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During and after Warde Manuel’s introduction as Michigan’s next athletic director Friday, there was talk from several people about the state of college athletics today.
The business has never been bigger, more publicized or more prominent. No one delved into specifics, but almost every aspect of the enterprise is becoming more popular. The University’s Athletic Department operates with a $151 million budget. Former football coach Lloyd Carr noted how different merely recruiting is than when he coached from 1995 to 2007.
“This is not a job that is honorific or that’s a hobby. This is a job that is enormously complex,” said University Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor). “The stakes are very high, not just financially — it’s really not even a rounding error at the University — but for the safety of our students. This is a tumultuous moment in college athletics, and I think it’s only going to get bumpier. To have someone who has been engaged and involved in that his whole career … that’s who you want.
“This is not a job or a moment to engage in an experiment.”
In Manuel, who will begin work March 14, the University hired a sitting athletic director for the first time in its history. Those who provided input into the search hope that experience will help Manuel navigate the challenges of the job.
“I think it’s important that our leadership, both our athletic director and our administration, appreciate how complicated that is,” Bernstein said. “I think Warde gets that. I think that he, in many ways, has demonstrated an appreciation for the importance of the well-being of student-athletes, the place that athletics plays as it relates to the University and the culture of the University.”
The last search for a full-time athletic director — excluding Schlissel’s appointment of Jim Hackett in the interim starting Oct. 31, 2014 — gave the University Dave Brandon, who came, like multiple other athletic directors, from a business background. Manuel has been a college athletics administrator for almost his entire career.
Just as appealing are his ties to the University as a former football player, alumnus and associate athletic director.
“It’s very difficult for anyone who has not been at this university, or a similarly situated university, to understand the very unique role that athletics plays at this university,” Bernstein said. “Not just the importance of athletics on its own, but the relationship of athletics to a university that aspires to greatness in the academic sphere also.”
At one time, University President Mark Schlissel appeared to be one of those people. Before coming to Michigan, he was the provost at Brown. In July 2014, six months into his tenure, Schlissel noted at a Board of Regents meeting that athletics were not part of the mission statement of the University.
But in two years as president, Schlissel has made several important decisions regarding in athletics, most notably appointing Hackett as interim athletic director, which had positive results.
“What I’ve come to learn, actually, as I try to grow into being a ‘Michigan Man,’ is the cultural role athletics plays in our community,” Schlissel said. “It’s not the core mission of the university — I don’t think anyone makes that mistake — but it’s a deep part of our culture. It’s the window through which many people see and remain attached to the University through the years, through the decades, all around the country, all around the world.”
From 1921 to 1988, the University had just three athletic directors. Since 1988, a span just over half as long, Manuel is the eighth athletic director. The University sought a candidate who could add stability, and Manuel, 47, has the ability and desire to do so.
“This was really the first real search for an athletic director that this university has engaged in in two decades,” Bernstein said.
Schlissel hosted an event at his house Thursday night to celebrate Manuel’s arrival along with people from every part of Manuel’s life: neighbors, friends and teachers from his past.
After slowly stabilizing over the past 15 months, the University hopes Manuel can continue that effort.
“Certainly Jim Hackett was an exceptional leader at an important moment,” Bernstein said, “and Warde is the same.”