Michigan’s Ten Biggest Stories of 2014

A look back at the stories that changed the face of Michigan athletics this year.

10.) Michigan makes another Elite 8

For the second year in a row the Michigan basketball team made a deep tournament run in March. After taking care of Wofford and Texas by double digits in the opening round, the Wolverines fended off a talented Tennessee. Key in the 73-71 victory was the play of senior big man Jordan Morgan versus extremely formidable Volunteers front line. Morgan took offense to John Beilein’s plan to mix in double teams on Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes and demanded he be given the solo task of guarding the paint. He did so by out-playing Stokes on both ends of the floor (15 points and seven rebounds to 11 points and six rebounds. The Wolverines advanced to face arguably the most talented team in the tournament in Kentucky. The young Wildcats were an eight-seed, but were peaking at the right time having knocked off a one-seeded Wichita State and four-seeded Louisville. Kentucky owned the glass in the affair, out-rebounding Michigan 35-24, but the Maize & Blue just wouldn’t go away. The game was all knotted up in the final seconds when Aaron Harrison drained a 25-foot three-pointer over Caris LeVert’s outstretched arm. The haymaker shot sent the Wolverines home in defeat, but the run established that Michigan’s success the year prior wasn’t just a fluke. The Wolverines didn’t have a top team… the Wolverines have a top program.

9.) Mitch McGary’s Suspension

Mitch McGary traveled with the teams NCAA Tournament, but was dressed in street clothes until the Sweet 16 match-up with Tennessee. Deemed not far along in his recovery to play, he was essentially a 6-10 cheerleader. But both he and the coaching staff thought the team would be inspired by his presence on the bench in uniform. That decision made him subject to a random drug test conducted by the NCAA. When his test came back positive for marijuana it triggered an automatic yearlong suspension. When his appeal failed the decision about his future was essentially made. He entered the NBA draft. Had he not made that unfortunate misstep he would be the centerpiece of a team that is clearly missing his superstar presence.

8.) Three more Wolverines selected in the NBA draft

Nik Stauskas was chosen eighth overall in by the Sacramento Kings, and Mitch McGary, despite missing most of the season due to back surgery and have his collegiate career derailed by a marijuana suspension, was selected 21st by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Glenn Robinson was selected in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves. That meant that all five starters from the team that went to the 2013 championship game were drafted, four in the first round and one in the second. Neither the Fab Five (three first-rounders and a second-rounder) nor the 89 championship team (four first-rounders and an undrafted player) can make that claim.

7.) Jabrill Peppers signs

Peppers was arguably the best player in the class of 2014. In his four years in high school he won four state titles, and was equally dominant on the track having ended his career as the 100 meter and 200 meter champ. The Wolverines fought fiercely to get him, and they had to fight just as fiercely to keep him when rumors swirled about Brady Hoke’s job security. His signature on his letter of intent was a sigh of relief for one of the most talented athletes to ever set foot in Ann Arbor. “I think his impact on the game is letting them roam around a little bit and freelance and let him play – an Eric Berry style of safety where they would walk him up,” Scout.com’s Scott Kennedy said. “I mean, Eric Berry had 15 tackles for loss. (Peppers) is that kind of a player. Eric Berry, I thought, was maybe the best player in college football a couple of years ago.” Peppers didn’t have a chance to make the impact most predicted he would when an ankle and knee injuries limited him to action only three games. Now fully healed and rested the former five-star is poised to be the difference-maker in year two that he had planned to be in year one.

