It says a lot about the University of Michigan that the football coach got fired Tuesday, and the biggest buzz afterward was about a quote from 25 years ago.
You may be thinking “Wow -- 25 years ago?” I know, right? Seems like yesterday!
Jim Hackett, Michigan’s new interim athletic director, declared: “I want to get rid of the word ‘Michigan man.’” Legendary coach Bo Schembechler popularized the term in 1989, when basketball coach Bill Frieder took the Arizona State job on the eve of the NCAA tournament, and Schembechler (who was also the athletic director) told him to leave immediately, declaring “a Michigan man will coach Michigan!” The Wolverines won the national title under interim coach Steve Fisher, and the term “Michigan man” has been part of the Midwest sports culture ever since.
Of course, ‘Michigan man’ is two words, but Hackett’s point is that the term is sexist, outdated and often twisted. He is correct. But Michigan can’t run away from itself.
For one thing, Hackett would not be conducting the search if he were not a Michigan man. He was a successful CEO for Steelcase, but he has no athletic-department experience. If he had played college football for, say, Indiana or Pittsburgh, he would not have been asked to run Michigan’s department.
And while Hackett might not like the label, he knows what it means better than most. Hackett’s father captained the 1944 Ohio State team, and his brother also played for the Buckeyes. When Hackett chose to attend Michigan, his father told him, “I’ll never sing that damn fight song.”
Yet young Hackett fell for Michigan in every way. As a young man applying for jobs, he had to give two references. One was the priest who married him. The other was Bo Schembechler. In his business career, Hackett sometimes asked Schembechler for advice.
So now a Schembechler disciple will hire one of Schembechler’s successors to coach in Schembechler Hall, and wait ... what did you just say? Something about “insular”? Sorry, can’t hear you out there.
It is easy to say this is all silly. It is also easy to say that Michigan should just hire the best coach, period. But that is way too simplistic, and it ignores the institutional dynamics at play.
The Michigan football team is not a pro sports franchise, even though the media cover it like it is -- concerned with winning and losing and not much else. There are students, administrators, advisors and professors connected to the place. Hackett made it clear Tuesday that he expects his next coach to follow rules, take academics seriously and contend for titles. It is not just empty talk.
Michigan’s admissions department obviously admits a lot of athletes who would not otherwise get in, but it won’t admit just anybody. The new coach needs to understand that. You might think the recent spate of losing would make Michigan more desperate to cut corners and win, but in fact, the opposite has occurred. New school president Mark Schlissel seems appalled by the shadow that athletics casts over the rest of a university.
Most university presidents are frenetic fundraisers, savvy politicians or pragmatists. For those reasons, they embrace, or at least tolerate, major-college sports. Schlissel is a long way from embracing it. It is hard to imagine Michigan offering the highest salary in the country to hire Bob Stoops away from Oklahoma, for example, or making overtures to Nick Saban, as Texas did. The place just won’t operate like a pro team. You can criticize or praise Michigan for that, but it’s reality.
Hackett just fired a coach, Brady Hoke, who fit the university in every way, to the point where he probably would have kept his job if he just went 7-5 this year. Instead, Hoke went 5-7 and was (justifiably) fired. Michigan doesn’t need to hire a Michigan (person) to replace him. But the spirit behind the term is ingrained in this Michigan coaching search, starting with the top two candidates for the job.
People connected to the school, but not directly connected to the search, agree that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has to be the leading candidate. He makes almost perfect sense. Harbaugh is only 50, he is one of the best coaches in the NFL, and he built a powerhouse at Stanford. Hire Harbaugh, and you get top-5 recruiting classes, future NFL quarterbacks, an energized fan base and Big Ten title contention. Plus, the 49ers seem ready to get rid of him because he wins too much.
Like others, I suspect Harbaugh will stay in the pros. Harbaugh loves his alma mater, and I think he enjoys a university environment far more than people realize. It’s easy to think of him as a football automaton, wearing the same khakis every day and thinking only about the game, but that’s not really him.
I think Harbaugh is like most Michigan grads: moving back to Ann Arbor would hold emotional appeal for him. But most grads don’t actually move back.
