It's going all wrong in Ann Arbor.
When the University of Michigan's regents chose a doctor with an Ivy league pedigree and no experience overseeing big-time college sports to be president, they figured they had David Brandon — the athletic director touted by one wealthy donor, Stephen Ross, as the best AD in the country.
Not according to Wolverine Nation. Its faithful are organizing protests and inundating regents with indignant emails calling for the ouster of Brandon and his hand-picked football coach, Brady Hoke.
A 2-3 start can do that. Add the prospect of more losses to an embarrassing episode in last week's loss to Minnesota that raises serious questions (and tempers) about the program's competence and candor, and it's not a stretch to suggest Michigan's seven years of pain are headed for their own lost decade.
Because they are, however Saturday's game against Rutgers and the rest of the Big Ten season unspools. The only thing worse than instability for a major college football program is chaos.
This is foreign territory for Michigan, for the winningest program in college football and for Brandon. The longtime CEO of Dominos Pizza Inc., a former regent himself, was touted as a possible Republican candidate for governor until he accepted the offer in 2010 to become AD of his alma mater.
He arrived a marketing savant with visions to leverage the block M into larger budgets, refurbished facilities, bigger fund-raising campaigns, more varsity programs and wins. He possessed a keen sense of PR and timing, a knack for reading politics and avoiding traps.
He didn't waste time. He added lights to Michigan Stadium; engineered refurbishment of Crisler and Yost arenas, the field hockey and softball centers; added leadership and career counseling for student-athletes; helped raise $180 million in first year of the university's capital campaign, including $100 million from Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins.
But change at tradition-bound Michigan comes hard, especially with a losing football team. His marquee hire of Hoke is proving disastrous; his marketing moves and efforts to boost attendance are alienating students and fans, even if they make long-range sense; his PR savvy recently has gone missing, evidence that he is either a) trying to lower his profile; b) embattled; or c) both.
He and Hoke are the most prominent targets, but they're not the only ones under fire. The regents and their new president, the former provost of Brown University, in the weeks ahead face a delicate balancing act fraught with unenviable choices:
They can deliver the scalps demanded by students, alumni and the sports media, mainly for the grievous mistake of putting a concussed quarterback back in a game. Or resist and apologize yet again, risking continued national opprobrium and the likelihood that donors and fans will close their wallets and stay home.
A decision on the situation probably is not likely soon, despite the public outcry. Michigan President Mark Schlissel, on the job barely three months, is signaling to insiders that he "takes careful and thoughtful consideration of key decisions," according to a source close to the situation, and is unlikely to move rashly.
The president "will be judged by his handling on this," said another source. By the regents who selected him; by students and alumni whose donations fuel fund-raising; by the national sports media and a growing constituency focused on brain trauma associated with football and other sports.
It's not an easy call, however clear-cut it may be to fans who bear no responsibility for managing the result. Either carries financial implications for Michigan; management considerations for its athletic department; and a PR hit that won't dissipate quickly.
The frustration is understandable for a storied program well into its seventh year in the football wilderness. Criticism is warranted for an athletic department that evoked the Keystone Kops in its new-story-a-day management of quarterback Shane Morris's concussion.
Compounding it all: an inept communication rollout afterward that cemented the impression that ol' Hoke was being left to twist alone in the proverbial wind until late Thursday by an AD trying to figure out how to rescue his department and his job from the pitchfork-wielding horde.
Then there's politics, for now a faint shadow floating above the unspooling drama. Democrats outnumber Brandon's fellow Republicans on Michigan's board of regents, and Brandon's patron — former President Mary Sue Coleman — is retired.
Will any of that matter? It could for a board that has demonstrated its willingness to politicize university policy decision-making along partisan lines. And if support for Brandon among top donors like Ross begins to evaporate, that's a game-changer.
For now, according to ranking sources close to the process, politics are far less a consideration than the outside pressure on the regents, the president and the AD from good ol' football ignominy.
That's not what higher education is supposed to be about. But at Michigan and other schools like it, it pretty much is.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.