Tides of Frustration Raging in Ann Arbor

Fan anger in Ann Arbor reached a boiling point last Saturday when sophomore QB Shane Morris saw his health put in extreme jeopardy when he was sent back on the field with a concussion. The mountain of errors in handling that situation has left fans excoriating athletic department leadership, and the head of that department at a clear crossroads in his tenure.

Describing the current state of athletic affairs in Ann Arbor with a boxing analogy might seem amazingly out of place considering the concussion that has embarrassingly thrust Michigan to the forefront of nationwide news. But that’s why readers must take their sensitivity caps off for a moment and identify the effect of this debacle for as exactly what it is.

Michigan appears dazed and confused.

That is now the national perception of a proud athletic department after a momentous show of incongruence between a coaching staff, its medical staff, and their athletic administration. The end result is an alarming collapse of external faith in leadership that now permeates the fan base.

So how did things go so bad so quickly? The answer is they didn’t. The powder keg may just now be exploding, the match that lit it was struck long ago.

Student Uprising

The student rally aimed at achieving the ouster of Michigan Director of Athletics David Brandon is rooted in a student ticket policy implemented a few years ago. The age old practice of assigning seating based on seniority was replaced by a policy that prioritized previous game attendance and early arrival at said contests. It was the manifestation of the athletic department’s frustration with a late-arriving student population. The departmental stance wasn’t without merit, but the remedy… one that didn’t include the input of the students… created an impression within the student-body that they were being dictated to instead of appealed to. In other words Michigan’s approach went from “the customer is always right” to “take it or leave it.”

David Brandon / USA Today Sports

All of a sudden students that had put in their time to move into more desirable places on the seating chart were subject to sitting in the same seats they did as freshmen. An additional limitation was often the inability to sit with friends because of different arrival times. Multiple student accounts depicted a rigorous row-by-row seating practice that led to ridiculously long lines and hindered the ability to be in seats before game time even if one arrived 10-15 minutes early.

It was a quagmire that resulted in significant protest. That push-back ultimately resulted in the students achieving a degree of input last year, but by that time the acrimony between sides was very pronounced. Add to it the over-selling of student basketball tickets by a whopping 1500, and the feeling of distrust of the administration was amplified even more.
All of that angst predisposed the students to a volatile reaction to any misstep. The fact Michigan’s series of errors handling the concussion sustained by sophomore quarterback Shane Morris is so worthy of overwhelming criticism just made the reaction much more pronounced.

Tuesday’s 1000-student march to the steps of the newly anointed school president is a sign of just how much built-up angst there is. There’s a petition aimed at firing Brandon with 11,000 signatures and now there’s talk of a student boycott of the Under-the-Lights 3 match-up versus Penn State on October 11th.

Other Unhappy Fans

The complaint list for other fans and alums is just as long, if not longer. Take this excerpt from email sent to the University President Mark Schlissel by disgruntled alum and posted on the GoBlueWolverine.com message board:

On ticket prices: "We raised the ticket prices, but we wanted to make sure the ticket price increase was not at all perceived to be an opportunity for us to make more money off of the students.” – David Brandon (athletic director), as Michigan students pay among the most in the country to watch football; how else are price increases to be perceived?

On the “two Cokes, two tickets” promo: "Due to a miscommunication in the approval process, this promotion should not have run as is.” – Michigan spokesman… which raises the question, what exactly was the promotion going to be?

On the noodle: "This is the classic deal: somebody goes by and takes a picture of it and puts it on the Internet, and then they think this is the new hood ornament for Michigan Stadium." – Dave Brandon. A continual thread throughout these statements, that every issue raised is a matter of perception on the part of the fans/alumni/media.

On the skywriting (“Go Blue”) over East Lansing: "There were no locations targeted." – Dave Ablauf (spokesman for AD), in stark contrast to the stated target of East Lansing by the pilot who did the skywriting.

On the endangerment of student athletes: I could copy and paste the entire press statement from David Brandon, but let me highlight the use of ambiguous, non-culpable language: “confusing”, “lack of communication”, “circumstance that was not in the best interest of our student-athletes”, “unique and complex situation” (despite the fact this happens every game-day Saturday), training staff “did not see the hit” (despite everyone else in the stadium immediately understanding what was happening), et cetera.

