Around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Michigan interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett was sitting in an armchair in the Pond Room at the Michigan Union when his phone rang. He took it out of his pocket and looked at the number.
“This is Coach (Jim) Harbaugh,” Hackett said, drawing awe from the crowd. “But I’m going to call him later.”
Hackett had other business to tend to. Tuesday night, he held a town hall meeting with about 30 students to exchange ideas about the student experience in Michigan sports. Topics ranged from the school’s new Nike apparel contract, to the Maize Rage seating policies, to football scheduling.
Hackett’s appearance — and his postponement of business with his famous football coach — came as part of the Athletic Department’s mission to interact more with the students than the previous regime did in an effort to gain their support.
Five senior associate athletic directors accompanied Hackett to help convey the department’s vision.
“I brought help because the way I run athletics is, really, I don’t make every decision,” Hackett said. “I believe in empowering others with great talent — I should say better than I am in lots of aspects of our business — to hear with me what you’re talking about.”
In the 11 months he has been in office, Hackett has worked with his team on fairly comprehensive changes throughout the department. He has reunited the Michigan fan base and revived morale, an effort punctuated by two key accomplishments: the hiring of Harbaugh and the new apparel contract with Nike worth $169 million over 15 years.
The latter of those was the first topic of discussion at the meeting Tuesday. A student first asked about the impact the Nike deal will have on campus. For instance, the contract dictates that the company must hire four Michigan students as corporate interns each year. The Athletic Department is still working on the process of selecting those interns, but the new deal nonetheless promises wide-ranging benefits.
“It turns out the financial rewards, which are extensive, isn’t the whole reason we picked them,” Hackett said. “We kind of assumed Michigan would get its due. It’s a really powerful brand. So we went after thinking about, which one aligns with our notion of, we want to be kind of the smart Athletic Department.”
To shift the conversation with the apparel companies away from money and product and toward the University took some convincing. Now, the discussion centers around the campus: Besides the student internships, the Athletic Department and Nike are attempting to plan community events or teaching exercises.
Those aspects and the product combined to make Nike a more popular choice in the decision than Adidas or Under Armour. Tuesday, Hackett took a poll of how many students preferred each brand in the spring — the last time he held a similar fireside chat — and the answer was overwhelmingly Nike.
At the same time, another student followed up, wanting to make sure that the tradition of Michigan was being upheld, which Hackett said was a priority, though Nike does dictate most of the conversation.
“This is college,” Hackett said. “This isn’t pro. This isn’t Las Vegas. It’s not trying to be super flashy. It’s not trying to be a fashion statement. It’s a statement of a college. It’s Michigan.”
Of course, much of the apparel news at Michigan has centered around the football uniforms carrying the Jordan brand’s jumpman logo. Hackett said former Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson first advised him of the possibility of working with Jordan’s brand.
Hackett, in turn, took the idea to his football coach.
“The minute I took this to Coach Harbaugh,” Hackett said, “he said, ‘Sweet.’ ”
The conversation soon shifted to basketball, where most of the discussion regarding the student experience has revolved around the Maize Rage. In recent years, students have called for their section to take up more of the lower bowl in an effort to create a more exciting environment. Hackett faced this question at his last town hall meeting in April, when he answered that the Athletic Department was working on a solution.
When a student brought the issue back up on Tuesday, Hackett and his team said expansion was still a goal, but it also poses a conflict to season ticket holders. Putting more student seats in the lower bowl could move dedicated season ticket holders higher up.
“It is a challenge, and there’s no promises on what we can do because of that tension between those two groups, but we’re open to having this conversation,” said Rob Rademacher, one of Hackett’s aides and the Athletic Department’s chief operating officer.
The basketball talk included another popular point of debate, the idea of putting two Final Four banners from the Fab Five teams back in the rafters at Crisler Center. The University took down the 1992 and 1993 national finalist banners in 2002 as part of the NCAA sanctions. The 10-year period of dissociation between four former players and the University ended in 2013.
A Maize Rage member on Tuesday advocated for the banners being replaced, citing popular opinion from the group at a meeting Monday night.
Much like the expansion of the student section, that issue has broader consequences, though. Elizabeth Heinrich, the chief student development and compliance officer, noted that the NCAA has vacated Michigan’s wins from those Final Four seasons. As a result, the tournament runs did not technically happen, per the NCAA’s definition.
Hackett and his team said they would be open to commemorating those teams in some other way, but reinstating vacated banners might prove to be too great of a challenge.
Most of the rest of the discussion centered around football, including opponents and the Michigan Stadium experience. One student asked about the scheduling quirk that resulted in the Michigan State and Ohio State games now being in Ann Arbor in the same season and away from home every other season. That was a concession the Wolverines were forced to make when the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, expanded to 14 teams and divided into East and West divisions.
Other Big Ten opponents, as well as marquee non-conference opponents, could remedy that effect, with one standing out in particular: Notre Dame, which ended its series with Michigan last season.
The rivalry has reentered the conversation in the media over the past couple of weeks, with Hackett, Harbaugh and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly all coming out in support of a renewal.
“There’s not a negative force,” Hackett said Tuesday. “I’m really open to it, and I believe in it. I think it’s a destiny kind of game, with two programs — one is the No. 1 in total number of wins, the other is the No. 1 in percentage of victories. They should be playing, and I wanted to send a signal to the whole world that Michigan’s not sitting there mad because they were the ones that exited the last time. We have to get over that.”
Hackett was unavailable for further comment after the fireside chat, but Chrissi Rawak (one of Hackett’s aides who handles external relations) and Svoboda, the department’s associate athletic director for media relations, confirmed no phone calls have been made. Michigan does not have an open date on its schedule until 2018.
In the present, the students were focused on their experience at Michigan Stadium. A graduate student inquired about creating a separate section for graduate students, to help improve attendance. Another asked about finding a way to group people together to make the experience more enjoyable and avoid making students sit alone at the top of the stadium. A third brought up the idea of allowing students on the field before the game as a promotion.
The Athletic Department does not have plans in the works on any of those fronts, but accepted the feedback. Hackett and his team’s main goal Tuesday was to move closer to the students after a tumultuous era under former Athletic Director Dave Brandon.
Before the meeting, the engagement team went over its goals for both the department and the students using a number of charts and lists taped on the wall. Phase one, as they called it, focused on the present, with phases two and three on the near and distant future, respectively.
In the near future, the department vowed to “confront emotional issues” such as lack of trust and lack of voice. The session before the meeting included surveys from students, including “tension wires,” the results of which were skewed heavily toward feeling like a customer over family and feeling muted over having a strong voice.
In the distant future, the Athletic Department wanted students to build a foundation of support at what Hackett went on to call an elite university — with one caveat, he said.
“We don’t want to be an arrogant place,” he told students. “We want to be humble. We want to win and be humble about it and have the pride that this is the best place. But if you go around talking about it, then it’s arrogance. I hope that comes through that we’re not trying to be an arrogant group of people.”