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Juwan Howard prioritizes players’ mental health amid COVID-19 pandemic

Howard approached each player before this season individually for an important conversation.

Central Florida v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Now in his second season coaching the Michigan men’s basketball team, Juwan Howard has developed a reputation as a players’ coach.

Since taking the job last May, Howard has stressed the importance of sharing ownership of the program with his players. One way he does that is through an open door policy. Howard has gone out of his way to make himself accessible to his players, which opens a line of communication that has only become more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m always concerned about our players, staff, support staff, about their health,” Howard said after the Wolverines’ 91-71 win over Toledo on Wednesday. “Health is always (priority) number one with me. Basketball is last. And I’m speaking of health as well as metal health. That’s why I’ve always asked my players, ‘How are you doing?’ And that sometimes can be the typical, oh, (what) everyone wants to say, but I want to know how they’re doing mentally.”

Howard’s prioritization of mental and physical health guided Michigan through an uncertain fall. Making a concerted effort not to sway his players in one direction, Howard spoke to them individually before the season to understand whether or not they wanted to suit up this year. As the pandemic worsened, he understood some players very well could’ve taken a stance against playing. That was something he was prepared to “respect and support,” he said Wednesday.

Nobody elected to opt-out, but the broader point was clear. If any player didn’t want to take the court, they knew Howard had their back.

“It’s about (players) and whatever they want to do,” Howard said. “… Being a college student, you come here to get an education and also compete on that floor. When it’s taken away, it’s a huge void. But knowing that your health has to be (priority) number one and basketball has to take a backseat to it.”

Earlier this week, the Wolverines got their first taste of pandemic scheduling havoc. Michigan was originally set to play NC State on Wednesday as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but a COVID-19 case within the Wolfpack program forced the teams to call off the game on Monday. The Wolverines spent the afternoon racing to find a new opponent and ultimately agreed to host Toledo — one of the MAC’s most talented teams — on Wednesday.

By the time Michigan found a new opponent, it only had 48 hours to prepare. That left the staff scrambling to put together footage, scouting reports and a game plan — something that reminded Howard of a quick postseason turnaround.

It marked the first of many whirlwinds to come for the Wolverines, which makes Howard’s prioritization of mental health all the more important.

“(Howard) reaches out after practice,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said during a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “He won’t skip it, it’s on his plan, he sees it. He’ll just be sure to mention, ‘Hey, if you guys are struggling, I know you’re not seeing people … you’re sitting in a room all day until practice, staying inside.’ He reaches out.

“We have resources and he’s not afraid to call your phone and just check up on you and see how things are going. That’s him and the support staff. They’re all on top of it. Maybe not every day, but every other day they’re reaching out.”