Will Idealism Guide U-M A.D./Coaching Search?

Dave Brandon’s resignation from his athletic director's post last week was the first step in what many hope is a layered process that will change the face and fortunes of the football program in the very near future. But is Michigan’s view of that process in line with the fan view. Is Jim Harbaugh’s matriculation to Michigan really a foregone conclusion?

The University of Michigan is currently sitting at an athletic crossroads.  It’s clear that the moves it makes in the coming months will probably decide its direction for years to come.

The first domino along the current course fell last Friday when embattled athletic director Dave Brandon officially tendered his resignation.  His decision was the culmination of one of the most tumultuous months (athletically) in Michigan history.  The process may have drawn out even longer had the ardent support of the school’s biggest donor,  real estate magnate and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, remained intact.  But when Ross retreated to a more neutral stance on Brandon’s retention, Brandon’s fate appeared all but sealed.

Suddenly the moribund mood of a depressed fan base was instantly invigorated—and its attention immediately turned to what’s next.  To most fans the script was/is clear.

  • Get a new athletic director in place with deliberate speed.

  • Fire Brady Hoke.

  • Hire Jim Harbaugh.

But after listening to Michigan’s new President Mark Schlissel a few times in recent weeks, I wonder if those going all-in on the above approach are setting themselves up for disappointment.

Before we proceed any further let me make something clear to those whose emotional myopia clouds their thinking so much that they have trouble achieving their usual level of comprehension:  I’m not making a statement about how I think things should be. I’m making a statement about how I think they already are.  That’s a necessary qualifier in the day and age of shooting the messenger.

With that out of the way I’m going to assume that lucidity is now the order of the day.

It is no doubt clear at this point that most Michigan fans/alums are a monolith of unified thought on the proper way forward for their football program.  But is that thought congruent with that which is held by leadership?


When it comes to getting a new athletic director in place, many of Michigan’s “stakeholders” believe time is of the essence.  That’s because their desired succession plan is heavily reliant upon fitting into a particular “coach-hiring, recruiting-class-retaining” window. For Schlissel, though, timing as it relates to football appears to be a secondary concern.

“I want to take a long as necessary to find a person that matches the set of ideals and is a great fit for what I think is actually the best opportunity for an athletic director in the country,” Schlissel said Friday.  “So I don’t have a particular time frame.  I have excellence in mind.”

Mark Schlissel & Jim Hackett (Joshua Lott, Getty Images)

That jibes with the comments in recent days from alums that came in contact with interim athletic director Jim Hackett.  They report being told his tenure could be longer than the few weeks or months many fans are visualizing.

Simply put, the priority is to find the “right guy” no matter how long it takes.  Hackett has been empowered to make all departmental decisions in the meantime, including dismissing the current coaching staff if he sees fit.  He could obviously go the next step and head up a committee that hires the next coach, though the interim tag might be a hindrance to a candidate that puts a premium on the knowledge of who he’ll be working for, and how much control he’ll have.  But even that might not be the most significant hurdle.  That distinction may go to whether or not the candidate (or what it takes to get the candidate) fits with this new ideal.

Not an Unfamiliar Stance

A clear understanding of Schlissel’s vision isn’t yet held by those outside of his immediate circle, and it may not be until the pivotal decisions on the athletic director and coach are finally made.  That said, Friday’s brief discussion with the media leant more substance to his previously vague references to the needed culture change within the athletic department.

Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski asked a profound question that got to the root of the matter.

“Do you think football is too big in any sense at all,” Wojnowski asked.

“That’s a difficult question,” Schlissel replied, beginning his response.

Maybe the difficulty stems from an answer that many might consider to be unpopular?

To be fair to Schlissel, he has avoided the mistake of demeaning his stakeholders’ fanaticism as an affliction.  That approach is the antithesis of what Maize and Blue followers saw with former Michigan President James Duderstadt.  During his time heading the university (1988-1996) Duderstadt expressed his desire to steward the school into a new era of understanding the relationship between academics and athletics on a college campus. 

In the winter of 1996 Duderstadt proposed a five year moratorium on television broadcasting of all college sports. During that time “the media and the public would be chased out of locker rooms.”  It was during that period that corrective action could be taken against what he saw as people’s distorted view of university ideals.  That was a problem that he felt manifested itself in a number of ways.

James Duderstadt, Getty Images

Wrote Duderstadt, “College sports have become a major source of public entertainment in America. Coaches and players have become media celebrities. Dollars from television have distorted institutional priorities. The media has created a feeding frenzy in which sports columnists have imitated gossip columnists in their efforts to pander to public curiosity. They have distorted intercollegiate athletics from its original status as an extracurricular activity to a form of show business. The traditional organizations that should be resisting this, such as the NCAA or the conferences, have become too unwieldy and cumbersome to be effective -- and they have been co-opted by the lure of additional television dollars.

