With AD Brandon gone, Michigan now must decide what it wants to become
It’s not hard to pinpoint the day Michigan’s slide from a rock-solid, iconic football program into a bastion of perpetual controversy and losing began.
Though completely coincidental, you can trace it to Nov. 17, 2006, the date revered patriarch Bo Schembechler passed away. The next day, 11-0, second-ranked Michigan lost to 11-0 archrival Ohio State, crushing its national championship hopes. USC subsequently crushed the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. Then came Appalachian State, an unfathomable low point at the time but in hindsight an ominous harbinger of much gloomier days ahead.
They would come to include Rich Rodriguez’s miserable three-year tenure, NCAA sanctions, a brief 11-2 Sugar Bowl respite under replacement head coach Brady Hoke, a primetime shellacking by Alabama to begin the next season, six losses in seven years to former "Little Brother" Michigan State, a painfully woeful offense, empty seats at the Big House, Shane Morris’ mistreated concussion and, as of today, a 3-5 football team.
Over the past year-plus, but escalating rapidly over the past few weeks, a vocal segment of the Michigan faithful decided the bane of their issues was not the football coach but his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon. The former Domino’s CEO arrived in 2010 and began a marketing-driven crusade to reinvent the Michigan brand that alienated the base. Chances are, if Hoke’s team was 7-1 right now, few would be giving much thought to the athletic director’s job performance, but amidst such miserable times his arrogant, tone-deaf handling of a proud community became a rallying point for disgruntled students and alumni. A batch of condescending e-mails the fan site MGoBlog unearthed earlier this week became the last straw.
On Friday, Brandon resigned shortly before the board of regents would have recommended his dismissal. The first Domino has fallen. Whether his ouster will help restore the Wolverines to glory depends on what steps the school takes from here.
What Michigan won’t readily admit is that it’s dealing with institutional hurdles far deeper than an unpopular athletic director, many of them out of its control. Schembechler’s teams excelled in a far different era, one when smashmouth, run-it-over-the-other-guy football was the norm and the Midwest was its leading producer. Today, speed and spread offenses reign supreme. Michigan dabbled its toes in that method with Rodriguez and quickly went running the other way.
Also, college football was a far more regional sport. There was no official national championship game. Reaching the Rose Bowl mattered most. Schembechler never won a national title and went 3-10 in what would later be branded as BCS bowls over his 21-year tenure. Would he even have made it that long today?
Furthermore, no state has suffered more from the post-industrial Rust Belt exodus than Michigan. The winged helmets may still be enticing to 17-year-old football recruits, but most of the good ones don’t live anywhere near Ann Arbor. Michigan’s recruiting rankings suggest Hoke defied those hurdles and brought in no shortage of blue-chippers. The on-field product suggests those rankings were wrong. Poor coaching development has undoubtedly played an issue in the Wolverines’ struggles, but watch a Michigan-Minnesota game, then watch an SEC game. The difference in speed across the field is staggering.
All of this is to say that Michigan president Mark Schlissel, barely on the job 100 days, faces an extraordinary challenge. Not only must he find the right candidate to replace Brandon, but he must do it in an expedited time frame. If the Wolverines don’t reach a bowl game, which seems increasingly likely, their season will end less than a month from now. Newly appointed interim AD Jim Hackett will likely make the inevitable decision to pull the plug on Hoke, but the permanent AD will be the one to hire Hoke’s successor. And that search must be completed in time for the key mid-January recruiting stretch.
Whoever the new AD may be will face considerable pressure to land Michigan’s own Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, because as much as the fans resented Brandon’s ticket pricing and stadium music, what they want more than anything is to return to national relevancy. An AD who’s been on the job for years might struggle to correctly identify and woo that caliber coach much less one who may be on the job a few days. And of course, those fans will mutiny if the first call doesn’t go to San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, even if it seems unlikely he’d come.
Mind you, down the road, Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have flouted the skeptics and built a championship program on overlooked, blue-collar talent. Michigan State is enjoying its most prosperous football era at a time when simple demographics suggest it should be struggling. But Dantonio, to his credit, has built a specific identity for his program and recruited and taught players accordingly.
What will Michigan’s identity be going forward? Will the Wolverines cling to the traditional pro-style system that came to define it for decades and which Hoke tried and failed to bring back? Will it attempt to go tit-for-tat with nemesis Ohio State on the national recruiting trail and bring a little SEC flavor north? Will it suck in its pride and use Michigan State as its model?
Building that identity will fall primarily on the new coach but it will begin with the person who eventually hires him. UConn’s Warde Manuel, Boston College’s Brad Bates and Arkansas’ Jeff Long — all of them with Michigan ties — are the most popular names being bandied about. Don’t be surprised if a call gets placed to respected Detroit Lions president and Michigan alum Tom Lewand.
But as Hoke’s and Brandon’s failures made abundantly clear, hiring a Michigan Man should be far from the top priority in making a new hire. It may be hard for some to accept, but Michigan will never return to the Schembechler era, because the world Schembechler operated in no longer exists. For Michigan to restore a relevant identity, it’s going to need to look a lot different than any before.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.