6.) Mark Schlissel Hired as President of the University of Michigan

Schlissel was named the 14th President of the University of Michigan on July 1st 2014 after holding the title of Brown University Provost since 2011. There was no grace period for the new headman in Ann Arbor. He immediately went about making the rounds to solicit 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. The difference in the scale of fundraising between Michigan and Brown was a significant adjustment, but the difference scale of athletics was an even bigger one. Schlissel found out very quickly just what a vital piece of the university fabric football is when the concussion sustained by Shane Morris set off a series of events that led to the resignation of athletic director Dave Brandon. Schlissel himself received substantial push-back when he expressed his belief that some of the athletes recruited to the football team ”even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year.” He promptly apologized for those remarks and subsequently highlighted the outstanding recent track of record of scholastic success and the innovative academic support offered in Ann Arbor. He certainly faced trial by fire, but he has recovered gracefully. He is popular in academic circles, is popular with students thanks to the emphasis he places on their input, and he hasn’t previously held ideals hinder interfere with the plotting of an even grander football course.

5.) Concussion Gate

Michigan’s on-field performance heading into the September 27th match-up with Minnesota had led to considerable anger in Ann Arbor, but that anger reached a boiling point during the match-up with the Golden Gophers. Sophomore quarterback 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 left fans excoriating athletic department leadership, and athletic director Dave Brandon at a clear crossroads in his tenure. He absolved Brady Hoke of blame for the matter since Hoke didn’t see the injury take place and was at the mercy of the medical staff’s evaluation when determining whether Morris should be put back on the field. A miscommunication among the medical staff was the ultimate culprit, but Brandon’s mismanagement in the aftermath of the incident wound up being the catalyst for student protests and eventually his ouster.

4.) Student Protest

It had been a fall of discontent for Michigan fans and that sentiment was most evident in the student body. A 1000-student strong demonstration on the President Mark Schlissel’s doorstep on the evening of September 30th calling for the removal of athletic director Dave Brandon sent a loud and clear message. The students were upset, organized, and they were willing to do what was necessary to shine a light on the issues as they saw them. Second-year law student Edward Mears was among the demonstrators that summed it all up. “I think over the past four years students have been paying close attention to (Michigan athletic director) Dave Brandon and his policies from the AD,” Mears said. “If you talk about student season ticket prices, which are well above those of other schools. The Super Bowl like atmosphere, the PR missteps, the delayed response in the wake of the concussion issue. It is clear that Mr. Brandon has been out of touch with what the student body desires from their athletic department, especially in regards to their banner sports via football. What really got me motivated to speak out though was the delayed response to the Shane Morris incident and his incredulous statements during his subsequent television interviews. He had ‘an outstanding relationship with the students, which is evident such as the turnouts of ‘Under the Lights’,’???! That kind of percolated into the rally.” Brandon did his best to stem the negative tide, but it was too little too late.

3.) Dave Brandon’s resignation

Brandon’s departure from his post as athletic director after nearly five years on the job brought to a close one of the most tumultuous falls in athletic department history. There had long been terse criticism of Brandon from fans and alums that saw his vision as “too corporate” and his approach for dealing with fans and alums to be “too abrasive.” But the voices of discontent grew the loudest in the last month of his reign. Intense local and national scrutiny of Michigan’s athletic governance followed the mishandling of the Shane Morris concussion incident. After a communication breakdown amongst the medical staff led to Michigan headman Brady Hoke unknowingly re-inserting a concussed Morris back into the September 27th match-up with Minnesota, that error was compounded by Brandon in the days subsequent. His oversight of the process in the game’s aftermath led to Hoke being excluded from diagnosing and ultimately rectifying the breakdown. As a result Hoke addressed the media during his normal Monday press conference and reported in error that Morris did not have a concussion. Later it was revealed that that Brandon’s investigation the day prior had determined that Morris was indeed concussed.

A late night press release contradicting Hoke was sent from Brandon’s office less than 12 hours after the gridiron headman’s false report. The ineptitude was then officially on full display.

That turned out to be the catalyst for multiple displays of protests against Brandon, including a student led rally. The university’s board of regents soon got in on the act with one of the most heavily attended meetings in years. They held an open forum where the scathing critiques were prevalent. Both Schlissel and the regents made clear their intent to thoroughly review the situation, but it was Schlissel’s job to make the final decision. He and Brandon came to the mutual decision to part ways.

