This is the second of a two-part series on the athletic directors at Michigan and Michigan State. Thursday’s report was on Mark Hollis.
Ann Arbor — The boss arrived early, about five hours before kickoff, at the biggest college football stadium in the country.
Dave Brandon, Michigan’s athletic director, has the keys to the Big House, not to mention a $146.4 million athletic department budget that covers all expenses for 27 varsity sports.
But this is the department’s baby, the entity that drives everything.
Football is the cash cow for Michigan athletics, and fine-tuning every detail on a gameday that brings in upward of $6 million every home game, is when Brandon, a perfectionist, is at his best.
From something as mundane as checking the water temperature in the visitor’s locker room showers, to indulging superstitions, to testing concession food, and everything in-between, Brandon’s day is full of housekeeping work and troubleshooting.
But there also is the glamour one might expect.
“Welcome to my world,” Brandon said, smiling, after it was remarked how early he starts a gameday. “Eighty percent of the time, it’s an absolute blast.”
The other 20 percent isn’t too bad, either. Being the man in charge of has its perks, after all.
He will host the biggest college football party seven times this year, and making sure every guest, a Michigan fan or not, has a comfortable experience is what Brandon hopes to achieve.
Upon arriving outside the Michigan Stadium tunnel, Brandon moves inside to make certain the scoreboards were functioning properly. Jon Falk, Michigan’s longtime equipment manager who will retire after this season, and Brandon then head back to the locker rooms. The two stand in the showers, as Falk runs water to see if it was hot.
“In 2010 when the UConn guys were leaving, someone mentions to me, ‘It’s a great stadium, a great experience, but can you do something about your hot water?’ ” Brandon said.
He was mortified.
“They all had to take cold showers,” he said. “I felt so bad. There’s nothing worse — that’s the kind of stuff the Buckeyes do to us. So part of my routine is to come in here and make sure the damn hot water is working.
“I want this to be absolutely first class. I want them to leave here and say that experience of coming to Michigan is the best place we travel to. Now, I also want them to say that we got our ass kicked. We travel a lot of places, and we don’t get nice big locker rooms, or people worrying about hot water. We really work hard to do it the right way.”
The locker room checklist also includes a gameday tradition shared by Falk and Brandon — the requisite pregame Washtenaw Dairy doughnut from a large box that Falk arrived with at 9 a.m.
“This is a big deal for us,” Falk said.
Brandon admits coach Brady Hoke’s winning streak at Michigan Stadium just happens to coincide with the sharing of the doughnut. So it is a big deal.
Michigan’s individual lockers were ready to go, jerseys hanging before each, and even those don’t escape Brandon’s notice. The maize of the Block M on the back doesn’t sit well with him.
“See how the Ms are different colors (than the jersey numbers)?” he said. “That just drives me nuts. Is it that hard, really?”
“When Dave can see it …” Falk started.
“I can see it,” Brandon said.
“When he sees it, he’ll let you know about it,” Falk said, laughing.
Brandon then joins his wife, Jan, in the visiting athletic director’s suite. The day’s opponent is Minnesota.
Jan Brandon, impeccably dressed and who might be even more detail-oriented than her husband, handles the suite décor as though a room in her home. The name of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague appears outside the door and inside, it is recreated to look like a Gophers home suite with Minnesota pennants, helmets and footballs, and maroon and gold M&M’s as an added touch.
“So when they walk in here, they feel like they’re home,” Brandon said.
Jan Brandon also takes care of all things in the athletic director’s suite, from the food to the décor. She never sits, making sure everything and everyone is taken care of.
With his wife manning the suite, Brandon heads back outside to handle all his pregame visits with alumni groups and his radio spot. Annette Howe, his executive assistant, makes certain his schedule is kept, and they dart from event to event on golf carts.
He has instant-recognition status. He moves through the crowd as people stop, point, whisper or yell, “Go Blue!” The requests for photos are countless, and he accommodates them all.
Back on the field just more than an hour before kickoff, Brandon looks around and sees the stadium only partially filled. The reality is, he said, it’s simply a late-arriving crowd.
“Thirty minutes before the game, you’re like, ‘Where is everybody?’ and then about 10 minutes before the game,” Brandon said, clicking his fingers, “they show up.”
The student section, a general-admission approach this season, hasn’t been perfect. In fact, the student body president this week released a statement that the students will have more input before the 2014 season. But Brandon believes he had to do something with so many no-shows at kickoffs last season.
“It’s working,” he said, adding that having a handful of rows empty just before kickoff was better than most games last season. “We’re still figuring out the best way to get them all seated and feel good about the experience.”
Brandon has another pregame food superstition. One of the team doctors, Dr. Amy Miller, every week makes brownies for the team. Brandon always indulges in one. She was, however, late one game, nearly jeopardizing the home winning streak.
“I chewed her out,” Brandon said. “There are some things you just don’t screw with.”
Back on the field, where Brandon meets with recruits and donors and former players, the Wolverines go through warm-ups. Receiver Jeremy Gallon runs off the field and gives Brandon a high-five. Brandon then meets with Hoke, pats him on the back and wishes him good luck.
As the stadium is near capacity and the gameday buzz is getting louder and busier, it isn’t difficult to see Brandon is feeling like the young man who once wore the uniform years ago for legendary coach Bo Schembechler.
“It never goes away,” Brandon said, looking around the field. “Never goes away.”
Eyes on the field
He spends the first and fourth quarters on the field. Early in the second quarter, he moves up through the crowd, greeting fans along the way, to reach the regents’ deck and heads back to the suite where he spends the second and third quarters and halftime, visiting with guests.
His focus is always on the game.
By the start of the fourth quarter, Brandon is back on the field. He high-fives quarterback Devin Gardner before the final quarter starts.
But even with a 21-7 lead, Brandon can’t relax.
With 2 minutes 36 seconds left in the game, Gardner scores to give Michigan a commanding 35-13 lead. Cornerback Blake Countess intercepts a pass and runs it back for a touchdown. Brandon is so enthused, he points at Countess as he runs all the way for the score. Michigan leads 42-13.
“I’m OK now,” Brandon said, when asked if the lead was big enough.
He is more than OK. The Little Brown Jug is going to remain in Ann Arbor, and another day of hosting the biggest crowd in college football has gone off without a hitch.
And what does Brandon do after a game?
“I go home and go to sleep,” he said. “That’s a long day.”