Dave Brandon on Brady Hoke: 'Every football coach in America lives under enormous pressure, so I don't need to apply any more.' (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor Ė Dave Brandon took over Michigan athletics during one of the most-tumultuous times in school history. More than four years later, the noise has abated a bit, but it never, ever stops.
Brandonís toughest task is keeping one foot in the past while planting the other firmly in the future, a balancing attempt that attracts attention and praise and criticism, and occasionally, some fireworks. Brandon hears it, but says he doesnít feel embattled.
During a lengthy interview in his office last week, he seemed at ease, explaining in confident, measured tones why he pushes so hard to reshape Michigan athletics, and how he handles pushback. When the regents recently voted down his request to use fireworks at two home football games, it sounded like the first subtle warning.
New president Mark Schlissel has a limited athletic background and no connection to this regime. Brandonís hand-picked football coach, Brady Hoke, is entering a critical fourth season coming off a 7-6 record, and the pressure is on. Brandon stands strongly behind Hoke, whose overall record (26-13) is much better than Rich Rodriguezís three-year mark (15-22), but obviously not good enough.
ďWe have unfinished business, and thatís to get this program back where we want it,Ē Brandon, 62, said. ďIím confident thatís going to happen.Ē
Michigan fans must acknowledge one truth Ė if the football team wins, none of the noise matters. Brandon has made a lot of things bigger Ė the size of the athletic department, the marketing budget, the revenue. But for those who long for the way things were, the big stadium is where judgment ultimately is rendered.
With the season approaching and plenty at stake, Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski sat with Brandon to discuss a variety of topics during an hour-long interview:
Hoke is safe
Wojo: Since taking over four-plus years ago, youíve dealt with a lot. But at Michigan, the focus is always on football, and the record under Brady Hoke has gone from 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-6. Are you troubled by that?
Brandon: Iím not troubled. I have a high level of confidence that the pieces are being put together for this program to be what we all want it to be. I have to be patient because I know whatís involved. I know what was here when coach Hoke arrived, in terms of how we needed to change.
We needed to get bigger, we went from one style (the spread offense under Rich Rodriguez) to a different style. Youíd like to think you can snap your fingers and make that happen, but it takes time. So on the one hand, I have to be patient because I realistically know it takes some time, but on the other hand, Iím as impatient as anybody.
I want to win, and my expectations havenít changed one iota. We want to be in that game in Indianapolis, we want to be competing for that championship. We have unfinished business and thatís to get this program back where we want it. Iím confident thatís going to happen.
Q: Youíve said 7-6 is unacceptable, so the perception by some is that Hokeís job is on the line this season. Whatís your response to that?
A: Itís not. Every football coach in America lives under enormous pressure, so I donít need to apply any more. Weíre the winningest program in the history of college football, we know what the expectations of our fan base is. Nobody has to tell Brady that. And I have all the confidence in the world that heís bringing in the right kids, that he continues to do the right thing in terms of getting his staff lined up. Iím convinced weíre heading to a very, very good place.
Q: So you donít have in your mind a record that must be achieved this season?
A: I think thatís great stuff to talk about with your buddies, and everybodyís got a right to their opinion. But to look at it that simply is just grossly unfair.
Last season was a huge disappointment, but I think we lost four games by a total of 11 points.
Those were losses, weíre not making excuses, we didnít finish. But itís not like we were going into games getting blown out by everybody.
Q: Youíve accomplished a lot as AD, and also stirred up your share of critics. What has been the biggest challenge?
A: The biggest challenge is you have so many stakeholders, people who are passionate about what we do, and they all have opinions. So on a daily, hourly basis, youíve got bloggers and tweeters and Facebook and talk radio, so many ways for people to express their point of view.
But what Iíve learned in this job is, no matter what decision you make, thereís gonna be some percentage of people that are gonna disagree with it and create controversy. You just have to know, going in, you have fans and alumni and donors and governing board members and faculty members and department members and coaches and student-athletes, so to get everybody supportive of any one direction or decision is virtually impossible.
Q: Along those lines, it became a hot issue when the regents voted to deny the use of fireworks at two home football games. Were you blindsided by that?
A: I donít know about blindsided, but it was surprising. Just because, No. 1, itís not the most important thing thatís ever happened around here, so I was surprised it got so much attention. The regents have every right to approve or not approve use of pyrotechnics on campus.
