That’s what Monday’s Wall Street Journal piece on Stephen Ross was. Michigan’s largest donor made headlines again, but this time for a pledge of a different sort.
With the external pressure on Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon growing by the day, Ross assured his neutrality during the evaluation process.
Ross told the Journal that he still believes Brandon “can do the job,” but said he promised University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel that he “won’t interfere or oppose a decision to fire Brandon.”
“I don’t think alumni should control universities,” Ross told the Journal. “We have a great president and he is running the university and not me.”
The implication of that comment is amazingly docile if taken out of context. Its significance becomes clearer, however, when juxtaposed with comments he made four weeks prior. On September 27th, with criticism of Brandon gaining momentum and just hours before Shane Morris was reinserted into a football game with a probable mild concussion, an article was released with Ross voicing his fervent support for Michigan’s head athletic administrator.
"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."
Then just a few days later with both local and national scrutiny bearing down on Brandon for the handling of the concussion incident, Ross offered a more strident show of support in 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."
Ross’ decision to visibly back away from that hardline stance after meeting with Schlissel last week further confirms the tenuousness of Brandon’s current job standing. One can also infer that Ross is promising that his generosity to his alma mater (he has gifted $313 million dollars to date) won’t be adversely affected should Schlissel opt to go in a different direction. Thus far that is arguably the biggest blow to Brandon’s effort to hold on to his post. But unfortunately for him, it’s not the only one.
Not even a week has passed since Brandon announced his plan to help resuscitate his department’s frayed relationship with its student constituents. Nearly $1.5 million dollars in concessions were made, mostly in the form reduced ticket prices. The move was praised by the president of the school’s Central Student Government as a sign of “a commitment from our athletic department that they are not only listening but acting on student feedback.”
But not all students were swayed by Brandon’s new conciliatory approach.
Public Policy senior Craig Kaplan was one of the leaders of the student rally aimed at achieving Brandon’s upheaval, and he is now spearheading another anti-Brandon initiative. This time his aim is to print and distribute 2000 white t-shirts prominently adorned with the message “#FireDaveBrandon” to students by Thursday evening. The plan is then for those students to wear those shirts to Saturday’s homecoming game versus Indiana.
“We support the team. That’s the crucial part,” Kaplan told the Michigan Daily. “We want to see the best for them. Dave Brandon is not the best for them. That’s the message we’re trying to get across.”
According to the Daily, Kaplan’s effort is being funded by “a generous donor.” The willingness of donors to voice their displeasure appears to be on the rise. As was mentioned on GoBlueWolverine two weeks ago, there are high ranking donors that have voiced their feelings to Schlissel during meetings over the last few months. Now comes word that some donors are planning to speak with their checkbooks.
“(Schlissel) has been told that not another penny will be given until this is resolved,” a source told GoBlueWolverine on the condition of anonymity.
Exactly how many donors have delivered that message is unclear, but any impact outside of athletics will clearly be magnified. Especially since Michigan is in the midst of its “Victors for Michigan campaign” to raise 4 billion dollars to finance "student support, engaged learning, and bold ideas.”
For Brandon, combatting all of the forces aligning against him appears to be an increasingly arduous task, and yet he presses on. It’s a sign that he still believes in his ability execute his vision. In his nearly five years at the helm he has undertaken an upgrade of the athletic campus to a state of the art level, and largely maintained the financial solvency he inherited. He has clearly made positive contributions that his critics downplay or outright ignore, but can those positives offset a mountain of detractors that seems to be growing taller by the minute? That’s the question that Schlissel is tussling with, but maybe he won’t much longer.
Before this latest barrage of negative feedback the odds of the evaluation process lasting at least a month longer appeared pretty high. Now, especially with Ross’ announcement that he won’t serve as Brandon’s buffer, the opportunity for the timeline to be expedited is apparent. The timing of determining Brandon’s future is obviously and inextricably tied to the timing of determining the future of the football program. The longer it takes to settle on an athletic director, the more that athletic director will be limited in his ability to consider all remedies on the gridiron.
That said, in light recent developments the window for possible wholesale change is wider than it was even a week ago, but it won’t stay that way for long.
If Schlissel does indeed decide to relieve Brandon the names that have been widely rumored to be of interest as potential replacements are in line to emerge as primary candidates. Michigan ties are a common theme among current Boston College athletic director Brad Bates (Michigan grad and former Michigan football player), current Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel (Michigan grad, former Michigan associate athletic director, and former Michigan football player), current Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (former Michigan associate athletic director and chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee) and Texas Tech deputy athletic director Joe Parker (Michigan grad, former Michigan senior associate athletic director, and former Michigan swimmer). At the same time, the search would likely extend beyond the aforementioned pool and encompass candidates not being widely discussed. One such name rumored to possibly be of interest if change occurs is that of current Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne.
The candidacy of the man that hired former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez would serve as an odd twist in a story that has already had its fair share of them.
Stay tuned to GoBlueWolverine for in the coming days for more news & notes on the athletic director search process and a coaching evaluation/search primer.
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