ANN ARBOR -- Michigan is selling athletic director Dave Brandon’s exit as a voluntary resignation, a trick straight out of Brandon’s management manual. Brandon forced out so many good people and marginalized so many others, and you rarely heard a word about it because almost all of them signed confidentiality agreements. That way, they got as much money on the way out the door as they could, and Brandon could keep running Dave Brandon, Inc. out of the Michigan athletic offices. So maybe there is no sense quibbling over whether he resigned or was fired. Let’s just say Michigan asked him to wear an alternate uniform.
Brandon’s exit was inevitable once the Michigan football team fell apart this season, and don’t kid yourself: If the Wolverines were 7-1 right now, instead of 3-5, his job would probably be safe. Most of the fans’ anger directed toward him is really about wins and losses. Brandon was insecure, overconfident and thin-skinned when he showed up almost five years ago, and nobody seemed to care. Only now, with his chosen coach, Brady Hoke, floundering, are people piling on.
Michigan needed to get rid of Brandon because he doesn’t deserve a chance to hire the next football coach, and Brandon’s replacement must be found before the football season ends. The new AD will surely fire Hoke and hire a new coach. But the new AD would also be wise to learn from Brandon’s mistakes.
Brandon is not the cartoon villain he appeared to be in recent weeks. Somewhere behind the arrogant and dismissive emails that were first reported by MGoBlog, there is a guy who does have some of the right values. No matter what people think of the Shane Morris concussion debacle last month, Brandon has a pretty strong track record of supporting student-athletes. There is a reason nobody else came forward, after the Morris incident, to complain of mistreatment.
Brandon also hired a coach, Hoke, who is beloved by players and almost universally respected for his integrity. He stood by another, basketball coach John Beilein, back when Beilein’s team was struggling.
Hoke just happens to be the wrong coach, and Brandon hired him for the wrong reason, and that is where this athletic directorship started to unspool.
Brandon wanted a coach he could control, who was beholden to him. That’s how he hires people. He wanted to a staff to execute his strategies and make him look good, and when Michigan did something right, no matter how small, Brandon wanted the glory.
As much as he liked to sell his relationship with legendary coach Bo Schembechler, Brandon seemed to miss the biggest fundamental lesson for any Schembechler player: It’s about the team, the team, the team.
Brandon proudly told people his motto was, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” He forgot to add: “Then take credit for it.” The athletic director who hired Schembechler, Don Canham, never walked a football sideline during a game; Brandon did it all the time. There was no logical reason for Brandon to watch film with his football coach on Sundays, but he did it and didn’t care who knew.
He couldn’t just schedule one night game a year at Michigan Stadium; he had to act like he invented the light bulb. He couldn’t just honor the school’s former players; he had to invent this “Legends jersey” gimmick, so current players wore previously retired numbers, part of a big show that was supposed to make the AD look creative.
And after decades of Michigan folks bragging they had the best uniforms in the game, Brandon decided to come up with one alternate uniform after another. He told the Detroit News this summer that if he stuck with the same uniforms for every game, “I believe over time, we’d lose momentum competitively, because it’s not what other programs are doing.”
All of this created an enormous cloud of invisible gas, ready to explode when a match was lit. This football season was the match. Brandon doesn’t deserve the two-dimensional vilification he has received, but it’s hard to muster much sympathy for him when he treated so many people the way he did. He is getting what he gave.
The next wave of criticism is as inevitable as Brandon’s exit. You will hear that Michigan isn’t Michigan anymore. You will hear that the AD and coaching jobs aren’t so appealing anymore. You will hear that Michigan folks are stuck in their ways and clinging to the past, and they need to get over this whole “Michigan man” thing before it sinks them.
It’s nonsense. Michigan is not a bastion of Luddites and inbreeding, and most fans, alums and employees understand that bright ideas can come from outsiders. Schembechler never worked at Michigan until he was hired (he had a degree from Ohio State, of all places), and the next athletic director and coach do not need to have Michigan ties. They just need to understand and respect what most Michigan people really want: a program that follows the rules, at least tries to balance academic integrity with athletic excellence, celebrates its tradition, provides an enjoyable and rewarding experience for the players and wins an enormous number of games.
Michigan has had that before. Michigan can have that again. If Beilein does it, why can’t the football program?
The new school president, Mark Schlissel, is new to all this. He came from Brown. He has quickly discovered how things work at Michigan, and Friday was another example, when the school held the Brandon press conference in the smallest room it could find, and the man who “voluntarily” resigned was not there. Hey, it’s the Michigan way.
Schlissel answered questions deftly, if not substantively. He was asked if football is too big at Michigan.
“That’s a difficult question,” he said, but it isn’t.
OF COURSE football is too big. That’s not just true at Michigan but across the country. Of course college sports are too popular, winning matters too much, academics matter too little and the disparity between coaches’ pay and the value of athletic scholarships is too hard to take.
But Schlissel didn’t create this world, and he can’t change it. He just has to find somebody to navigate through it. Michigan needs a leader, not another marketing opportunity. Dave Brandon, Inc. is closed for business. The program needs somebody who won’t put his own name on the marquee.