My hypothesis is simple: as long as colleges continue to allow the media, whether electronic or print, to promote and pressure college sports to become an entertainment industry, there will be little progress on true reform. Until colleges insist on the primacy of academic objectives and values over those of athletic competitiveness, visibility, and financial bottom line, true reform is impossible. My fear is that few universities and athletic conferences and athletic associations have been able to withstand the tremendous pressure and rewards of "big time athletics," not to mention their alumni, public, and governing boards. Few institutions have insisted on the dominance of academic principles over financial and entertainment objectives.

In the 18 years since Duderstadt penned those words, the CBS contract has multiplied by a factor of 11, endorsement deals are higher than ever, conference realignment and dismantling has reached a fevered pitch, and there is finally a football playoff.  Surely Duderstadt believes intercollegiate athletics have devolved into a sports incarnation of Sodom and Gomorra.  And he probably isn’t an island with the point of view.

That speaks to an age old debate (some would say conflict) between academics and athletics that transcends the borders of the University of Michigan, and is argued on campuses across the country. On one side of the aisle is the view that the purpose and regard for universities should always be a function of their respective academic profiles, and not of how well they perform on the gridiron or hardwood.  Any hierarchy that doesn’t place academics clearly as the most noticeable aspect of a school’s identity is an affront to the scholastic sensibilities of a Duderstadt disciple.  On the other side is the view that athletics at their best are portals through which more attention can be brought the university’s lifeblood, i.e. its academics.

Where Michigan’s current president falls in that debate hasn’t been explicitly stated, but a reasonable inference can be made about his leanings from the rest of his answer to Wojnowski.

“I think football is extremely important to our community,” Schlissel continued.  “You can tell by (how) we’re sitting here ringing our hands that maybe there will be 95,000 instead of 110,000 people watching a football game; so it’s really important to a lot of people in lots of positive ways.  I think the sport of football and college athletics in general is certainly a matter for discussion and debate around the country.  I’d like to develop clearer opinions, I’d like to work with our interim and our new athletic director to contribute to the process of the evolution of college athletics in a direction that I think is more closely linked to the fact that these are academic institutions and students are here for both an education and to pursue the sports they love..  But that’s as far as I’m able to go right now.”

The Need for Evolution?

Was Schlissel suggesting that it is necessary for Michigan to move in that “enlightened” direction, or was he suggesting that other universities need to follow path that the Maize and Blue is currently a part of blazing?  It’s an important distinction because the school he now heads has been modeling the athletic/academic balance he describes for a while now. 

  • The football program has graduated 69 or 69 seniors since Hoke arrived.

  • Last summer’s APR (Academic Progress Rate) score for football was the highest it has ever been at 985 and had its highest four-year average at 975.

  • Women's gymnastics, men's cross country, women’s’ water polo, and volleyball received perfect APR scores of 1000. Women’s basketball almost made that list, falling just short with a 995

  • The men’s basketball team finished with a 990 APR.

Michigan’s perceived leadership on the balance issue can also be seen on the recruiting trail. Take the Wolverines’ top commitment in the current class, Saginaw Heritage wide receiver Brian Cole.  Of all the appealing attributes that compelled his pledge, there was one characteristic his father described as truly unique.

“We got an opportunity to hear Shari (Acho) speak about the program there at Michigan, which is a great program,” Mr. Cole stated.  “The M-PACT (The Michigan Professional and Career Transition) program is a tremendous program.  That’s one of the things that really excites us about Michigan.  (It’s about) taking care of student-athlete part of it and (making sure) that the kids are going to be okay whether they continue to play football or not which is most important.  One of the biggest things for us is I like how Shari said football is secondary versus their education.  I like that and we believe that as a family, and that’s just really big.  We’ve been to some different places and I haven’t really seen a program like that one.  So it is really different and it is really appealing.”

So in essence Michigan is already one of the leaders of the academic/athletic evolution.

Based on Schlissel’s public addresses, that’s not news to him. Therefore this makes me think the balance that he is speaking of is that which Duderstadt spoke to: balance as it relates to what the university emphasizes and thereby purports itself to be.  To be clear, I don’t think Schlissel is advocating the collegiate sports apocalypse that Duderstadt was, but subtly I think he is saying some of the same things.

So What Now?

Schlissel diagnosed many of Michigan’s stakeholders with pinpoint accuracy.  There is handwringing over attendance dipping below 100,000.  Athletics are very important at U-M—so important that a few major donors informed GoBlueWolverine in recent weeks that their willingness to give was being adversely affected by the tumultuousness in athletics.  Which brings us back to Wojnowski’s final question to Schlissel: are major college athletics too big?

