While it may be true that Mary Sue Coleman’s tenure as the University’s 13th President began and ended with an athletic scandal, what she and the Michigan Athletic Department accomplished in the dozen years in between is nothing short of remarkable.
Since assuming office in 2002, Coleman has witnessed the renovation of the University’s three most important athletic facilities — Michigan Stadium, Crisler Center and Yost Arena. She witnessed the football team lose to Appalachian State in 2007, was present for the men’s basketball team’s first Final Four appearance since 1993 and saw the hockey team miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in living memory for most University undergraduates.
“She was the perfect choice,” said Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej. “She understood athletics. She understood academics. She understood University policy, understood working with a community.”
When Coleman began in 2002, the University was embroiled in a scandal stemming from a series of violations committed by men’s basketball players, coaches and former booster Ed Martin. Led by Coleman, Michigan responded swiftly, putting the men’s basketball team on probation for two years and declaring it ineligible for the 2002 to 2003 postseason.
Most importantly, the University vacated the achievements of all involved players, including banners from Final Four appearances in 1992 and 1993. Though the University’s disassociation period with former players Chris Webber, Louis Bullock and Maurice Taylor ended in May 2013, Coleman has stood by the decision she made in the infancy of her tenure in Ann Arbor to not acknowledge the Final Four appearances.
“I don’t think she was forced to make a decision,” said Athletic Director Dave Brandon. “I think the facts and circumstances led her to the decision she reached.”
Following the aftereffects of a scandal she had no prior involvement in, Coleman and former Athletic Director Bill Martin turned their attention to a long-awaited project: renovating Michigan Stadium to add luxury boxes and club seats to the country’s largest football stadium.
“Her biggest contribution was overcoming the skepticism of some of our major stakeholders,” Martin said. “They were very fearful that we’d destroy, aesthetically, Michigan Stadium.”
“I recall the various presentations we would make to regents, alumni groups,” he added. “Many felt it was much too risky. We had to do it because the infrastructure was literally crumbling. … (Coleman) was really instrumental, and I’m not sure it would have happened had I not had her support.”
The facility revamps did not start with the positive-revenue teams’ facilities, either. Under Coleman, the Athletic Department unveiled a comprehensive plan to revamp South Campus, which will feature a new multi-purpose indoor arena, a new indoor track stadium and a “Walk of Champions” connecting the facilities on an east-west axis.
In honor of real estate mogul Stephen M. Ross’ $100 million contribution to the Athletic Department in September 2013, the new South Campus has been named the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus.
“Mary Sue is one of the most prolific fundraisers I’ve ever seen,” Brandon said. “But the reasons for that aren’t necessarily visible to a lot of folks … The donors know she delivers on her promises, is a good steward of resources and cares very much about quality and doing things the right way.”
Even when the Athletic Department — namely, the Michigan football team and former coach Rich Rodriguez — ran into trouble with NCAA violations, Coleman remained a levelheaded, valuable resource to Martin, and later to Brandon when he took over in 2010.
“It was always a conversation of ‘how can we provide more support for Rich,’ ” Martin said.
When the time came to part ways with Rodriguez, Brandon said Coleman could not have handled the situation better.
“She’s not a micromanager,” Brandon said. “She’s not a president who wants to be a partner in making decisions relative to athletic programs. … She was a very easy resource for me to access for advice and input as I made decisions.”
As the Athletic Department continues to innovate in terms of generating revenue and creating a sustainable model for future operations, Coleman continues to be supportive. The University hosted the Winter Classic in January and will welcome Real Madrid and Manchester United to Michigan Stadium in August in what’s widely expected to break the record for the highest-attended soccer game in U.S. history.
“Every time I’ve gone to her with those kinds of ideas, she’s been supportive and helpful and created excitement,” Brandon said. “For some people, change comes really hard. The safest thing to do is what you’ve always done.”
Through it all, Coleman’s priority has been the balance between academics and athletics for all Michigan student-athletes. Brandon cited the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center, built in 2006, as one of Coleman’s keystone accomplishments in that regard.
Coleman’s time watching over Michigan Athletics seems to have come full circle. Just as dealing with a scandal marked the beginning of her career at the Michigan, the University’s permanent separation from former football player Brendan Gibbons in November appears to have marked the end.
But while controversy still swirls on the surface, Coleman’s impact on athletics at the University is undeniable. As Coleman prepares for retirement, she leaves behind an athletic department with almost unmatched revenue-generating capability, plans in place for adding the missing pieces to a world-class athletic campus and the framework for the continued success of Michigan Athletics decades into the future.
“She shepherded this University into the 21st century,” Madej said. “Above all else, she understood how to be a leader.”