Dave Brandon doesn’t have an unhealthy obsession with tradition.
In fact, the Michigan Athletic Director and former Domino’s Pizza CEO has been raising eyebrows with sweeping moves that run contrary to Michigan lore ever since he took over. Last March, in Brandon’s first month on the job, he announced that the football team would — for the first time in history — play a night game at home, against Notre Dame next September. He carried out the Big Chill at the Big House event, the first hockey game held in Michigan Stadium. In October, he announced that Michigan would play a “home” game against Alabama in Cowboys Stadium in 2012. And as a University regent, Brandon supported a $226 million expansion of the stadium – a position that alienated many traditionalists and may have played a role in his defeat when he ran for re-election in 2006.
Given all this, it’s tempting to call Rich Rodriguez a kindred spirit. Upon becoming Michigan’s head football coach after the 2007 season, Rodriguez, like Brandon, showed respect — in most cases — for the proud history of the winningest college football team of all time while also rejecting the notion that he couldn’t make significant changes. He set out to build a new kind of Michigan football team, one centered on his innovative spread offense that had inspired praise and imitation among other college coaches while he was at West Virginia University.
But Brandon has something Rich Rod never seemed to have earned: “Michigan Man” status. That’s right, Brandon holds just about the most meaningless distinction ever, the central piece of a philosophy that says one is only worthy of the University if he has lived in Ann Arbor and had some association with the Wolverines in the past.
There are apparently a good deal of Michigan fans and supporters who are preoccupied with this charming but ultimately limiting ideal. And no one seems to mind that the quintessential Michigan Man — legendary football coach Bo Schembechler — wasn’t a Michigan Man when he came to town. He became one through success on the football field.
In his handling of Rodriguez’s dismissal, the coaching search and the eventual hiring of Brady Hoke, Brandon has only reinforced the Michigan Man hang-up. But I don’t think reverence for tradition drove him. Instead, he saw an opportunity in which tradition happened to align with his main area of concern.
Schembechler, for whom Brandon was a backup quarterback, had a single focus: The Team, The Team, The Team. For Brandon, it’s The Brand.
In speeches and interviews, he can’t stop referring to The Brand. It’s entirely appropriate, even vital, for the boss of the Athletic Department to embrace marketing. But he has treated the program like a corporation with an image problem instead of a football team with a football problem.
During a press conference following Rodriguez’s firing, Brandon was asked to prioritize the characteristics of his ideal replacement candidate. First was “a clear understanding of what the University of Michigan is all about.” Second, a “spokesperson for the University,” because “Michigan athletics is the front door to the University of Michigan in terms of the brand and the shaping of the brand.” And finally, someone who can “compete at the highest level.”
That all came before acknowledging that the new coach ought to be a worthy leader for a group of young athletes who moved to Ann Arbor from all over the country because of the guy he just sent packing.
Brandon sees the Michigan Man as the cornerstone of the Michigan Brand. So with Rodriguez flailing in the tail end of his third season, Brandon sought to score a grand slam for the Wolverines’ slouching reputation.
We may never know the full story of the coaching search, but as I interpret what has been reported, Brandon primarily pursued three Michigan Men: Jim Harbaugh, Les Miles and Brady Hoke, in that order.
By presumably holding out for Harbaugh because his Stanford team had a January bowl, Brandon left players in the lurch and recruits feeling uneasy. He acknowledged that this could’ve had a detrimental effect on recruiting.
And in settling on Brady Hoke after evidently failing to land the first two, Brandon raised questions about his priorities.
Hoke deserves every Michigan fan’s support. He is praised widely by those who know him and have worked with him, and skepticism related to his record as a head coach (47-50) is easily discredited by recent history – Gene Chizik, who just coached Auburn to a national championship, had a 5-19 head coaching record when the school hired him three years ago.
Michigan fans can only hope that Brandon picked Hoke for who he is, not what he symbolizes. Time will tell whether Brandon sold short the single most beloved tradition in Michigan football: winning.
Matt Aaronson was the Daily’s managing editor in 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.