Jim Harbaugh / Getty Images

I think the current president probably thinks they are.  I think he would like for Michigan to model the perspective that he believes is lacking across the intercollegiate landscape.  If those impressions are indeed true (which is something only time will truly tell), then a followup question would be: would one espouse that ideology in one breath, then pay a coach at the top of the collegiate scale in the next? It’s question that must be faced when dealing with the Jim Harbaugh expectation—because big time coaches get big time salaries.

Ask Alabama’s Nick Saban. He is thought to be the top college coach in the country and he just inked an extension for $7 million per year.  Alabama boosters kicked in additional $3.1 million this year to pay off his family home. On the basketball side of things Kentucky’s John Calipari signed a seven year $52 million extension last summer.  Even academic bastion Duke broke the bank last season and paid Mike Krzyzewski $9.68 million.

An idealist might look at those salaries as ridiculously exorbitant and a further bastardization of the amateurism concept.  Michigan, for example, can legitimately claim that its relative frugality on the hardwood has reaped amazing rewards. John Beilein made around $2.5 million last year and is widely regarded of as one of the best coaches in the country. With the aid of one of the nation’s best trio of assistants he has made his program into a consistent Big Ten and NCAA Tournament threat. 

On the football side of things Michigan’s fiercest rivals have been able to achieve similar success without keeping up with the Joneses. At Michigan State Mark Dantonio had been making $1.99 million before a raise last summer bumped him up to $3.64 million. Ohio State plucked Jim Tressel from Division I-AA Youngstown State in 2001, and by the time of his dismissal in 2010 season he was making $3.5 million.

While those examples illustrate the real possibility that the “right guy” can be had at a fraction of the big time coach price, a pragmatist would look at Michigan’s situation much differently. If making a third coaching change in seven years is the course chosen, one could argue that aversion to risk has to be a chief criterion.    In that vein, moving on at this stage should mean targeting the surest thing possible.  That “surest thing” would unquestionably be Jim Harbaugh.

Bo Schembechler and Jim Harbaugh / Getty Images

The guy can flat out coach.  He doesn’t just turn programs around, he turns them around quickly.  Assuming no major attrition, Michigan would seem primed for such a turnaround—because for all of the critiques of Brady Hoke, no one can legitimately say he hasn’t recruited well.  Depleted positions have been fortified, the roster is stabilized, and next season The Wolverines should benefit from being mature.  That just makes the scenario more advantageous for replacement candidate one-two-and-three, Mr. Harbaugh, even more ideal.  Few if any would disagree, no matter the cost.  Considering he signed contract with the 49ers that paid him a base salary of $5 million per year, BEFORE he took a team to three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl, it was reasonable to assume that it would cost the $6-plus million to lure him back to Ann Arbor. Especially when other suitors would be willing to pay it.

I suppose it’s possible that Harbaugh could be like Bo Schembechler in more ways than are already apparent.  Bo did turn down the richest contract in college football history when Texas A&M offered to triple his salary in 1982.  But if no hometown discount is possible, would Michigan be okay with setting the salary bar?

Petulant Screaming Time

The emotional responses have already begun—and here are my answers to some of them.

“Sam, (Schlissel) is smart enough to know they can afford it.”

I realize that, but what Michigan can afford isn’t even remotely the point I’m making, now is it?

“Sam, they will lose the people that are upset about them not being willing to fight the SEC fire with fire.”

That may be true in the short term, but fans will return en masse if “some other right guy” gets hired and wins, right?

With that said, what are the possibilities of what could happen—in order of likelihood?

Here are my opinons…

  • The most likely scenario is Michigan decides change. A committee is formed with an emphasis placed on finding the right guy that will win on the field and strike the kind of balance in keeping with the aforementioned ideal.

All of the remaining are possibilities, though less likely than the scenario mentioned above….

  • Michigan loses more games down the stretch and a decision is made to relieve Hoke before a permanent athletic director is selected. An interim coach (Nussmeier?) is named.

  • Michigan wins out and Hoke retains his job.

  • Michigan opts for change, leadership is convinced by the masses that the compromising ideals is an overstated and antiquated concern, pays Jim Harbaugh the $6-7 million dollars his talent will command, promises the lack of interference/control he pines for in his current job whether the new athletic director is in place or not.

Any possibility other than the last one is utterly grotesque to most readers.  It belies those readers’ own personal sense of logic and reason—so it just can’t be possible, right? I concede that above are my impressions, and opinions.  I concede those impressions could be off.  Maybe the president was talking about evolving on the football field and getting results commensurate with the classroom success? Maybe he meant he wants Michigan to highlight and promote an inter-collegiate evolution toward an academic athletic model like one in Ann Arbor? Maybe the president’s position is as described but he is extremely malleable guy and he will be the one doing the evolving?

Now that you’ve gotten those dismissals out your system, ask yourselves the following question.

What if my impressions are absolutely correct?

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