University President Mark Schlissel and his administration have spent the last academic year working to roll out new policy initiatives around several campus issues — most notably athletics, diversity, alcohol abuse and Greek life. This week, The Michigan Daily reviews the events that got the ball rolling. Today, we consider a year of transition in the University’s Athletic Department.
The overview: The University is roughly a year removed from a chain of events that resulted in a reevaluation of the state of its Athletic Department. Former Athletic Director Dave Brandon stepped down amid general backlash — marked by resentment of high student ticket prices and controversy after former football coach Brady Hoke put a concussed Shane Morris, a then-sophomore quarterback, in during the September 2014 matchup Minnesota.
The changes: Since University President Mark Schlissel’s arrival on campus, drastic changes have been made. Student season football ticket prices fell from $295 to $175. The team is 3-1, and is ranked at No. 22 in the AP Top 25 poll. Coach Jim Harbaugh has lived up to the hype so far, and Schlissel attributes much of the Athletic Department’s success to Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett.
The context: When the University hired Schlissel last year, no one quite knew what to expect with regard to the Athletic Department going forward.
Previously the provost of Brown University, Schlissel came from a school with a far less prestigious athletic pedigree. While Brown competes in 37 varsity sports to Michigan’s 27, almost none are on the same level. The brand is lesser known, the level of competition lower and the revenue far smaller.
As a symbolic measure of comparison, Michigan Stadium’s listed capacity is 107,601 spectators. Brown Stadium’s is 20,000.
Schlissel stepped into a world that was, at least in this respect, much different than the one he left. While he doesn’t have to run this world, he does have to oversee it, and his first year forced him to be more involved than a number of school presidents. Despite this, Schlissel is quick to note that he’s no stranger to the athletic realm.
“I don’t think I was as naive as many people suggested I was,” Schlissel said in a September interview with the Daily. “I’ve been a sports fan as an individual my whole life. I played basketball and tennis growing up, played golf in high school, went to baseball games with my dad. It’s not as if I’m unaware of the sports world.”
The University Athletic Department was at a crossroads when he arrived. Ticket sales for the department’s flagship sport, football, were low, while prices were at an all-time high. The football team was struggling. Athletic Director Dave Brandon was on uneasy terms with the Michigan fan base.
But the department has rebuilt, stabilized and built up its good will with the fans. Ticket sales have rebounded, Jim Harbaugh has taken the helm of the football program and Hackett has pleased the fans, by and large.
Before those situations got better, though, they got worse.
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When Michigan historians look back on this year and all of the upheaval it brought, they will see Oct. 31, 2014 as the turning point. That day, Schlissel accepted Brandon’s resignation and replaced him, for the time being, with Hackett. Since then, the Athletic Department’s personality — and the public’s perception of its success — has changed immeasurably.
Before then, morale among fans was at a historic low. Schlissel took office at the beginning of football season, and that season brought an average attendance of 105,371, the lowest since 1991, according to the Bentley Historical Library.
Many sports, especially the non-revenue sports, were thriving. Brandon had upgraded a number of facilities and had plans to upgrade more, and the teams had been successful, too — men’s gymnastics and men’s swimming both won national championships during his tenure.
But ticket prices and other off-field issues in football bothered fans, and as the on-field product worsened, so too did the image of the department. On Oct. 23, 2014, in a dual announcement with the Central Student Government, the department lowered student season ticket prices from $280 to $175. It seemed like a last-ditch effort to save Brandon’s job, but it wasn’t enough.
Schlissel said student backlash went “beyond having a football team that didn’t achieve a record that met people’s expectations.”
“It was part of the issue, why people were anxious, but it wasn’t the main issue,” he told the Daily in September. “I think, what people felt was, football in particular and perhaps the other sports were becoming more distant from the campus. That they were becoming more of an enterprise and less of an activity. I think our non-athlete students … felt estranged — they felt like customers.
“I think we’ve gone a long way in the months since … to reset the way the Athletic Department views its role on the campus,” he added.
When Brandon resigned on Oct. 31, Michigan was 3-5 and coming off a second straight blowout loss at Michigan State University. Students had printed shirts that read “Fire Dave Brandon” and planned to wear them to the next day’s home game against Indiana University. Chants calling for Brandon’s firing had become regular at Michigan Stadium.
The Athletic Department had been embarrassed off the field during Schlissel’s first months, too. There were, of course, the lighthearted incidents, such as the promotion to give away two free tickets with the purchase of two Coke products at the Michigan Union.
But more serious, of course, was the incident regarding quarterback Shane Morris’ injury against the University of Minnesota on Sept. 27, just more than three weeks into Schlissel’s tenure. Morris sustained a jarring hit to the helmet and was slow to get up early in the fourth quarter. Then-head coach Brady Hoke then left him in the game for one play, took him out and re-inserted him three plays later.
That incident, and the University’s handling of it in the coming days, became a national story for the entire week that followed. Brandon stood by Hoke, and vice versa, but it became clear at that point that change was inevitable.
In this atmosphere, Schlissel handed Hackett the keys to the Athletic Department and asked him to start picking up the pieces.
Little by little, Hackett has turned around the perception of Michigan athletics in the eyes of fans. His biggest step in doing so — almost as big as Schlissel hiring him — was bringing Harbaugh to Ann Arbor.
“I think hiring Coach Harbaugh was fantastic,” Schlissel said. “I think he was the … best coach on the market, college or pro, at the time we were looking for a coach. So boy, that was fortunate for us that he was available. And it was a testimony to the recruiting skills of Jim Hackett, but also the allure of the University of Michigan to an alum who sort of grew up here.”
Overall, Schlissel added, Harbaugh’s presence on campus marks a “wonderful honeymoon.”
Exactly four weeks passed between the day Hackett fired Hoke and the day Harbaugh was introduced as head coach. Hackett had his sights set on Harbaugh for much of that time, and in the end events conspired to allow Harbaugh to fly on a private plane to Michigan on Dec. 29, 2014.
The coach has dominated headlines for most of the past eight months, but Hackett has still been busy in the shadows. He has had the benefit of a new supporting cast as well. That includes Chrissi Rawak, who heads external relations and strategic initiatives, and Rob Rademacher, who heads facilities and day-to-day operations. Hackett also brought in Bob De Carolis, the former Oregon State University athletic director, as a senior adviser.
Hackett has not set a timetable for his future as athletic director. His title still carries the “interim” tag, and though it hasn’t been discussed much lately. He took the job soon after retiring as chief executive of Steelcase Furniture, and he hasn’t decided on his future between Michigan and his family.
When he was asked in April about how long he plans to have the job, his wife, Kathy, interjected. At that time, the Hacketts had two sons, two grandchildren and a third grandchild on the way and had to balance family and the job.
“We’re back and forth, we don’t really have time,” Kathy Hackett said. “I will answer: There’s lots to be done and he will see to it (until) he feels it’s all good.”
Once Hackett replaced Brandon and public reaction to the Morris controversy died down, the rebuilding process could begin. In the days after Morris’ injury, Schlissel called for “a thorough review of our in-game player safety procedures, particularly those involving head injuries.”
Brandon called for two immediate changes to the injury protocol. First, he put an “athletic medicine professional” in the press box to have a bird’s-eye view of the game as well as the benefit of replay. He also said the department was “examining how to reinforce our sideline communication processes” to communicate that information.
The review Schlissel requested was published on the University’s website on April 16. It concluded that the University’s medical team, medical staff on the field, abilities of the medical team and policies regarding health were all comparable to other schools from the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
The review did, however, call for an extra trainer in the press box instead of on the field to provide an overhead view. It also laid out a plan for communication between the trainers during the game to avoid another incident similar to what happened last September. That effort has been in effect this fall at Michigan Stadium.
The concussion incident was only one roadblock in the Athletic Department’s way as it tried to overcome the problems of 2014. The changes appear to have accomplished that as Michigan forges on toward a new future.
The final effects of many of Hackett’s actions have yet to be determined, but the decisions he has made, he has made with conviction.
Earlier this year, Harbaugh hired childhood friend and Marine veteran Jim Minick as his director of operations. Minick was later promoted to associate athletic director for football, was arrested for drunk driving on May 8 and blew a blood alcohol concentration of 0.185. On July 8, Hackett revealed that he had refused a letter of resignation from Minick.
“This is a man who served seven tours of duty (in the Marines),” Hackett said. “Selflessness is a way I would describe him. He got thousands of e-mails, most of them from people who served in war with him, urging him to soldier through this.
“He and I had deep conversations about it, and I was convinced this is a guy who will learn from this mistake.”
In the same meeting with reporters, he said he declined an offer for the Michigan football team to play a game at a neutral site in front of 160,000 fans.
“I thought about it,” Hackett said. “But I don’t think that’s going to be the kind of game you’ll want to see.”
One of his biggest decisions has been signing a new apparel contract for the Athletic Department. After being with Adidas for the past eight years, Hackett chose to sign with Nike for a nation-leading $169 million over 15 years starting in 2016.
Moving forward: It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say these changes have reshaped the Athletic Department over the past 12 months. But the biggest difference might be Hackett’s overall philosophy, which he elaborated upon during an April fireside chat with students. He told the students he doesn’t want Michigan athletic events to feel “corporate.”
“I don’t want to sound sarcastic,” Hackett said. “What I don’t want is more entertainment that’s not football. I think that works in the pros, but we’re in college. I believe college shouldn’t be like the pros. It shouldn’t cost like the pros.”
So that’s where the Michigan Athletic Department stands after one year of Schlissel’s tenure. Schlissel faced a bevy of tests out of the gate, but he, Hackett and Harbaugh appear to have stabilized things heading into another football season.
“What I’m responsible for is selecting good people and making sure that we share a common set of values and we agree upon a strategy,” Schlissel said. “But it’s up to folks like the Interim AD Jim Hackett in the same way it would be up to the LSA dean to be responsible for their unit and its success — and to get credit when it’s successful.”