Are Michigan Regents Taking Aim at the A.D.?

University of Michigan regent Denise Illitch recently indicated the plan for the regents to review the job performance of Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon at a meeting Thursday afternoon. GoBlueWolverine takes a look at what impact that has on the current landscape.

Was that a shot across the bow? 

That’s the question many Michigan fans are openly pondering after hearing University of Michigan Regent Denise Illitch’s response to a question about a “holy crisis going on in Ann Arbor with David Brandon“ on WWJ CBS-Detroit.

“The reaction has been very very strong,”Illitch said. “I’ve received hundreds of letters and I know my fellow regents have as well.”

The regents will be meeting at the Riverfront Center on the campus of University of Michigan-Flint at 3pm.

“We’ll be discussing it at the meeting,” Illitch told WWJ.

“I’m sure we’ll have people come to the public meeting and give their opinion.”

"The system failed that day (when Michigan quarterback Shane Morris was mistakenly put back into a game with a concussion). There are a lot of issues we need to review now."

An athletic department review of the breakdown occurred in the days following the incident and enhanced safety measures have already been instituted.  In addition, University president Mark Schlissel made clear his plan to review any changes prior to formalizing them as policy.  Word that the regents will review in part that incident has led to the reasonable inference that what they will truly be assessing is Brandon’s culpability in the mishandling of the situation after the fact.  That is unquestionably the fan interpretation as they observe political maneuvering that normally takes place under a shroud of secrecy instead take place before their eyes.


President, Lend Me Your Ear...


Schlissel, who has been on the job just under four months, finds himself in the midst of an unexpected firestorm.  If the majority of regents wind up publicly aligned against Brandon they will join a student contingent that marched to the president’s front doorstep and also promoted an online a petition in hopes of having him removed.  If those messages aren’t loud enough, some discontented donors have made it a point to voice their displeasure with Brandon to the Michigan president personally.

Students rally against Brandon

Since taking the job July 1st Schlissel has been making the rounds, soliciting support from major donors for the University’s Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign.  The drive to raise 4 billion dollars to finance "student support, engaged learning, and bold ideas” began in earnest last year and will go through 2018. According to a major donor who spoke to GoBlueWolverine on the condition of anonymity, during the meetings Schlissel lays out the campaign’s vision, explains the need for support, and then listens to feedback.  Even though the overall focus of the discussion is on further enhancing the University’s already impressive academic profile, lately the football program, and especially Dave Brandon have been major topics.

After detailing a number occasions during which he was “treated poorly by the athletic department” the donor found Schlissel to be apologetic and determined to “change the culture,” but not willing to give even a subtle indication that Brandon wouldn’t be a part of that change.

“(Schlissel) never said that Brandon was in danger of being let go,” the donor stated.  “I’m not convinced yet that he is gone. Anyone thinking he is already fired is mistaken. This isn't over. ”

That’s because while the voices of discontent seem to be getting louder and more numerous, Brandon does have his supporters, including billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross.

Last year Ross made the largest donation in the school’s history when he pledged $200 million to be split evenly between the business school and the athletic department. That took his overall donation amount to his alma mater to $310 million.

Late last month in the face of growing criticism Ross threw his support squarely behind Brandon.

"He's probably the most qualified athletic director in the country,” Ross told Crain’s Detroit Business.  “I think he's terrific.”

“I wouldn't have given my gift to the athletic department if I didn't believe in Dave.”

"You don't go around giving $100 million if you don't feel there is going to be bang for the buck." 

Days later with criticism of Brandon intensifying in the aftermath of the Shane Morris concussion incident, Ross doubled down on his support in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

"If they were winning football games, this wouldn't be a problem," Ross told the Journal. "He is as qualified to be an athletic director as anyone could be."

So if you’re keeping score, he has a degree of cover from the regents because the authority to fire him rests in the hands of the person he answers directly to, President Schlissel.

He has a degree of cover from disgruntled donors because he has still the biggest donor of all in his corner.

The group from which there is no cover, though, is the one consisting of rank & file fans and most notably the students.


A Not So Captive Audience


The athletic department is fiscally healthy and Brandon has long emphasized his substantial support of all of Michigan’s athletic programs and the 900-plus student athletes that participate in them.  The ambitious overhaul of the entire athletic campus is a testament to that commitment, but the care factor for non-revenue sports, especially in the face of football’s struggles, just isn’t that high.  Front and center now is the acrimony that exists between him and a growing number of season-ticket-holding detractors.  Many of those fans describe the relationship as a dictatorship instead of a partnership..  Changing that perception appears to be a more daunting task now than it was when he began trying to alter it in his media blitz a few weeks ago.

How can he win a crowd that so decidedly against him?

His approach seems to consist of trying to show the softer, more personable side of Dave Brandon.  The problem is he is catering to an audience that has no suspension of disbelief.  The people watching this movie question EVERYTHING about it.

Based on the level of vitriol currently in the air, mending the cavernous gap that divides him from some of his constituents seems akin to trying to build a bridge across the Grand Canyon.  That’s definitely true with arguably his most important non-suite-level constituents, the students.  Despite rampant speculation that Thursday’s regents meeting spells his demise, it must be reiterated, the regents can’t fire him… they can only suggest it. In the end his most significant hurdle still may be the students.  They represent the truest barometer for the present (when the student section is full and engaged, the program is humming) and the future (the students are the future season ticket holders). Alienating them has had a crippling effect.

So when the clock expires on Thursday’s regents meeting expect Brandon still be in the game.

He just might be trailing by a much greater margin.

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