This is not the Michigan that I grew up with, nor is it the Michigan that I wish to be associated with. Mistakes happen, of that we can be sure; the measure of a man, program, and institution is how we deal with mistakes. It is not difficult (unless, apparently, you’re a member of the athletic department) to come forward and admit wrongdoing instead of deflecting and parrying. Any one of these events and subsequent evasions may be forgivable; in sum, they overwhelminglydemonstrate casual disregard for the truth, disrespect for the intelligence of fans and alumni of the University of Michigan, disinterest in the safety of students, and a deaf ear to the complaints and desires of those associated with Michigan. This athletic department and administration is rapidly destroying the goodwill and esteem of one of the proudest, most revered universities in the world. Never have I been embarrassed to declare my alma mater in a professional setting, as I am today. A losing football program is acceptable, when run with dignity and grace. An athletic department that tarnishes the value of my professional association with the University of Michigan is not.

I urge you to take whatever actions you deem necessary to reverse this course.

Spreading the Blame

So what should those actions be? The prevailing sentiment initially was to fire Hoke, but how culpable is the embattled headman in this instance? Some of the criticism aimed at him is undoubtedly rooted in the declining performance on the football field (11-2 in year one, 8-5 in year two, 7-6 in year three, and 2-3 this season… the first time in program history three losses were sustained before October).

Shane Morris had to be held up by OL Ben Braden after hit / Getty Images

In the big boy business of division one college athletics you are what your record says you are, so questions about how good a coach Brady Hoke is are fair game.  But when people begin conflating assessments of his coaching ability with assessments of his integrity, that’s when the line between what’s fair and what’s not fair is crossed.

On the fair side of the line is the criticism of the lack of oversight in the aftermath of the cheap shot aimed at Morris.  Hoke said he didn’t see it in the moment, and that’s totally plausible (in seemingly every postgame press conference there is something that he missed live that he needs to see on film before commenting to them).  Missing that would lead to missing the head trauma and seeing the subsequent staggering instead as the result of a severe ankle injury suffered a few plays prior.  In that context the decision to leave Morris on the football field would be an example of allowing the sophomore signal caller to demonstrate the “toughness” that Devin Gardner was commended for when he stayed on the football field with a broken foot versus Ohio State last year.  But that’s not the proper context in which this should be viewed because no one on Michigan’s sideline connected the hit to the head as possibly being the cause of Morris’ clear unsteadiness.  It was a dangerous miss that could have had scary repercussions.  Even if Morris had not sustained a concussion, that doesn’t change the need to have checked him more closely at that point.  Criticism on that front is warranted.

But from that point on the criticism pendulum swung away from Hoke and to a medical staff that failed him

“I do know one thing, when a guys is out of the game, they tell me -- and they have consistently for the last three years when a guy has been ruled out,” Hoke said.

“What I can tell you is we would never, ever put a guy on the field when there’s a possibility of head trauma, and we won’t do that,” he later added.

Coaches across sports have echoed that statement. They’ve said in unison that in the midst of heightened sensitivity to and understanding of concussions, coaches don’t have final say on who’s fit to play after an injury. So that’s not Hoke passing the buck. That’s him aiming some appropriately highlighting the roll trainers and doctors have when an injured player comes to the sideline

“I don’t make decisions when injuries [occur],” Hoke said. “That shouldn’t be a coach’s decision. That’s why we have some of the best trainers, some of the best doctors in the country. We’re fortunate here at Michigan, because those are the type of people we attract.”

That last statement is example of being critical yet supportive at the same time. Unfortunately for Hoke he wasn’t afforded the same courtesy by his administration in the days after the incident.

Tread Marks on Hoke’s Back

If Michigan’s “miscommunication” and disorganization had ended on the field Saturday it would have been widely criticized for its ineptitude in the moment, but many would have understood how such missteps could take place in the heat of the moment.

The problem is Michigan’s missteps became even more egregious in the following days. Things came to a head Monday when Hoke stepped in front of the media declared that while mistakes were made, one of them was NOT putting a concussed player on the field.

Brady Hoke / Getty Images

“The one thing I can tell you is during the process of and, let me say this first, number one, we practiced yesterday, we practiced last night, and Shane Morris, would’ve practiced if it were not for a high ankle sprain, and that’s one reason I’m telling you that because that’s what I’ve been told.”

Hoke later added, “He (Morris) would’ve practiced if it wasn’t for that.”

And when asked explicitly if Morris had sustained a concussion he didn’t hesistate.

“Everything that I know of, no,” Hoke said.

He even indicated corroboration was forthcoming.

“You’ll have a statement from our medical department.”

