Phil Martelli doesn’t know where he was when the thought dawned upon him, but he remembers that it hit him hard.
Now in his second season as the Michigan men’s basketball associate head coach, Martelli has seen it all. He’s been around college basketball for more than four decades, including a 24-year stint as the head coach at St. Joseph’s. He guided the Hawks to 444 wins and seven NCAA Tournament berths, cementing himself as a Philadelphia basketball legend in the process.
So when Martelli made his way to Ann Arbor last year, he naturally became a mentor to first-time head coach Juwan Howard. He expected Howard to join the long list of other coaches who take a job, talk up a culture and call it a day, but a few days ago, Martelli realized Howard has followed through.
In today’s coaching climate, that’s a rarity.
“Almost every team now, or every organization, will say to you, culture and values and family and all this other stuff,” Martelli told reporters during a Zoom call Wednesday. “And being perfectly frank, I think sometimes it’s bullshit. They’re the catch phrases so I’m supposed to say it. But to Juwan’s credit, he does live by those cultural beliefs. He really does see everybody involved in the program as family and he understands that in families you treat each other fairly but you do have to treat each other a little bit differently.”
About a month ago, Martelli noticed exactly that during a defining moment of practice when the Wolverines spent about five minutes going over a specific defensive maneuver. That kind of time can feel like “an eternity” in practice, Martelli says, but Howard kept explaining the technique to the group.
For Howard, it wasn’t enough that most players understood his point. And when it became clear that two walk-ons were struggling, Howard took them to the side and worked with them individually — a testament to Martelli’s point.
“He truly is a servant,” Martelli said. “He wants to serve all the young guys, and that’s the support staff, all these phenomenal student managers and he wants to serve in practice. He wants to serve the walk-on as much as he wants to serve Franz Wagner. … I told him, ‘That kind of attention and that kind of care is what leaves me with no doubt that you’re going to be extraordinary at this.’”
Martelli’s words echo much of what he said about Howard’s potential as a coach last fall. That was before Howard had ever coached a game at Michigan. Before Howard had the Wolverines ranked No. 4 nationally after upsetting two top-10 teams in a week. Before Howard signed the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class this fall. Now, those words are materializing in real time.
Martelli has worked with — and competed against — a long list of coaches in his time around college basketball. And in Howard, he sees something special.
“They could say it’s me being me, but I really do believe that (Howard) is a can’t-miss,” Martelli said. “He will coach a national champion before he leaves Michigan.”