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.
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. Just as competitive as Schembechler, Brandon refuses to fall behind in the race of college sports.
Fan happiness and the traditional, simple joys of Michigan sports are fine, but the modern Athletics Department is out for something else. It needs the most money to build the best facilities. It needs the best facilities to land the best recruits. The best recruits to win the most games. Win the most games to build the best brand, so the cycle restarts — over and over.
Brandon has played the role of carnival barker, calling out for all to come see the big-tent circus in Ann Arbor. A smartphone app was introduced to promote steadfast loyalty from Michigan students to the athletic teams. As the department admitted last week, skywriters were hired to draw Michigan-positive phrases in the air on game days. Games have been marketed with tag lines, new jerseys have been introduced and the Michigan Legends uniform number system was implemented, in which current players deemed deserving are given the jersey of a Wolverine great from yesteryear.
Branding hasn’t been the only thing corporatized about Michigan athletics. Michigan is remarkably vigilant in controlling its message. Media access is limited, and players are coached to be tight-lipped. You won’t find Michigan coaches or players straying from the company line.
“It’s no secret that Dave is creating a culture with the Athletic Department that is very defined and is important to his success,” Basketball Coach John Beilein said.
His polarizing nature
But recently, Brandon the businessman has made some decisions to alienate segments of the student body, some of which have led to backlash against Brandon personally.
First, there was the unilateral decision to change the football student seating to a general admission format. That came along with a price hike. There was outrage against the new policy and outrage that the department hadn’t bothered to consult the students about the dramatic policy change.
Most recent was the change in the basketball student ticketing policy. Season tickets were oversold, and a new policy for claiming games was instituted just over a month before the season began. Students were no longer guaranteed all the games they paid for. Their only recourse: get a refund. There was considerable pushback from students, but ultimately, the department found a way to get more seats filled for more games.
Despite his successes, there’s some resentment from students towards Brandon, stemming from the “money-grubbing athletic director” perception they’ve developed in response to recent changes.
But the flipside of that coin is a magnanimous leader, one in touch with the world outside Michigan athletics and intent on making someone’s day.
There’s the gesture of inviting Grant Reed, a 12-year-old cancer survivor that named his tumor “Michigan,” to be Brady Hoke’s guest for "The Game" against Ohio State in November. Then, there was Cooper Barton, the five-year old Oklahoman who was forced to turn his Michigan shirt inside out at school. So Brandon invited him to Michigan Stadium to be introduced at halftime last year.
Of course, there’s the cynical view that Brandon knows a good publicity opportunity when he sees one. But it’s hardly all a front. One thing Brandon can’t be accused of is acting out of character.
Just a couple weeks ago, an employee at Domino’s suffered the loss of their toddler. It was a difficult week for the entire company, where Brandon serves as chairman. Though Brandon was busy preparing for Under the Lights II, he found the time to attend the funeral and put a sympathetic arm around the pained parent.
Domino’s also suffered a rough period earlier in the decade. Sales were up, but the company wasn’t meeting its profit targets. That meant no bonuses.
Brandon went to the company’s board and explained how morale was down. The employees needed a win — something to feel good about. Brandon was able to convince the board members to get everyone an extra paycheck.
“People were in the lobby crying because Dave got us an extra paycheck,” recalled Liddle, his co-worker dating back to the 1990s. “I think he really does care a lot about people and he wants to help them celebrate when they win and he wants to shore them up when they’re not winning.”
When Liddle came to Domino’s for an interview in 2002, she mistook the lobby for a physical therapy clinic. It looked nothing like the palatial corporate playground it resembles today.
Now, it’s an open space with glass walls and low, round glass tables with ergonomic white leather reclining chairs. Strategically placed Domino's logos prohibit you from forgetting where you are. There are LED displays and a rotunda in the middle of the lobby. Look down the rotunda and you see a training kitchen, visible from all floors of the low-rise, Frank Lloyd Wright-style complex.
“That lobby has the stamp of Dave Brandon all over it,” Liddle said. “He actually worked with designers and got all of us involved and jackhammered the whole center of the building.”
The remodeled lobby moved the CEO suite from the outskirts of the complex to the floor above the lobby. Front and center, where he could be visible to everyone. He wanted to be an accessible CEO.
He’d come into the company and made his presence felt. The differences were tangible and often hard to ignore.
When he came in as CEO in 1999, he changed the conservative culture. It was no longer suits for the men and skirts for the women. He wanted everyone comfortable and happy when they came to work. When addressed as Mr. Brandon, he would correct, “just Dave.”
