Are These Humbling Times for Michigan’s AD?

Scathing criticism appears to have sparked a change in approach to dealing with fans for Michigan athletic director David Brandon. Greater sensitivity to how he is viewed and what he can do to affect that are definite focuses. Is it still positive to shift the narrative on him, or are his efforts too little too late?

Dave Brandon is facing a crisis.  Those that just began focusing intently on the happenings in Ann Arbor over the last six days might think that’s a reference to the bungled handling of a concussed Shane Morris, but it’s not. That’s merely a symptom of a broader problem.

Brandon’s larger issue is he has fallen out of favor with much of his customer base.  That reality colors that group’s perception of every move he makes.  Their view of him is so sullied that if he happened to save an old lady from being struck by a car, he would be suspected of doing it for the publicity!

Until recently he’d dismissed such critiques as easily as he brushed lint from his shoulder.  But sitting down Thursday afternoon with him for one of his many interviews quickly revealed that as a task that has become a lot tougher to complete.

David Brandon / USA Today Sports

“First of all, the people out there who have a deep hatred towards me, sadly in some cases have never met me, have never been in the same room with me, and they really don’t know what I’m about,” said Brandon.  “They don’t even know why I decided to take this job.  That’s unfortunate, and part of that burden is on me because I’ve got to try and reach out and have people understand better who I am and why I’m doing this.  There is a lot of about this job that isn’t a lot of fun, but there are parts of this job that are incredibly rewarding, and they all trace back to those 931 student athletes.  It’s not about being in locker rooms at halftime.  That’s a bunch of nonsense.  The real compensation of this job is having the relationship with those 931 young people, and watch them progress from freshman to sophomores to juniors to seniors, and hug them on graduation day and send them out into the world.  That’s why you do this work.  That’s the only reason you do this work.  There are a lot of people who think I do it for other reasons, and this isn’t about me.  People want to make it about me – okay, but it isn’t about me.  I have a team of people here that come to work every day and work incredibly hard to help these 931 student athletes to achieve levels of success in the classroom and athletically.  That’s what we do.  The people who want to make it about me and want to attack me personally, and is it hurtful? Of course it is.  Is it hurtful to my family? You bet it is.”

Changing the Narrative

The avalanche of criticism over the first month of the football season is clearly taking its toll.  How could it not? Student rallies asking for your firing, multiple national news shows calling you inept, and declining attendance in the largest stadium in the land is enough to get anyone’s attention.  How real the resulting introspection is remains to be seen, but there did at times seem to be a genuine interest in changing the perceptions of a few of his recent actions.  He was most effective, at least with me, in quieting suspicion that he deliberately threw Brady Hoke under the bus when he met with medical staff regarding Morris' concussion, learned their diagnosis, and released a statement detailing a process that left his coach conspicuously out of the loop.  Hoke’s image as the coach of the team took an unquestionable hit, but hanging the head coach out to dry was NOT Brandon’s intent.  He was able to sufficiently convey that message by offering a clear explanation and by taking total responsibility for his communicative error. 

But then there were those perceptions that he did little to change.  Though clearly aware of the common view many hold of him as a micromanager and the widespread belief that he thinks Michigan athletics are all about him, he didn’t appear concerned about how much his oft-mentioned practice of viewing film with football coaches on Sundays (which he insists he hasn’t done this season) and entering the basketball locker room at halftime reinforces those opinions. 

“As it relates to football, on Sunday there are football game films being watched by probably, simultaneously, 20 different people over in the building,” Brandon explained.  “There are coaches-cuts that just show the plays -- no commercials, no delays, no huddles.  I am guilty in the past… from time to time there are games where I miss big portions of the game because I have other responsibilities.  Fans get to sit and focus on the game… I’m moving around and hosting and talking to donors and meeting guests and officials from the university.  There is a lot of stuff that I do, and in many cases I miss part of the game.  What I did was I started going over to Schembechler on Sunday and I would sit next to somebody that was watching the game.  Sometimes Greg Mattison would get in there really early and I would go in and sit there and watch the game.  It was actually kind of enjoyable because there were times that he would explain to me things that were happening out there that I would not otherwise know, because I’m not a football coach.  I haven’t reviewed game film from a coach to the standpoint of lending any value to the process because I’m not a coach.  I have not watched film with a coach this season because I’ve been in a position where I haven’t really missed parts of the game.  This notion that I am trying to micromanage and help be a coach of the football program is the most absurd thing that I have ever heard.  I could not call one formation or one play other than perhaps quarterback sneak if they still call it that.  I have absolutely no working knowledge of the football program as it relates to how they call plays, when they call plays.  That’s not my area of expertise.  I played football years ago, but boy was it a lot different back then than it is now.”

And basketball? What functional purpose do halftime locker room visits serve?