Weíve used them before and we got the feeling that worked really well and fans enjoyed it. I wouldíve bet it was kind of a customary, no big deal kind of thing. It turned out differently, and thatís OK. Weíll figure out other ways to create excitement. Iím not sure it necessarily shouldíve been the lead story in the news, but welcome to Michigan football.
Q: The regentsí vote was viewed by some as a shot across your bow. Did you take it that way?
A: No. No. If I took things like that personally, I couldnít function in this job. You know what, Iím happy to accept their decision and move on. We canít always do everything we want to do.
Q: A new president, Mark Schlissel, took over July 14, and he told the media, ďI want to be sure athletics exists in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does.Ē Is this any hint of a subtle cultural shift in athletics?
A: Again, I think people micro-analyze everything that has anything to do with what we do here. No, I donít think the new president was saying anything other than his belief, and itís factual, that Michigan athletics doesnít show up in the mission statement of the university.
I had some time with him after his appointment, we had a nice dinner and got to know one another. I think heís going to be terrific. Heís been on a little road tour around the country, meeting with a variety of stakeholders, and one thing heís learned is how passionate people are about athletics.
Q: You had a strong relationship with former president Mary Sue Coleman. As you get to know the new president, do you anticipate anything different?
A: Iíve seen no indication that our new president wants to make any kind of change, although heís been here two weeks, and itís hard for me to predict. The one thing I think Mark wants to do is learn more about Michigan athletics. He wants to come and meet some of the coaches and tour the facilities.
But most people observing what weíre doing wish they were a $150-million enterprise, wish they got the donor support we have, wish they could do some of the things weíre doing with our facilities. We know thereís always room for improvement, but thereís a lot to be proud of.
Q: Revenue has grown under your leadership from $96 million to $150 million, facilities have been built and renovated, staffing has grown. Is there such a thing as too much growth?
A: The department has grown, for sure, but sometimes what gets left out of the equation is, in five years, weíve added two very meaningful sports Ė menís and womenís lacrosse Ė at a time when athletic programs have been slashing budgets. Then we took the spirit squads -- the cheerleading and dance programs -- which were in the rec sports area and brought them into the athletic family.
Weíre providing more athletic training, more medical support, more mental wellness and academic support, and more coaching support for our student-athletes than we did five years ago. To do those things, you have to find the resources, because we donít get any taxpayer dollars, we donít get any subsidies from the university. In fact, we send a few million dollars up to them.
Q: Iím sure you hear it Ė too much commercialism and marketing. Some of the stuff is viewed as un-Michigan-like, such as the skywriting and multiple uniforms, etc. What do you say to that?
A: The hardest thing we do is try to strike the appropriate balance between tradition and what Iíd characterize as necessary change. A lot of people want it to be the way it always was. I could pull out the uniform I wore when I ran out of the tunnel and it doesnít even resemble the uniforms we wear today.
I long for the day when Whiskey would come out at the end of halftime Ė remember the dog that would roll a soccer ball and when it crossed the goal line, everybody would cheer? People loved that. Well, I loved that too. I want Whiskey.
The reality is, we have to make changes to stay contemporary and stay fresh and adapt to the times. Our biggest competition in college football and college basketball today is flat-screen television sets. Television ratings are going up and ticket sales and attendance have gone down, just about everywhere.
So one of the things we think is important is to provide entertainment value. Thatís above and beyond having a good football team and a great product on the field Ė of course we understand thatís first and foremost. We need to be competitive and win more than our share. But on top of that, we need to make that game-day experience as great as we can.
'Not everything works'
Q: So the game itself isnít necessarily enough, especially for young people?
A: There are things we hold dear Ė Maize and Blue, the Victors, the marching band, the winged helmets Ė that donít change. We donít advertise in the stadium Ė there are two stadiums in Division I football that donít advertise (Michigan and Notre Dame) Ė because thatís one of our values. But when Beyonce intros the marching band, the student section goes crazy and we get nothing but positive feedback. When those guys at the first night game parachuted in with live cameras, we got incredible feedback. I donít think it diminishes the Michigan football experience.
Q: Is there anything you tried that you regretted?
A: Oh, not everything works. The skywriting over East Lansing was just silly. Thereís no need for that.
Q: How much pushback do you get from older Michigan fans and alums?
A: I donít get nearly as much as you might think. I donít pay a lot of attention to the social media stuff because I donít know who those people are and what their motives are. You canít be in this job and do a litmus test with every decision and find out whatís the most popular thing.
A great example is the alternate uniform issue. Weíre recruiting 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids, and theyíre watching programs around the country, watching what the NFL is doing, and these things are important to them -- the stuff they wear, the way we present them.
