Well, here we are, one week removed from the revelation that University President Lee Bollinger is likely the top candidate for Harvard”s presidency.

Paul Wong
David Den Herder

No new developments yet. Since most of the University community has spent the last week in an alternate, spring-break reality anyway, I suppose the silence isn”t so weird.

But it seems pretty clear around the proverbial water cooler that should the offer come his way, Bollinger will accept the new position after just four years in Michigan”s top post.

And who could blame him?

Bollinger is like that girl you always thought was too good to be dating you realizing afterwards that you were probably right about it the whole time.

Why was he ever the president of Michigan? Can”t explain. But if he has the opportunity to move on, he will and so too must we. Either way whether this is farewell or simply a time to “see other people” Bollinger has already left an interesting mark on the Michigan athletic community.

Preceded by James Duderstat, a president uniquely outspoken on his views regarding collegiate athletics Bollinger was better known for his established political platform. Taking up the job in February 1997, he inherited a mess a distraction from his aspirations in higher education in the form of the Michigan basketball team. The former Law School dean was alerted to mischieveous goings-on within the hoops program and forced to admit, only five weeks into his term, that Michigan was guilty of NCAA violations. Still wet behind the ears, Bollinger joined athletic director Joe Roberson in voicing support for then-coach Steve Fisher. But almost-daily allegations of cash payments and other possible wrong-doings on South Campus forced the president to continue addressing the matter.

“Any time there is a credible allegation we will investigate it,” Bollinger told the University Board of Regents on March 13, 1997. The policy was prophetic. Less than a week later, Bollinger hired a Kansas-based law firm to assist the University in investigating the program.

By the first autumn of his term, you got the sense that Bollinger had little desire to deal with the ins-and-outs of the Athletic Department or, for that matter, collegiate athletics in general.

Two weeks before classes commenced, Roberson retired from what the Daily was already calling Michigan”s “troubled athletic department,” and Bollinger appointed University alum Tom Goss the first choice as his top sports guy.

The move was significant because it gave Goss total control over coaches, players and programs a throwback to earlier days at the University. Former athletic director Don Canham (1968-88), who many credit for Michigan”s rise to multi-sport preeminence, outlined the gravity of Bollinger”s decision in September 1997. “The major thing here is that the president isn”t going to run the athletic department like Duderstadt did,” Canham said. “But Bollinger isn”t the kind of guy who would do that.”

Said Bollinger that fall, “I do not view it as the president”s job to hire, fire and deal with coaches.”

A month later, on a Friday, the Kansas-based law firm that Bollinger hired reported three NCAA violations. By Monday, Goss had fired Fisher. And by Wednesday, Bollinger was the target of a lawsuit challenging LSA admissions providing the perfect stage for his political and higher-education beliefs.

But Michigan”s success on the gridiron provided Bollinger the stage to play president of the Conq”ring Heroes as well. In perhaps his finest hour presiding over scholar-athlete glory, Bollinger invited a rowdy, ecstatic group of students into his home after Michigan defeated Penn State to earn the No. 1 national ranking. The gesture turned the already-popular Bollinger into a campus celebrity.

But as the Wolverines continued to sail toward undefeated glory, the athletic department continued to drift further from the reigns of executive guidance. After Michigan”s Rose Bowl victory Goss restructured the department and created senior positions that reported directly to him. While Michigan athletes continued to succeed, Goss” department pursued an aggressive new platform that, combined with lower ticket revenue, resulted in a $2.8 million budget deficit by the fall of 1999. The foul-up drew criticism from the regents and led to the appointment of a CFO position within the athletic department. The University community, though, would not realize how distanced the relationship between Bollinger and the athletic department had become until February 2000. In letters obtained by the press, Bollinger wrote to Goss on Feb. 2 that he was “speechless to have found out for the first time this morning about the issues relating to Jamal Crawford ”

Crawford had been suspended the previous night, hours before a game against archrival Michigan State, for an NCAA amateurism investigation.

Bollinger, in a sense by his own design, had fallen too far out of “the loop” for his own liking. The department had suffered substantially, and he”d been embarrassed.

The president began damage control by demanding Goss” resignation (his darkest hour) but had to deal with months of cleanup after that. Bollinger and his top lawyer Marvin Krislov became personally involved, for example, in Crawford”s NCAA appeal process as well as the negotiation of an athletic apparel contract that had collapsed under Goss. Partially as a personal favor to Bollinger, alum Bill Martin agreed to step in as interim AD, and then at the request of coaches agreed to take the full-time position. Martin will now have to deal with the consequences of Goss” decision to hire Brian Ellerbe as basketball coach.

Bollinger, as promised in 1997, will not “deal” with the coach but this time it may be because of more than ideology.

Bollinger is a great man and a superb educator. He has always been destined for academic greatness, and Michigan will be a fine stepping stone. But his mark on athletics here has been measured in extremes.

David Den Herder can be reached at dden@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *