Howard & Hoiberg: Great Hoops Hopes at Football-Bent Michigan & Nebraska

Hoiberg a perfect fit at Nebraska. Howard a very promising dice roll at Michigan. Trades Miami Heat for Ann Arbor heat.

There’s a very interesting competition shaping up between football powerhouses Michigan and Nebraska—in basketball.

Both programs have hired coaches with NBA backgrounds:

Fred Hoiberg, fired as the Bulls’ head coach, is the new sheriff in Lincoln, where he was born and where his grandfather, Jerry Bush, coached Cornhusker hoops when Ike and JFK were in the White House.

Juwan Howard, the Fab Five prodigal son, returns to Ann Arbor after apprenticing as an assistant coach for six years with the Miami Heat following a 19-year NBA career.

Howard is getting of the heftiest portion of the publicity because it’s a more intriguing situation. Under John Beilein, Michigan had become a national factor again. When Beilein, who seemed to be the consummate college coach, abruptly took the money and ran to a startling position as the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, Michigan AD Warde Manuel reached for Howard, who has never been a head coach or done any coaching at the college level.

Let’s just say it straight: Hoiberg is a no-brainer at Nebraska. I am surprised he didn’t land at a school with more hoops tradition. But considering what he did at his alma mater, Iowa State; his NBA background, and his overall appeal as the face of a program, I believe he will do well with the Cornhuskers. And his Lincoln roots make him a natural fit.

The one knock on his Iowa State resume is that he didn’t go deep in the NCAA tournament. The question now is whether he can bring in players at Nebraska who can do that. I say, Why not?

Howard, on the other hand, looks more like a roll of the dice. But he appears to be off to a great start.

My first question in a case like this is: Who are his assistants? The hiring of Phil Martelli, 64, who had a fine run at St. Joseph’s, as his lead assistant is a sign that he will have the kind of staff he needs. The Hawks had their best moment under Martelli in 2003-04, when Jameer Nelson led them to a 27-0 regular season and the Elite Eight.

Martelli will give Howard the guidance he needs in running a program day-to-day and managing a team on game-day. There still could be growing pains at an elite program with elite expectations, but adding Martelli is a very promising sign.

Down the road, it may turn out that elevating Belein assistant Luke Yaklich was the right move. Yaklich, who has joined Shaka Smart’s staff at Texas, would have been a safer play. Chances are, Yaklich will be a head coach soon. But going for Howard was the way to win the press conference. And that seems to be an increasingly bigger deal in the modern world.

In a way, bringing Martelli to Ann Arbor reminds me of Jim Harbaugh hiring Don Brown, another wise man from the East, as his defensive coordinator of ``the champions of the West.’’

That said, the bar will be set so high for Howard that he faces pressure that Hoiberg will not have to deal with.

At Nebraska, merely making the NCAA tournament will reprise Hoiberg, who was known as ``the Mayor’’ in Ames, as a municipal hero.

At Michigan, the Final Four is the standard. Beilein took the Wolverines there twice. And Howard played in back-to-back Final Fours 1992 and 1993—the freshman and sophomore seasons of the celebrated Fab Five.

Howard will be under intense scrutiny. He isn’t merely a rookie coach at a storied program. Michigan’s status as a national power that is second in a state that has been ruled by Michigan State for two decades also is a potentially great subject—in a Duke/North Carolina kind of way.

On the personal side, the Fab Five history will be revived—the play-for-play scandal that stripped their glory from the record book as well as the all-freshman, baggy-shorts excitement that they created.

The most famous/infamous moment came when Chris Webber called the timeout that Michigan didn’t have in the 1993 championship game against North Carolina. Webber turned pro after that, his sophomore season.

The following year, with four of the Fab Five back, Michigan lost to 1994 national champion Arkansas in the Elite Eight. I covered that Regional Final, in Dallas. The start of the game was disrupted by the arrival of Bill Clinton, then in his first term as President.

But the game I remember best from that run was Michigan’s second-round game, an 84-79 race-horse past Texas. Howard turned pro after that March run. Hadn’t thought about it till now, but I saw Howard’s last three college games.

That was a long time ago. But think about this: Since then, since a young Bill Clinton was in the White House, Howard has been in the NBA as a player and coach.

It’s understandable that he assumes the reins at Michigan being regarded as inexperienced. On the other hand, you don’t spend a quarter-century in the NBA without learning how to deal with pressure.

I am not going to say the Juwan Howard Experiment will be a success. I am going to say that it is a risk worth taking.