The Michigan football program is undoubtedly one of the most important institutions at the University. Many displays of school spirit involve sporting a football jersey around campus or cheering on the football team at the Big House. But lately, being a Michigan fan hasn’t maintained its appeal. The team has been shrouded in issues of NCAA violations, lack of public support for the coach and serious concerns about the future of the program. And with coach Rich Rodriguez heading out of Ann Arbor, it’s crucial that decisions about the team’s future are centered on restoring public perception of the program to a level consistent with the winngingest program in college football.

Rodriguez was fired yesterday afternoon — a decision that was announced at a press conference by University Athletic Director David Brandon. Rodriguez’s overall record, Big Ten record and bowl game performance were all concerns that have been subject to much recent discussion. At the press conference, Brandon talked about the variety of factors that went into his decision and the need for a change within the program. No decision has been made yet about who the next coach will be — though many names have been tossed around — but Brandon has criteria in mind. He also wants to return the team to its former status of Big Ten champions and national championship contenders.

Football at the University is a culture in and of itself. With one of the largest alumni bases of any school, Michigan football fans can be found around the world. And while fans want the team to win games and be associated with success, it’s equally important that the team is associated with a positive image. Lately, this hasn’t been the case. It’s unfair to blame this entirely on Rodriguez, but when a new coach comes in he is going to need to change more than just the defense. Brandon spoke at the press conference about fan expectations and the importance of the team meeting these expectations. The new coach needs to restore the program to the level that fans expect of Michigan football and regain the support of the University community.

While football is important for the spirit of the school, the reality is that it’s a business. The team generates millions of dollars in revenue each year, and Rodriguez was one of the highest-paid coaches in the sport, making more than $2.5 million in 2009, according to a USA Today report. Additionally, a large portion of the team’s funding comes from alumni donations and many alumni have expressed their dissatisfaction with the program’s downturn. Michigan football can’t continue to generate money for itself, and the city of Ann Arbor if an unsuccessful team turns off fans. An underperforming team is bad for the business of Michigan football, which makes finding a successful coach that much more important.

Big Ten schools are about sports, and the University is no exception. While athletics is by no means the most important focus on campus, it’s indisputably part of the campus culture. Whether the new coach is a “Michigan Man” or someone less familiar, he needs to understand what football means to the school, and he must meet expectations.

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