Mar. 26—After Juwan Howard accepted the head coaching job at Michigan nearly two years ago, he made a trip down to Tallahassee.
But it wasn’t a vacation. It was to visit Florida State and meet with longtime coach Leonard Hamilton, whom Howard played for in the NBA two decades ago and built a bond with that grew over time.
The two talked basketball and Howard picked Hamilton’s brain about what it takes to run a program. Hamilton shared his insights and Howard credited him as one of his mentors who helped him make the transition to college head coach.
On Sunday, the two will meet as opposing coaches for the first time when the top-seeded Wolverines and No. 4 Seminoles square off at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
“Our relationship runs deep,” Howard, 48, said Thursday. “The respect that I have for coach as a man, as a father and also as a coach…he’s had amazing success. He has great knowledge of the game of basketball, people and his resume speaks for itself.
“Our conversations were very good. I learned a lot. I will continue to use Coach Hamilton as a mentor, father figure, an example of what great successful coaches look like on this collegiate level.”
Howard’s relationship with Hamilton dates to at least 2000, when the two crossed paths in Washington. Howard was in his seventh and final season playing with the Wizards. Hamilton was coaching in his first and only season of his 50-year career at the professional level.
Even though the two were only together for 54 games before Howard was traded to Dallas, Hamilton was impressed with the way Howard carried himself during that 2000-01 campaign.
“Juwan was the ultimate professional,” Hamilton, 72, said. “He was always dressed appropriate. He handled every little detail with the utmost focus and professionalism. Even down to what he ate, how much rest he got, how focused he was in the locker room, his unselfish spirit.
“He had all those high-character qualities that you love to see in a basketball player. That same humbleness that he operates with, the professionalism, his attention to detail is what’s really making Michigan an outstanding team. Just Juwan being Juwan.”
Following his one season in the NBA, Hamilton returned to the college ranks and took over at Florida State in 2002. Since then, he has guided the Seminoles to more than 370 wins, eight NCAA Tournament appearances, three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight.
Howard, meanwhile, continued playing in the NBA until he retired in 2013. From there, he spent six years as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat before he landed the job at his alma mater in May 2019.
Howard credited Hamilton along with late greats like Georgetown’s John Thompson Jr. and Temple’s John Chaney for paving the way for up-and-comers like him and new Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry, who was hired last week.
And the fact that the Sweet 16 matchup between Michigan and Florida State features two Black coaches isn’t lost on Howard.
“It’s special just to see what Coach Ham has done for the program, for these young men that he’s been empowering for many, many years,” Howard said. “Truly I try to take something that I’ve learned from him and try to implement into myself because I’m a young coach that’s striving to impact others, to be inspiring to other coaches, no matter what race it is.
“It’s beautiful to see the impact Coach Ham has had on me and others. He’s a great example. He’s that way because he’s so pure. He remembers the times when other coaches helped teach him along the way. He doesn’t mind serving and giving. That’s why he’s so successful and I respect that.”
That respect goes both ways. Hamilton and Howard stayed in touch after their time together in Washington. In fact, Hamilton said they grew closer and their relationship became stronger over the years.
So much so that Hamilton watches Michigan’s games whenever he gets the chance and roots hard for Howard, with the exception of this weekend.
“He’s one of my favorite people in the business because I know what he stands for as a person,” Hamilton said. “He represents all the qualities that I think the people at Michigan can be very proud of. I think they need to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride because he’s going to take them to maybe even higher than some of those places that Michigan basketball has been in the past.”
For Michigan to reach its second regional final in four seasons, Howard will need to knock over someone he has leaned on for years.
But given his competitive nature, Howard won’t have any difficulty putting his deep connection with Hamilton to the side on Sunday.
“If my grandmother was still living and she was playing basketball, I would play her one-on-one and I would be very physical with her,” Howard said. “When the game is over with, I’m going to embrace her, hug her, kiss her. That’s exactly how it goes in the game of basketball. Once the game starts, you’re locked into your opponent.
“They know that they have goals in front of them and we have goals that’s in front of us. We understand that Florida State is looking to spoil our goals and our dreams. After the game is over with, we’ll embrace the brotherhood, camaraderie, friendship, family. But right now, it’s about the competition.”
NO. 1 MICHIGAN VS. NO. 4 FLORIDA STATE
Tip-off: 5 p.m. Sunday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records: Michigan 22-4, Florida State 18-6
Outlook: This is the fifth all-time meeting between the teams and first since 2018, when Michigan beat Florida State, 58-54, in the Elite Eight in Los Angeles. …Florida State beat UNC Greensboro, 64-54, and Colorado, 71-53, to reach the Sweet 16. …Senior guard M.J. Walker leads four double-digit scorers for Florida State at 12.3 points. The Seminoles rank 11th in the nation in blocks per game (5.1), 15th in field-goal percentage defense (39.3%), 16th in 3-point shooting (38.2%) and 26th in field-goal percentage (47.8%).