He was never one for corporate speak. He prefers his messages in plain English, so everyone can understand. He’s a proponent of the catchphrase: “Change isn’t a criticism of the past. It simply means the future is going to be different.” “If it ain’t broke, break it.” “Don’t talk the past, create the future.”
His decision-making was just as precise.
“There must always be a vision and a strategy and a way to measure and know how you’re doing so you can benchmark against yourself,” Liddle said. “He’s got somewhat of a formula that he uses that is consistently results producing.”
Perhaps the most scrutinized choice Brandon made was Domino’s self-critical ad campaign.
As the Brandon administration wound down to give way to new CEO Patrick Doyle in late 2009, the company launched a marketing crusade against its very own product. Commercials showed consumers complaining about the quality of the pizza. A new recipe would be introduced. Domino’s was admitting that the product it had cooked all these years was deficient.
The employees in charge of the menu would come to Brandon with improvements, and they’d be sent back. He’d tell them to go back to the drawing board. Domino’s needed a distinctive change, and he wouldn’t accept the new recipe until there was a true, noticeable difference.
It wasn’t the safe move for Brandon, as the campaign would affect his legacy as CEO. But the company knew the pizza could be better. What began with tweaking the recipe, ended up changing the crust, changing the sauce and changing the cheese.
The commercials showed that Brandon had no qualms about making the big move. He was going to do what he wanted.
As Liddle explained, America was at a point where the banks were folding and nobody trusted corporate America. People were losing their houses. It was a nasty time, and nobody was just saying it like it is.
“He will look at a problem unemotionally,” Liddle explains. “He will say, what’s the right thing to do? He’ll think through how will this affect my organization, how will this affect the competition, how will this affect the industry, what are the financial implications? And then he always tries to put a creative spin on it.”
Fighting the three-front battle
It’s said that athletics is the only business with two bottom lines. At a place like Michigan, there may as well be a third.
There’s the winning and the money-making, but then there’s the demands of being at a public research university with a rabid fan base that treasures the idea of Michigan athletics just as much as it treasures the teams themselves.
There are those who see a problem in turning the enterprise of amateur athletics into big business.
As John Bacon, a prominent University sports historian, points out in his recent book, “Fourth and Long,” the athletics budget has increased nearly 40 percent since Brandon took over.
“Operating and administrative expenses” have nearly doubled over the four years. There’s been a 62-percent increase in athletic-administrator compensation, and “professional travel and conference dues” tripled from 2010-11. Even the line item “hosting, food and special events” has increased six-fold.
To fund these expenses, ticket prices go up, all sorts of new apparel are sold and season ticket holders pay for a personal seat license.
As former University President James Duderstadt says in the book, he’s alarmed “how little of these revenues are actually spent on student-athletes — for financial aid, academic support and health care — and instead are spent on the expansion of facilities and the staff, in areas such as marketing. … In the revenue sports, these are approaching levels that are truly extreme and quite unwarranted when compared with other university activities.”
He also accuses Brandon of using his platform to gain personal glory.
“Brandon comes out of a CEO world — and even a million-dollar salary is chump change for those guys. So it has to be a personal payoff to be out in front of a crowd of one hundred thousand, cheering for you. You don’t get that as CEO.”
It may be that Brandon is simply powerless to the commercial direction of college sports. The ship has already departed the dock, and he’s not going to be the one responsible for Michigan being left on shore.
After multiple e-mails and phone calls requesting an interview, the Athletic Department declined to make Brandon or any other department member available for comment.
“The money end of it and the demands of the kids now, that bothers me,” Eaton, the former Michigan defensive end, said. “But we’re competing out there, and it’s not Michigan’s place to try and save college athletics. It’s the presidents of the universities of the country to help control that. Personally, I think it’s gotten out of hand.”
There’s little reason for Brandon to change his style unless university presidents do indeed step in. The Michigan Athletic Department is making money, and when it’s not, it’s being given money, like $100 million from Stephen Ross.
Its teams are successful. Last year, the Wolverines came in fourth in the country in the Director’s Cup, a measure of success across all sports. It was the school’s highest finish in five years.
And even despite Michigan’s place in the decrepit state of Big Ten football, the Wolverines couldn’t be more relevant in today’s college sports landscape. And Dave Brandon is making sure of that.
So until there’s reason not to, there will be fireworks. Always the fireworks.