A tough season for Juwan Howard got tougher on Sunday. Following Sunday’s 77-63 loss to Wisconsin, Howard and Wisconsin coach Greg Gard turned a post-game handshake line into a mosh pit of bruised egos. What began with Howard taking offense to Wisconsin calling a timeout up 15 in the final 15 seconds blew up into a raging controversy.
After Gard said he called the timeout to break Michigan’s press, Howard grew incensed.
“Apparently, he didn’t like that I called a timeout to reset the 10-second call,” Gard told CBS Sports. “We only had 4 seconds to get the ball past half court. I didn’t want to put my bench guys in that position of scrambling, so I took the timeout. He did not like that when he came through the handshake line.”
“I didn’t like the timeout they called, I’ll be totally honest,” Howard explained. “I thought it was not necessary at that moment, especially with it being a large lead. … I thought that wasn’t fair to our guys.”
What incited the altercation was small beans. Instead of saving their petty grievances for the postgame press conference, Howard approached Gard muttering, “I’ll remember that shit.” Gard, then stepped to his side in front of Howard, as he was walking by and grabbed his elbow.
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Once Gard and Howard were nose to nose, shirts were yanked, and tempers flared. In the midst of the yelling and shoving, Howard reached over the top and slapped Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft across the head. Once Howard’s palm connected, several Michigan players threw punches as well.
There’s no need to defend Howard. Inadvertently inciting his team was an especially bad look. However, it takes two to tango. Gard showed immaturity by engaging during his fruitless shouting match. He was the winning coach. He should have gone home and enjoyed the spoils of victory while Howard was seething. Instead, he demonstrated his lack of self-control.
There’s built-up frustration on the Wolverines sideline, and Howard’s third year at the helm has been a rocky one. The Wolverines are unranked and most likely NIT-bound, a significant fall from last season’s Elite Eight finish.
Athletic Director Manuell Warde issued a strongly worded statement condemning Howard’s actions Sunday, saying:
“There is no excuse for any of our staff or student-athletes to get into a physical altercation with others regardless of instigating factors. I reached out and apologized to [Wisconsin AD] Chris McIntosh, and [Michigan] President Coleman has reached out to UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank to apologize for the unacceptable behavior.”
“We will review the situation more thoroughly and work with the Big Ten Conference as they determine their disciplinary actions and will determine if further disciplinary actions are warranted.”Warde’s statement added.
In the long run, Howard and Michigan basketball’s relationship will survive. He’s too savvy a head coach and valuable as a recruiter for Manuel to follow the Twitter hyperbole trainand make some profound statement by severely punishing Howard or relieving him of his duties. Despite his tough stance Sunday, he undoubtedly wants this to blow over. Michigan will still have a Top 10 2022 recruiting class waiting in the wings. That class is led by top-5o prospect Jett Howard, who I can guarantee will be playing elsewhere if it seemed like his dad wouldn’t be returning to Michigan for the 2022 season.
The final minute has been examined more closely than the Zapruder film, but in totality, this was a minor hiccup with terrible optics in the grand scheme. There are some justifications that can be made for Howard’s role, but escalating things by swiping at the face of a Wisconsin assistant caught in the middle of a scrum he helped start, crossed the line. Extra scrutiny is arriving because he’s 6-foot-9and black with a high-profile position. Simply put, his job security is safe.
However, Howard has to display more control of his temper. During their 2021 Big Ten Quarterfinal matchup against Maryland, his ejection is now being used as a cudgel against his character and a potential pretense to fire him. Until recently, the Maryland ejection was a run-of-the-mill visit, but Howard being restrained by his own assistants is becoming too familiar of a sight.
Ultimately, Howard will serve a multi-game suspension from the Big Ten. Passion, fire and a little fury out of the head coach of a blue chip program is a requirement. This is not academia. Coaching and playing in front of 20,000 fans on national television tends to pump the adrenaline, stirring up strong emotions and making hasty, regrettable decisions. Howard’s rash choices on Sunday aren’t worth evoking the ghosts of Woody Hayes punching Clemson’s Charlie Bauman. Michigan already disavowed the Fab Five for decades. They won’t throw Woody Hayes’ book at Howard over this lapse in judgment as ESPN’s Jay Williams suggested.
The only longest-lasting damage from this will be Howard’s and Gard’s debasement of the handshake line. It’s an overly genteel tradition, but somehow it’s existence has become a point of contention among college hoops’ commentariat. The Twitter wars waged over the future of the postgame handshake line make Sunday afternoon look benign. The postgame handshake line can survive COVID, but it remains to be seen if it can survive Sunday’s breach in basketball etiquette. If I was a betting man, I’d imagine Howard will be back in postgame handshake lines before the end of this season.