So our basketball team will be over there in Crisler with six different uniforms and nobody will ever say boo. Our hockey team will have five different jerseys. Then thereís the football team. Do you listen to your kids, your recruits, your coaches and let them make some of these decisions because they know whatís important for their programs? Or do you turn it into a referendum as driven by the echo chamber?
Q: So, alternate football jerseys will remain in the rotation? Like, this year?
A: I canít imagine a world where weíre not gonna do it, from time to time. Because I think itís important to the kids, based on what Iím told by coaches and what I hear sitting in that chair once in a while with recruits. Frankly, I want them and their parents to talk about the academics and the facilities, and oftentimes, that kid will look at me and say, ĎMr. Brandon, will we ever be able to do what Oregon does?í
Whoever is in this job, you have to stay current with the world changing around us, the world of entertainment. The easiest thing we could do is come up with a cookie-cutter approach for a football game, and although thereíd be some people that would like that, I believe over time, weíd lose momentum competitively, because itís not what other programs are doing.
Q: Yet ticket sales have dropped, primarily among the students.
A: This season, weíre kind of getting hit with a double-whammy. One is, weíre coming off a less than exciting year. And then we had the schedule change.
In 2014, our original schedule had us at Notre Dame, at Nebraska and at Ohio State. It had us playing Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern at home. Then fast-forward a year later, we add Maryland and Rutgers and completely reformat the divisions and schedule. We lost Northwestern and Iowa and Nebraska at home, and we gotta play Michigan State two years in a row in East Lansing.
Q: How did that happen, two straight trips to Michigan State?
A: Thereís no conspiracy, although people want to think that. Thereís a computer firm in Chicago and the Big Ten has this algorithm, and you plug in all the variables and the computer spits out whatís do-able.
They sent me the schedule and I called and said, ĎIs this some kind of mistake? Have you people lost your mind?í Well, then you dig a little deeper, and Minnesotaís coming here two years in a row and theyíre not too happy. Everybody is a little bit sore about something, and that was our thing to be sore about.
But in 2015, we got BYU here for the first time ever, we got Oregon State here, we got UNLV here for the first time, we got Michigan State at home, we got Ohio State at home. Thatís a schedule thatís gonna be wow.
The take on tickets
Q: Michigan has a streak of 251 straight games of 100,000-plus attendance. Are you concerned that could end this season?
A: No. Thatís why weíre marketing tickets. Weíve had a little slippage in our season tickets, but not a lot. We lost about 1.5 percent, only a little bit more than we normally have.
Our season-holder ticket base is predominantly fine. The difficulty we have is with our student section. It went from just under 20,000 last year, to weíre projecting around 12,000. That creates capacity in the seats above the student section, but we donít want to sell those as season tickets because we have a strong feeling next year (the demand) is going to be different.
Weíve heard from the students, and No. 1, theyíre always impacted by the momentum of the team, so 7-6 didnít help. Theyíre clearly impacted by strength of schedule. And the third thing is, last year we implemented general admission seating and they hated it.
In an effort to try to solve a problem Ė theyíre either arriving late, or some games we had 5,000-7,000 no-shows Ė we found out what other stadiums were doing, and they were all doing general admission. It was an incentive to get students there earlier, to get a better seat.
It works for a lot of other places, not for us. This year, we went back to reserved seating for our students, and we didnít have price increases for any of our tickets, and yet we see this big drop-off. We think itís a combination of factors and a bit of an anomaly.
Weíd gone seven years in a row without raising ticket prices, then did it two years in a row. So weíve increased prices twice in 10 years. Is that out of control? Right now down in Columbus, you spend 14 dollars a ticket more than you pay at Michigan for a season ticket.
My expectation is, weíll have more than 100,000 people in the stadium, but weíre gonna do some marketing to make sure. I think the 100,000 mark is an important, emotional, psychological thing for all of us.
Q: The home schedule is thin because the three red-letter games Ė Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State Ė are on the road. Should a coachís performance be defined by those big-name games?
A: More than the coachís performance, you define the teamís performance. But the reality is, theyíre all important.
Look, I hate the fact that Notre Dame is going away, I just hate it. But they are. And as you can see, weíre filling that void with Virginia Tech and Arkansas and Oklahoma, and weíll be announcing some more. I think Michigan-UCLA is a great matchup. Weíre working hard to make sure our schedule is attractive.
