

A few facts to consider:

Saturday’s loss dropped Michigan to 5-8 at home. In a league where teams are winning 81 percent of their home games, Michigan is the only team with a losing record. Michigan has blown halftime leads in eight of its losses and is 9-20 in games decided by single digits over the past two seasons. And then there’s the off-court stuff: the melee at Wisconsin two years ago, the incident with strength coach Jon Sanderson this year, the academic suspension that has sidelined point guard Dug McDaniel for road games.

Michigan seems to alternate between lifeless performances and games like Saturday’s, hard-fought losses that are close at halftime but then slip away. The Wolverines committed 22 turnovers and went scoreless for the final seven minutes, an all-too-familiar ending for a team with a long history of late-game collapses.

Afterward, Howard responded defiantly when asked if he could imagine himself stepping away after the season in light of his heart surgery in September and ongoing rehabilitation.

“That lets me know you really don’t know me,” said Howard, now in his fifth season. “If you get to know me a little bit better and know my story, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always faced the noise and I roll up my sleeves and find solutions. We’re going to be solution-based as we finish this season. Next season’s not here. We’re going to finish this season off strong.”

Michigan State pulled away for a 10-point win in Ann Arbor on Saturday. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

Michigan would owe Howard a $3 million buyout if he’s fired after this season. Just a few days ago, Manuel expressed support for Howard and said he’s given no thought to making changes in the program.

Manuel made those comments on the same day Ohio State fired coach Chris Holtmann in the midst of his seventh season. For comparison, Holtmann was 30-30 and 9-25 in Big Ten play over the past two seasons. Howard is 26-34 and 14-21 in the same span.

Howard has two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Big Ten championship on his resume, which Holtmann did not. Those achievements are feeling more distant by the day. Though it’s unfair to attribute Howard’s early success solely to the program John Beilein built, the trend lines are not doing him any favors.

Fans will protest, but there’s a case for wiping the slate and giving Howard one more chance to set things right. Howard’s teams have been competitive in the Big Ten when they had the right pieces. Michigan has had bad luck in the transfer portal, losing Terrence Shannon and Caleb Love to admissions issues. Howard bears some responsibility for that, but it would have been nice to see the team he recruited actually take the floor.

That, plus a serious health issue that sidelined Howard for the early part of the season, could give Manuel a reason to stick with Howard for another year. Manuel gave a clue about his thinking when he compared this basketball season to Michigan’s 2020 football season, a 2-4 campaign that had many fans calling for Jim Harbaugh’s firing.

Manuel stuck with Harbaugh and gave him a chance to reboot the program. Three years later, Harbaugh was holding a national championship trophy in Houston. That situation reinforced Manuel’s belief in second chances.

“(Harbaugh) may have some things he needs to change and adapt, but he’s a great coach,” Manuel said, recalling his thought process at the time. “That’s what I said to people when everybody was saying then that I should be fired because I didn’t fire him. It’s ridiculous.”

There’s no denying that Manuel’s patience paid off, but there’s also a risk in over-generalizing. As every Michigan fan can attest, Harbaugh is one of a kind. He also had a track record of winning games at every stop of his career. Howard is a first-time head coach, and this abysmal season isn’t happening in the midst of a pandemic.

If Michigan retains Howard, it should be for one reason and one reason alone: Because he’s the coach who gives Michigan its best chance of success. It has to be a decision based on the facts and the future, not rooted in history or sentimentality.

In substance, Manuel’s comments last week weren’t much different from the ones he made in January about Howard’s future. But they also came with an acknowledgement that Michigan’s current state isn’t acceptable.

“We have to be better,” Manuel said. “He knows that. They know that. The expectations are high.”

At Michigan, Howard has a boss who’s willing to be patient. Patience, like time, eventually runs out.

(Top photo: Scott W. Grau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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