Nearly half a year into his indefinite tenure as Michigan’s interim athletic director, Jim Hackett hasn’t been very vocal about his stay.
One of his only clues as to how long his term will last is that it’s contingent on a discussion with his wife, Kathy. He noted it at a press conference on Nov. 22 and now, most recently, on April 1 after a fireside chat.
Maybe he hasn’t had time to finish that talk. After all, he has been busy hiring a new football coach and working to revitalize the fan and player experience at football games. But there’s something disconcerting about one discussion impacting the athletic department’s future.
It’s considerate that Jim Hackett is taking on such a big responsibility with his partner. He hasn’t been more transparent about his stay since expressing that sentiment, though, as the athletic year comes to an end with work still to be done.
Because as well as Hackett has handled everything, you, the fan of Michigan athletics, should be aware of the impact of his tenure on the greater vision of the Athletic Department — the things that don’t relate to Jim Harbaugh.
Jim Hackett says he won’t think of his term as a matter of time; he says it’s about accomplishing his priorities before he figures out his future. That’s a nice policy for building a house or cooking for your housemates, but not so much for the athletic director of a program that saw fans protest at the University President’s house just half a year ago.
He has received praise from fans for his work with the team, but before you get too excited, consider that his interim tag could create problems on the execution of that vision.
During Dave Brandon’s tenure, the University’s Board of Regents announced an initiative to expand and revamp its athletic campus for smaller sports. Part of it, including offices and facilities for field hockey, softball and both basketball teams, was already completed before Hackett started on Oct. 31.
The proposed renovations would impact two-thirds of Michigan’s 27 athletic teams, including the construction of a new track and new rowing facility as well as the expansion of Canham Natatorium and Cliff Keen Arena. You can still see the effort to bring in donations, which is a hefty, long-term project that features teams of associates spread out across the country. Those teams need someone to commit to seeing them through, which can be made easier by setting a timetable.
The funding for the project is a task in itself, and it requires the help from donors, people like Stephen M. Ross. Last year, Ross donated $100 million to the athletic campus, in part because of his close relationship with Brandon — he told The Detroit News in a report published Thursday that he was in favor of Brandon staying.
Ross told the paper, “Michigan now needs to hire the next athletic director because Jim is the interim one. That’s what everybody is expecting, and you can see what happens when people don’t agree with something at Michigan.” If the biggest donor to the athletic department, the one who the athletic campus is named after, is expecting a new athletic director, then it’s important to clarify his intentions for others.
Many people are already on board with what’s done, but it isn’t made easier when he hasn’t set a timetable for how long he’ll be around. It might be tough to convince a donor to give money when they have no idea how long he’ll be around to utilize it.
And how does he build the relationship between the administration, including a president that still has little experience in athletics, to trust bigger decisions about the expansion of facilities or fundraising efforts? It might be tough to approve something knowing the athletic director might be out to see the project through.
Hackett has already worked to bring back the tradition in the football program, letting Jim Harbaugh make the calls on music played at the Big House or even the color of the cleats. These things please donors, because they’re a return to some of the program’s core values, but how much more can Hackett finish before time is up?
Music and cleats are quick fixes. Athletic facilities and stability are long-term projects that become more important in the grand scheme of things.
If he were to leave now, then the department would already be set back to rebuilding relationships with coaches and players again. But being transparent about his stay is helpful in picking the next leader. Then the replacement process doesn’t have to be rushed.
Maybe that person is Hackett, who has filled in admirably. But the athletic year is coming to an end, and you don’t know what’s coming next because you don’t know how long the leader will be there. And if he has done more, you don’t know what it is that he has done because he hasn’t shared.
There’s no harm in setting a timetable for everyone. But what’s the benefit to keeping his tenure a mystery?
As head of one of the biggest branches of the University, Hackett has managed things as well as he could have been asked. Imagine how much more he could do with one discussion.
Garno can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @G_Garno.