Q: You and Hoke are linked, because he was your hire. The suggestion by some is you have heavy influence, even to the point you pushed the firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges and the hiring of Doug Nussmeier. Your response?
A: Itís just nonsense. When Brady called me and said he thought he had a shot at bringing in Doug Nussmeier, I said, tell me about him. I never met him until the night before the press conference.
I go weeks at a time and I donít see Brady. Heís down at Schembechler Hall, heís a football coach, Iím not. Iím not qualified to be a football coach, I donít want to be a football coach.
You can ask anybody whoís ever worked for me. One of the things I preach is, leaders get to pick their teams. Iíve never told a head coach to fire anybody and Iíve never told him to hire anybody. But I do hold the head coach accountable for results.
Q: OK, but you spoke at the Nussmeier press conference, while Hoke didnít.
A: If thereís somebody out there who thinks, for whatever reason, that Iím this micromanager pulling strings, No. 1, they donít know Brady Hoke, because he wouldnít work under those circumstances. After all that fervor, next time thereís a press conference, Iím gonna hide behind the curtain. Iíve learned my lesson.
Q: Beyond all the noise, you know it comes down to wins and losses. What makes you most confident it will work with Hoke?
A: Itís a combination of the talent heís recruiting, the attitude and culture of the team, the pieces that are being put in place. My message is, weíre close, and weíre knocking on the door. Itís never gonna be as fast as you want it to be, but I see progress, and I think our fans will this season too.
Q: Youíve been here during one of the most-tumultuous periods in Michigan football history. Youíve done lots of other things in your career -- how much longer you want to do this?
A: (Laughs). Depends on the day. Itís a very intense position, when you have 931 student-athletes, 31 head coaches, hundreds and hundreds of events going on. And itís added pressure because you know whatever decision you make, youíre gonna anger 20 to 30 percent of the people.
I understand thereís criticism about commercialism, but I canít tell you I completely understand why. I think part of it is, Iím an unconventional candidate for this job. Iím a business guy, a CEO for 22 years, so I immediately get painted with this corporate Dave thing. People donít focus on the fact I was a student-athlete here, that I got a degree in education and really wanted to be a teacher and a coach. People donít think about the fact I was a trustee at Central Michigan for five years and a regent here for eight years.
All they think about is, this is a CEO marketing guy, Dominoís Pizza. Am I guilty of pushing the needle in terms of trying to grow this enterprise? Yeah. I aspire to be No. 1 in the Directorís Cup (Michigan was fourth in the all-sports national ranking this year). I aspire to be Big Ten champions in every sport. I have very, very high expectations.
Am I guilty of spending maybe more time than some athletic directors raising money? Yeah. Because we canít re-do Crisler, we canít do $228 million in the football stadium, we canít do $16 million at Yost, unless I reach out to our donors and say I need your help, and thank God theyíre giving it to me. I canít apologize for that because I actually think everybody in my line of work in America is doing the same thing.
Q: Thatís why I ask, with the changing landscape and a new president, if it ever wears to the point youíd leave? (Brandonís contract runs through 2017-18.)
A: This is a very tough time for college sports, with all of this restructuring, reform agenda at the NCAA level. But what motivates me is one thing and one thing alone -- I have a chance to build relationships with these 931 kids. As long as I can still get that enjoyment, as long as my health is good, and as long as my family continues to put up with it, Iíd like to do it for a while. If it gets to the point where any one of those three things doesnít work, then itís time for somebody else.
For right now, Iím very committed to taking care of some unfinished business here. I want to get this facilities plan done. I want to go to a Rose Bowl with our football team. Weíre working on an incredibly important initiative, creating something I donít think exists in college sports -- our life after athletics initiative. Weíve created what we call the Center for Leadership Development and Career Preparation, and Iím as excited about it as anything weíre working on. Thatís what motivates me to do this job and put up with some of the bullets you have to take.
Q: OK, weíve talked for a while, and Iíve saved the biggest question for last. Where do you stand on the Brady Hoke headset issue?
A: (Laughs). Weíve joked about that. I look back at films in his coaching career, heís never marched up and down the sidelines wearing the headsets. A lot of coaches like to hear all this squawking in their ears, but Brady hates it. He says while all this stuff is going on in his ears, he canít be talking to players about something he saw on the field.
Heís also got a kid standing behind him with headphones, and if anybody wants to talk to him, Brady gets on. Thatís just his style. Now, the year we were 11-2, I never heard anything about headphones.
A: Itís amazing how that works.