- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Max Cohen , Managing Sports Editor
Published April 1, 2015
As a University alumnus and former Michigan football player, Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett had been watching the events of the 2014 football season transpire from afar in Grand Rapids.
But then came a call from University President Mark Schlissel, asking him to take over the Athletic Department on an interim basis after Dave Brandon’s resignation on Oct. 31. Hackett did not even know what Schlissel looked like until he arrived on campus for the announcement of his hiring. Suddenly, he was thrust into the role of Athletic Director.
He spent the early portion of his tenure evaluating the state of the football program, his department’s most crucial sport. Now, after firing former coach Brady Hoke on Dec. 2 and hiring Jim Harbaugh to replace him on Dec. 30, the status of the program has settled down to a point where Hackett feels comfortable looking toward the future of Michigan athletics as a whole.
Wednesday evening, Hackett met with about 20 students in the Hussey Room in the Michigan League for a fireside chat to discuss the most pertinent issues in Michigan athletics. The chat was the result of a combined effort by CSG President Bobby Dishell and the Athletic Department.
Hackett engaged in dialogue with the students for an hour, looking relaxed and at ease. In his introduction, Hackett told the students that he “went from building seats to selling seats,” a reference to his former position as the Chief Executive Officer of Steelcase Furniture. By taking on his new role, Hackett put his retirement on hold.
Hackett held the fireside chat to engage the student body of Michigan to ensure that their experience with athletics is as fan-friendly as possible.
One such way to accomplish this goal was brought to his attention by the owner of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, Paul Allen, perhaps as a thank-you for hiring Harbaugh away from his team’s most hated rival. Though the conversation started off with a discussion about Harbaugh, Allen’s “nemesis” when he was the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, it soon soon shifted to ticket policy. Allen suggested the idea of e-tickets, telling Hackett that fans enjoy being able to access their tickets on their phones.
Though Hackett said he does not yet have anything to show for the improvement of fan experience at Michigan athletic events, he hoped the fireside chat would help him in his research-gathering phase.
The first question was asked by John Lin, a third-year Law student and CSG’s general counsel. He wanted to know Hackett’s feelings on Adidas’ alternate uniforms, a topic that has seemed to divide fans in recent years. Hackett treated the question as a two-part issue, the first of which addressed the school’s use of Adidas as a whole.
“In my first months here, the question of which brand we wear is a big one,” Hackett said during the fireside chat. “We’ve organized — this is a secret — a project team to look at the question of, there’s really three players: Adidas, Under Armour and Nike.”
Hackett said the process of evaluating which brand of apparel Michigan’s teams will wear going forward is still in its early stages. The Athletic Department has sent out questionnaires to student-athletes, and Hackett has spent time calling athletic directors at other schools to gauge their thoughts, in addition to speaking with former Michigan football players now playing in the NFL. After the completion of the fireside chat, Hackett told the Daily that if Michigan aims to switch from Adidas, it will have to do so by the end of the year.
In terms of alternate uniforms for individual games, Hackett noted that Harbaugh will have a strong influence on what the football team wears.
“All the shoes are going to be black, he’s making it more conservative, Harbaugh-esque,” Hackett quipped, accompanied by a laugh from the crowd at his new adjective. “We’re letting him go. Hey, you’re the coach, and he has reasons for this.”
Soon after invoking Harbaugh’s name, Hackett took the opportunity to make sure the students were satisfied with his highest-profile hire. It proved unnecessary.
“Are you happy with him as a coach?” Hackett asked.
Hackett burst into laughter, and so did the rest of the room. Hackett remembers Harbaugh when he was a small child, when Hackett played for Michigan and Harbaugh was known as “Jimmy.”
Though Hackett admitted excitement about the upcoming Harbaugh era, he encouraged the students to keep things in perspective.
“We’ve got to keep our expectations (reasonable),” Hackett said, creating an imaginary ceiling with his hands. “They just have to get the team right. From the stuff I’ve seen, I’m really excited.”
The topic of conversation soon shifted to the student experience at Michigan Stadium and the tendency of many students to leave games well before they end. Hackett believes the issue will most easily be resolved by the improvement of the on-field product.
“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.”
Hackett specifically noted that he didn’t want the games to feel “corporate,” a complaint that was commonly voiced by Michigan fans during Brandon’s tenure.
David Hershey, an Engineering senior, stated his displeasure with the piped-in music at Michigan Stadium, greatly preferring the band. Once again, Hackett deferred to Harbaugh.
On Harbaugh’s first day in Michigan, right before his introductory press conference, Hackett went with Harbaugh to the suites in Michigan Stadium for a conference call. The pair looked out to the field, and Hackett asked the new coach what he thought of piped-in music during warmups. Harbaugh was firm in his answer.
“I don’t care. We don’t need it,” Harbaugh said.
Hackett agreed with Harbaugh, noting that in the past, the loud music has almost discouraged him from sitting through the team’s warmups when he has visited Michigan Stadium. As a result of the preferences of the coach, athletic director and many fans, the Athletic Department is in conversations with the band to have it play more during games.
After the fireside chat, Senior Associate Athletic Director Chrissi Rawak told the Daily that the Athletic Department has also been looking into changing the student seating at men’s basketball games. Dishell recently formally requested that the Athletic Department look into student seating at Crisler Center in terms of expanding the Maize Rage, Michigan’s student section.
“It’s not something that’s feasible for this coming year because tickets have already been (sold), seat donations have already been renewed, so we’re not in the position where we can shift,” Rawak said. “But we’re absolutely evaluating it for the 2016 season. We understand the importance of it, but there’s a process we have to go through.”
It still remains unknown whether Hackett will still be in charge of the Athletic Department at that time. Despite his discussion of numerous long-term goals in his fireside chat, Hackett still wears the interim tag, signaling a temporary stay in his current position. He has insisted on multiple occasions that his length of stay as Athletic Director will be predicated by a discussion with his wife, Kathy, about how long she wants him to stay on the job.
After the completion of the fireside chat, the Hacketts stood at the front of the room, personally greeting the students in attendance. Hackett said he began to discuss his job future with his wife last weekend, but she interjected, lamenting that they had never finished their conversation. Hackett deferred to her when asked how long he plans to stay in his current position.
“We have a granddaughter due any day now, we have two sons, one in L.A., one in Greensboro,” Kathy Hackett said. “We have two granddaughters and this third one coming. We’re back and forth, we don’t really have time. I will answer: There’s lots to be done and he will see to it (until) he feels it’s all good.”
“That’s well said,” Jim Hackett agreed.