Neal Rothschild: Just call him Dave Brand-It

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Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon has turned heads with his marketing. It's worked so far. Buy this photo

By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 19, 2012

From the man that brought you the 5-5-5 deal and excessively honest advertising at a mediocre pizza chain comes the Michigan Football Legends patches, gaudy new uniforms and athletic events marketed like Broadway shows.

Dominos CEO-turned Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon has implemented ideas straight from his B-school textbooks in branding anything and everything he touches.

This could just be shrewd business, but I fear that a high-profile athletic department, such as Michigan’s, can’t be handled like any other Fortune 500 behemoth.

It seems that more and more, Brandon is making a deal with the devil — earning millions more dollars for the Athletic Department at the expense of the vaunted tradition of Michigan athletics.

The result is that the end product winds up a tad cheesy (unlike the pizzas Brandon used to oversee).

Last year’s night game between the Wolverines and Notre Dame wasn’t just Michigan’s first home night game. No, that wouldn’t be enough. It was: Under The Lights. Oooh. Ahhh.

And 2010’s outdoor hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State couldn’t have just been Michigan Stadium’s first outdoor hockey game. No, it was The Big Chill at The Big House — presented by Arby’s. Golf applause.

There’s no problem with promoting the event, but sometimes a kitschy title cheapens the whole thing.

It was during that night game last year that Brandon introduced the Michigan Football Legends patch. Michigan would be rising above that plebeian retired-jerseys garbage and would instead honor former greats with a patch on the uniforms of current players sporting that number.

Desmond Howard’s No. 21 was ‘legended’ last year, while Bennie Oosterbaan’s No. 47, Gerald Ford’s No. 48 and Ron Kramer’s No. 87 will get that distinction this season.

While you’re not exactly going to alienate your fan base by honoring former greats, there’s something off about this idea as well.

True tradition sprouts in a matter of years — decades. And it happens organically.

What Dave Brandon is trying to do is to manufacture a Michigan past and future all by himself. What’s happening is that the aura behind Michigan’s rich history is not being determined naturally, but rather, over a couple boardroom meetings.

Just like the Big Mac at McDonald’s or Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser, Michigan has its own cash cow, and it’s the Block 'M' and all the tradition that comes with it. It’s the reason why Michigan will always be able to recruit through any dry period in just about any sport.

And Brandon’s milking that cow for all it’s worth. That’s all gravy and Mac sauce if your goal is to have extravagant sales numbers. Not so much if you’re trying to maintain the cachet and prestige that Michigan treasures so dearly.

New uniforms with added stripes, flashy colors and patterns are all the buzz in college football. Oregon has become an empire of speed and neon green, partly because of aesthetics and the Ducks’ partnership with Nike. Other schools have participated in the garish uniform trend with new threads from Nike’s Pro Combat series.

Michigan doesn’t need any of that.

The Oregons and Marylands and Boise States can experiment with new uniforms because they’re not trying to preserve the tradition aspect of their program. Their model is to be newer and sleeker because they sure don’t have eras of championships at their backs. They have to have a different selling point.

So it’s confounding that Brandon and Co. have unveiled several new football jerseys in the past two seasons. Sure, they provide an opportunity to sell more jerseys and they make a splash on the college football blogs, but it appears that under these circumstances Brandon loses sight of what is most ‘Michigan.’

Though nothing on the uniforms is too off the wall, each new splash of colors across the shoulders represents a departure from Michigan’s bread and butter of blue tops/maize pants and white tops/maize bottoms. The Michigan football uniform is what the New York Yankees have in baseball and the Boston Celtics have in basketball.

Brandon faces an interesting dilemma between being a headstrong businessman and betraying the Michigan tradition.

Former Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham was well ahead of his time in branding Michigan and making savvy business decisions to keep it ahead of the curve at all times.

What Brandon has to figure out is whether what he’s doing is more revolutionary, or, as I fear, just a mixture of money-grabbing, Block-'M' stamping moves to build Michigan’s bottom line like he’s still selling pizzas.

— Rothschild can be reached at or on Twitter @nrothschild3.