Students rally against Brandon

“Zero,” Brandon replied.  “Other than I get a look at the stat sheet because they're printed out back there.  Brian Townsend was my assistant for three years in his administrative role in assisting me in the sports administration of football, basketball and hockey.  Brian was particularly close to those programs, and Brian’s habit was to go into the locker room and grab and the stats; and from time to time, he would encourage the kids because he knew them, and I followed him in there.  I serve no useful purpose.  Oh by the way, if I did, we would be in trouble because I never travel with the basketball team (laughter).  I can’t get to all their home games.  So the times that I’m at the game, which is as much as I can but not always and only at home, I will… usually with Brian walk down, get the stat sheet, often times use the restroom and get a drink of water.  Once in a while, pat my coach on the back and tell him he’s doing a great job, or, if he is a little down, try to do what I can do to prop him up.  I’m not in there trying to coach because I know even less about basketball than I do about football.”

It’s not as if Brandon is oblivious to how people interpret such visits, but he believes those views are shaped largely by an incomplete understanding of the scope of his job.

“All they see and all they may care about is what happens at Michigan football and Michigan basketball,” said Brandon of those that are bullish with the micromanager critique.  “They didn’t see me this morning meeting with the field hockey team at eight o’clock.  They didn’t see me yesterday meeting with the softball team.  They didn’t see me yesterday meeting with the volleyball team.  They don’t see my postseason sports reviews with all the coaches.  They don’t see me at a lot of these other competitions because they’re not there.  I engage with all of our coaches and all of our programs.  Often times they invite me into their facilities, either before the game or after the game, because we’re all part of a team.  My harshest critics will try to take something like that and turn it into something like a negative criticism, and that’s fine, let them do that.  Are they upset because I was in the field hockey facility this morning and I spent some time with our field hockey team before they went to Indiana this afternoon?  Is that a problem?”

For some the answer to that question is definitely yes.  He is correct in his belief that there are fans/critics that will have a problem no matter what he does.  But this new approach to engaging his customers is clearly aimed at those of the more open-minded variety. Even those fans would have a hard time viewing locker room and film session visits as anything more than self-indulgence.  The cost is just too great for minimal benefit.  All they do is further a well-propagated narrative. And for what? To satiate needs that can be met by a DVR and a sports information director?  Why give skeptics a reason to be skeptical?  And what about the coaches whose space is being infringed upon?  Would a coach that took issue with it ever say, "Boss I’d rather you not do this?" Probably not. So why even put them in a potentially uncomfortable position?

It just doesn’t seem worth it.

Open Door Policy

Another battle Brandon is fighting is the one against belief some ex-players have that their status has little value.  Though clearly confident in his standing with most former players, he was careful not to minimize those that view him more negatively.

“Of course it is (important to connect with them), but my door is, like, always open,” he said.  “I’m the most accessible guy on this campus.  There is no problem getting to me.  My email address is widely known.  My phone rings off the hook.  This is a public building.  If a former player wants to come in and talk to me man to man about an issue or a concern, let him do it.  Let him do it.”

“They may like what I say, they may not like what I say, but at least we have that communication and that respect to one another to listen.  Somebody that goes out to the media and starts spewing, and in many cases they may be former players, but in some cases they are people that I’ve never met.  There are thousands and thousands of former players out there.  In some cases, these are people I’ve never met, these are people that I couldn’t even pick out of a lineup.”

The problem here seems to be much like the one experienced by the medical staff on the sideline last Saturday, and the one experienced between Brandon and Hoke in the days subsequent.  Communication could fix a lot.  It’s apparent that many former players believe the access they have is not to Brandon, but to a committee established to address their needs.

Excerpts from an email addressed to “Michigan Men” might explain why.

…As a result of our shared interest, we have established the Football Alumni Advisory Council which gathers together quarterly to discuss various concerns and action plans that will better meet the needs of our teammates.

…In addition, the Council will meet to discuss any concerns or suggestions that have been submitted from our former football student-athletes throughout the quarter.  Once new arrangements or decisions have been made, the Council will communicate to our football alumni through the Football Newsletter. This process helps ensure that we are effectively addressing the needs and interests of our teammates and updating everyone in a timely manner.

Many perceive the Council a buffer between them and Brandon.  That’s not an unreasonable thing considering the large number of athlete alumni.  Many issues probably can be handled by the council, but those needing to go directly to the top don’t seem to know how easy it is.  This too seems like an easy fix.

Seems like a fairly simple thing.

Exercise in Futility?

In the end how much will such gestures really improve his image? At this point he is clearly ice-skating up a significant hill. A winning product on the football field would certainly go a long way toward luring fans back in, but Brandon’s part in the process might be best helped by changing policy (season ticket prices, seating practices, etc.).  Whether any of that is in the cards is unknown.

For now all fans can do is listen to the words that suggest their feelings of expendability have been heard and hope that the actions that give them true meaning soon follow.

Related Stories: Michigan AD Says Hoke “Not Accountable”
Tides of Frustration Raging in Ann Arbor
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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