By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 24, 2013
In February 2006, Domino’s Pizza CEO Dave Brandon thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could rent out Ford Field the week of the Super Bowl?” So he did. He threw a company party at the Lions’ stadium days before Super Bowl XL came to Detroit.
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The company would celebrate each time Domino’s stock hit a new high, and one time he ordered kegs of beer and brought them into the office.
Years prior — when Brandon was CEO of Valassis Communications, Inc., a promotions company — there was an old, vacant airline hangar at Willow Run Airport in Ann Arbor. With Brandon leading, it was turned into the site of a party. Employees dressed as pilots and flight attendants, there was ambient lighting and a B-52 aircraft gave rides to pleased workers.
“He always does everything with panache,” said Domino’s Executive Vice President Lynn Liddle. “Big into celebrating wins and throwing parties. Fireworks, there’s always fireworks. Wherever there can be fireworks, there are fireworks.”
Fans in Michigan Stadium the evening of Sept. 7 might say that Brandon has brought a similar approach to his job as athletic director at the University. The second night game against Notre Dame, Under The Lights II, brought the fireworks. It brought Beyoncé to the video board, a light show at halftime and flyovers — plural, a handful of flyovers. The celebrities of the Michigan athletics world turned out for the event, too.
Those football fans may also recall a man flying out of Michigan Stadium at halftime via jetpack during the Central Michigan University game. They’ll recall the Big Chill — an outdoor hockey game, played under the lights, at the Big House on Dec. 11, 2010.
As Brandon begins his fourth academic year at the helm of Michigan sports, his administration can be characterized as one of “more.”
More staff members: After an initial reduction of staff from 275 to 190 upon replacing Bill Martin, the former athletic director, the number of department employees has expanded to 308.
More money: Compared to $96 million in revenue in 2008-09, the last full year before he took over, Brandon projects $146.4 million in revenue for the upcoming year.
More facilities: Though renovations to Crisler Center and Yost Ice Arena stemmed from plans during Martin’s tenure, a proposal for a redeveloped athletic campus was approved a year ago. The plans, which include a tree-lined “Walk of Champions,” are expected to exceed $250 million.
More teams: Men’s and women’s lacrosse were added to the Michigan sports buffet as of the 2012-13 school year.
But Brandon’s entry into cutthroat college athletics — and University athletics, specifically — predate his arrival as athletic director in 2010.
Brandon’s roots with Bo
Don Eaton remembers the football positional meetings as part of Bo Schembechler’s teams in the early 1970s. Before becoming an athletic director, Brandon had first-hand experience in the rat race of college sports in its earliest stages: playing under Bo from 1971-73.
Eaton and Brandon, both playing defensive end, were grilled. They were quizzed on assignments and flawless preparation was demanded. They didn’t play perfectly, but their supreme dedication would lift the Wolverines above the also-rans. That was Bo’s belief.
This was in the heat of the 10-year war between Schembechler and Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. Paranoia was high between the two legends, the fear that the other team would win the slightest advantage. Any edge one coach could deploy was considered crucial.
Though he saw game action just once in his career, Brandon was brought up in this crucible — before big money was involved and before commits signaled their intentions on Twitter.
“They just established such a work ethic and such a perfectionist attitude,” Eaton said. “Everything was discipline and work hard: Do every little thing correctly.”
Brandon and Eaton were schooled early on that Michigan held a special place in college athletics. They learned that the University was not subject to the same standards as all the others — Michigan deserved more. It deserved the fireworks.
His hire in 2010 as athletic director may have been his first foray into athletic administration, but Brandon was in the University’s power circle dating back to 1998 when he was elected to the University’s Board of Regents by a statewide vote, a position he held until 2006. As a regent, he played a significant role in bringing in University President Mary Sue Coleman in 2002, who in turn hired Brandon as athletic director.
Compared to Bo’s era, Brandon’s present world is different, but the need to retain the edge remains constant.