Hoke had crossed the Rubicon at the moment, and he did so unflinchingly. Shane Morris did NOT have a concussion. Little did he know one parking lot away from him information to the contrary had been known by his athletic director for a good 24 hours. So when Brandon released a statement contradicting Hoke’s concussion denial 12 hours later, the portrayal of a coach scarily out of the loop regarding the goings-on in his own program was complete.

“Following the game, a comprehensive concussion evaluation was completed and Shane has been evaluated twice since the game,” said Brandon in the statement. “As of Sunday, Shane was diagnosed with a probable, mild concussion, and a high ankle sprain. That probable concussion diagnosis was not at all clear on the field on Saturday or in the examination that was conducted post-game. Unfortunately, there was inadequate communication between our physicians and medical staff and Coach Hoke was not provided the updated diagnosis before making a public statement on Monday. This is another mistake that cannot occur again.”

The released statement emasculated Hoke so outrageously it’s one can't help but cringe.  He deserves some blame here, and I haven't been shy or hesitant in assigning it to him... but if you follow the statement, Hoke received the result of the initial concussion assessment Saturday after the game, which was negative.  THEN two more assessments were conducted and the results were communicated to the athletic director! That begs a few obvious questions. Who coaches the team? Who runs practice? Maybe it's naïve to expect that information to make it to the guy that is supposed to have those duties. In retrospect that was indeed a presumptuous expectation on his part.

I don't know this for sure, but based on the delay in the start of Monday’s press conference I have little doubt that the sports information department was prepping Hoke like crazy. It seemed like they thought they had a clear understanding of things. Did he even know then about further tests? I wonder at this point.  Did Morris have the results when Hoke saw him Monday morning? If Morris had them, did Hoke ask Morris specifically about said results? That is a legitimate question. But again, I now wonder if he knew about Sunday's battery of tests at all

It almost looks like control of this process was seized from Hoke. His obliviousness Monday was too pronounced to be willful blindness.  It just makes no sense. "He would have practiced if it wasn't for (the ankle injury)." Does that sound like a guy with knowledge of the POSSIBILITY of test results that would make him look perilously clueless or overwhelmingly out of the loop? It'd make zero sense for him to put himself out there like that.

To the casual observers he was not the coach of the team from a decision-making standpoint on this issue, and for that reason he should have been briefed by those that held that role.  Either that or the press conference should have been postponed so the decision-makers could be the ones explaining the decisions that were made.

The unflattering perception this whole ordeal reinforces is one of a coach that isn't the one making the calls for his program. That's the message the statement sent loud and clear even if it wasn't meant to.

A Good Soldier

It’d be hard for anyone to not look at how this all unfolded as anything other than being hung out to dry. But publicly Hoke took a different tact.

“I don’t think so,” Hoke said. “I think they worked very hard on getting it right in the statement. I think when you talk about evaluating different things that we need to evaluate – I think that was all handled in the statement.”

Brady Hoke / Getty Images

“I believe number one, the statement covers what we’ve all have done to go through this. Secondly, I think Dave Brandon and I have a great relationship. A relationship that is built on trust. It’s been built on integrity. It’s been built on character. We also understand the leadership. The roles of leadership we both have.”

The problem is those roles aren’t clearly defined outside? Is it typical for the medical staff to pass an injury diagnosis to the athletic director before, and in this case INSTEAD OF the head coach?

Again, if anything the Brandon’s statement (unintentionally?) lends credence to the beliefs of people that were once thought of as conspiracy theorists. Sure it was curious to have the athletic director sitting in on film sessions with the football staff and in the basketball locker room at halftime of games. Maybe that really is an instrument in evaluating the job performance of the staff’s in question? It may seem out of place to need to do so with the basketball staff in year seven, when the year prior it made a run to the national title game, but maybe that’s just an example of being thorough? But when the head coach is circumvented in such a visible, embarrassing, and undermining sort of way the interpretation of the aforementioned actions starts to change. Those conspiracy theorists don’t seem so cooky anymore.

Where do things go from here?

The faith in leadership of Michigan’s athletic department has slipped to a critical level.

The common perception out there is that the head coach was thrown under the bus by his athletic director.

Perception of head coach’s authority has been weakened.

Fans are departing a once jam-packed stadium in droves.

How does one stem such raging tides?

Dave Brandon must answer that question, and he must do so quickly.

The first step is to address the public. He does so in a one-on-one interview with GoBlueWolverine coming later tonight.

Related Stories: Brandon: Morris Has Probable, Mild Concussion
SAAC Speaks up for Brandon
U-M President Offers Latest Apology 
Michigan Students Protest Athletic Department

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