2.) Firing Brady Hoke

After taking over Michigan’s athletic director duties from Dave Brandon in November, Jim Hackett’s top priority was meticulously evaluating Brady Hoke’s football program. For many in an angst-ridden fan base the job was seen as a fairly simple one. Hoke’s tenure began in 2011 with a promising 11-2 record, including a Sugar Bowl win. But the on-field performance declined every year since. The Wolverines were 8-5 in 2012, 7-6 in 2013, and 5-7 in 2014. Making matters worse is the 4-8 record against rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

The trend line of the overall record is clear…Michigan declined every year in Hoke’s tenure.

Retention without an extension beyond the two years remaining on his six-year contract would have likely handicapped recruiting and the ability to make any staff changes. Criticism for “lack of player development” was on the rise from other coaches on the recruiting trail, pundits, and fans. The approval rating among fan base had taken a nosedive. Fan disappointment was evident in their lack of support. U-M didn’t lead the country in average attendance for the first time since 1997. In fact the Wolverines finished No. 3 with 104,909 fans per game. That was good for a 6,863 fans per game decline from last year’s 111,592 fans per game average. So when Hackett met with Hoke on December 2nd he decided the time for change is now.

1.) Hiring Jim Harbaugh

Michigan’s landing of Jim Harbaugh ranks up there with the biggest coaching moves in recent memory. It was earth-shaking in NFL circles. Few pundits, general managers, or other affiliated with the pros thought a move back to his alma mater was even a possibility when the job first opened up. Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett was undeterred by such talk, and in exactly four weeks’ time he had his man.

“One particularly famous pro coach who had done broadcasting for many years told me this: You know, Jim Hackett, you didn't just get a great coach… you got the best coach in football today… college or pro, in Jim Harbaugh,” said Hackett. “There are a lot of great coaches out here. He has a brother who is one. We have many of them on our list. But when you ask how many of these coaches won at all levels, college and pro, it's hard to find someone to compare with. In my upbringing I remember my dad talking about Paul Brown because he excelled at all levels. This guy is just like that. I could go on about him. He won 49 games in four years with the San Francisco 49ers, just amazing. And considering that he has really strong competitors in that league, including another one with the initials JH, he faced a lot of competition in the pros and amassed a fantastic record. I think that Jim was likely, no, surely, was a candidate for any of these pro jobs that opened yesterday. And yet, he chose to come home.”

One of the biggest voices of encouragement for Hackett during the process was former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. Many thought he would be a hindrance to the Wolverines’ pursuit of Harbaugh. In truth he wound up being one of Harbaugh most ardent supporters. “I said before this whole process began, I said to myself, I think there is an excellent chance that he’ll come back,” said Carr. “He’s always had great love for this place. Nobody from the outside really knew a lot of the things that were going on behind the scenes. I think that’s hard to do in the environment that we live in and I think it’s a credit to Jim and the way he put it together. I think we’ve got great leadership there in Jim Hackett. I think Jim Harbaugh is a great leader as well, so if leadership means anything, which I think it does, then we’ve got a great start here.”

And for Harbaugh Michigan won’t just be where he starts. He plans for it to be where he ends also.

"I've coached now at the University of San Diego, I've coached at Stanford University, (and) at the 49ers for four years,” he said. “I look at it like I'm going to construct a home or as a construction architect. I think of myself as more of a construction guy. You build a home, and hopefully it's a great cathedral. Then afterwards, they go tell you to build another one. There's some dirt down there, go build another home. I feel like that again. I'm at that point where even though you've done well and built some pretty nice homes, you have to do it again, and you have to prove it again. But I would really like to live in one permanently. That's what I'm very hopeful for here."

That he’ll be doing it for the same salary (not including a deferred compensation package whose details aren’t yet available) he had with the 49ers ranks as the biggest surprise of all to outside observers. When asked why he left so much money on the table in the pro ranks Harbaugh kept it simple.

“I don't have that list,” he said. “I didn't make a pros and cons list. I really made a decision that was from the heart which I thought was best for myself and our family, and I'm very excited about it and very challenged by it.”

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