And if you look at it analytically, and the Raiders or Jets or Bears are courting him, why would Harbaugh take less money to coach at a lower level? Coaches who leave NFL teams for the college ranks usually have no choice (because they got fired) or simply prefer the college game (Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier). There is no indication that Harbaugh is tired of the NFL. That alone makes this a long shot.
Then there is Les Miles, who has a better team and access to a stronger recruiting base at LSU, but would assuredly take the Michigan job by noon if it were offered at 11:59 a.m. People who know Miles well say his affection for Michigan runs that deep.
Miles’ continued interest in the job is truly incredible. In 2007, when Lloyd Carr retired at Michigan, the school toyed with Miles, acted like it would hire him, but was never actually going to do it. Three years later, then-athletic director Dave Brandon met with Miles, but it was a political move. Brandon didn’t really want Miles.
Those could be two pretty big blows to the ego of a wildly successful coach. Yet Miles reveres Michigan so much, he would take the job anyway.
So what does Hackett do? If, as many presume, he wants to start with Harbaugh, he has a problem. He can’t get a firm answer from Harbaugh right now, even through back channels, because Harbaugh doesn’t even know what his options are.
I think Harbaugh would still prefer to stay in San Francisco, as unlikely as that seems. After the 49ers’ last loss, owner Jed York tweeted that the “performance wasn’t acceptable” and apologized to his fans. York might as well have declared “Amateur hour starts now -- drinks are on me!” and poured a gin and tonic on his head. There was absolutely nothing to gain from that tweet except to let people know you are thinking of firing of your coach.
But as York surely noticed, his team is 7-5, and still in playoff contention. And if the 49ers somehow make the playoffs at 10-6 or 11-5, then Harbaugh will be coaching into January, and who knows? Maybe he will win so much that York has to give him a contract extension, and Harbaugh can stay put. It’s all unlikely, but the point is: Harbaugh can’t possibly know what his career options are until his season ends. He may have five teams courting him, including Michigan.
Understand: The only logical reason for Harbaugh or Miles to take the Michigan job is a love of the school. Is that enough for Harbaugh? I’m skeptical, but Hackett owes it to the school to at least wait until the end of the 49ers season to find out. And if Hackett is comfortable with Miles as a fallback plan, he can wait on Harbaugh. Miles will almost certainly say yes whenever he is asked.
But is Hackett comfortable with Miles? The last two Michigan athletic directors were not, for whatever reason. Miles was a Michigan assistant, and many of his former players love him. I think most of the fan base would be excited. But Schlissel may read about LSU’s NCAA violations and SI’s series on Oklahoma State and tell Hackett to stay away. Or perhaps Miles’s former players may vouch for his integrity and honesty, and ease any worries (if there are any). And though Miles is a young 61, he is still 61; Hackett has to consider that too.
Hackett seems determined to get a coach who understands Michigan and its values, even if that coach has never walked along the school’s Diag or eaten at Zingerman’s Deli. (This would be a shame. Everybody should eat at Zingerman’s.) And that’s why the search could easily start with Harbaugh and Miles and end up with a coach who seems to fit the school just as well. That is where former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and Minnesota’s Jerry Kill could come into play. At Rutgers, Schiano earned well-deserved praise for how seriously he took academics.
Despite its recent struggles, Michigan is a great job for the right coach. But as Hoke liked to say: It’s not for everybody. You can win more easily at Florida, but you have to navigate through the SEC. Nebraska has tradition and an incredibly loyal fan base, but expectations are stuck in the 1990s. At Michigan, the right coach can win enough to keep his job, as long as he does things the way a Michigan man ... ah, there we go again.
Funny thing about that term: When Schembechler uttered it after dismissing Frieder, he neglected to mention that Frieder had earned two degrees from the University of Michigan. At the time of Schembechler’s statement, Frieder had attended more football games in Michigan Stadium than Schembechler had. Even today, Bill Frieder cheers for Michigan. It probably doesn’t make sense to some people. But I’m sure Les Miles understands.