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Another longtime CEO with scant athletic experience beyond his playing days is looking for yet another football coach at the University of Michigan.

Oh, no, a corporate CEO. Not an athletic administrator seasoned by tours at allegedly lesser schools. Not a former gridiron general wreathed in bygone glory. Not a star player-turned-color commentator.

No, like the former Domino's Pizza Inc. CEO he replaced barely a month ago, Jim Hackett will make the pick for the maize and blue at the behest of President Mark Schlissel. What would Hackett know about the process of evaluating talent or balancing political factions?

More than might be expected. He's just a 31-year veteran of Steelcase Inc., the west Michigan-based global furniture giant. His close ties to the founding Pew family, combined with independent outside directors, presented a unique set of political connections that Hackett managed successfully for nearly 20 years as CEO.

"Jim is interesting, articulate, smart and makes people feel what they say is valued," says one person close to the situation. Another who's worked closely with him describes an executive who "looks over the horizon ... to discover 'what's next.' "

Tuesday, in announcing his decision to fire Brady Hoke after four seasons, Hackett evoked the CEO he'd been the past 20 years. He described a process, the "walkaway" point that comes in negotiations, the "swim lanes" that may or may not converge with a preferred candidate.

Sounds so corporate, that, unfit for the loftier assignment of finding Michigan's next coach. But that assumes the big business of corporate America is somehow different than the big business of Michigan football, and that finding and wooing talented coaches is a dark art practicable only by a select few.

How, exactly? Michigan's athletic department is big business. And no part of it is bigger than finding a new leader for its cornerstone football program, a revenue machine fallen on hard times exacerbated by nostalgic entitlement, back-channel carping and partisan politicking within the governing Board of Regents.

Sounds like a recipe for success — or not. Now that the braying hordes have the scalps of Hoke and David Brandon, Hackett's predecessor as AD, the Steelcase vice chairman is beginning a process that is like, and very much unlike, the corporate head-hunting effort Hackett says he intends to pursue.

Does he want the best candidates? Yes, just as corporations do. Does he know who they are? Most likely yes, the four, six or eight names on predictable lists. That's a sharp departure from a corporate model that could potentially identify dozens, if not more, candidates at just as many companies in search of the right fit.

Identifying top candidates for the Michigan football job is likely to be the easy part, considering the massive assists coming from legions of fans, alumni and the sports media. Infinitely harder, and harder to manage, is what will be coming next.

Namely, dodging the intense media spotlight associated with high-profile searches alleged to be confidential. There's the wrangling with agents, the flirtations with coaches who use the attention to leverage raises and stay put, the skulking through hotel back doors, registering under assumed names, meeting in dreary places in hopes of avoiding the social media radar.

Corporate America it mostly isn't. It is the grubby business of landing the next big-time football coach, a win that can juice season ticket sales, energize a dispirited fan base and reverse the narrative of decline — at least until next year's team takes the field and wins and losses are tallied.

It should matter that Hackett is highly respected in Michigan business circles, that he's a director of Ford Motor Co., that he's on the leadership council of the university's Life Sciences Institute, that he's "able to distill the complex into the actionable," as one associate says.

None of it will matter — not the acclaim, the executive pedigree, the connection to 1970s-era Schembechler teams — any more than Brandon's business chops or his effective fundraising, renewed emphasis on less prominent varsity sports, and reinvestment in facilities meant to the people calling for this head.

If Hackett is judged to have made the wrong call, know this: The new president with no background overseeing big-time college sports programs chose Hackett to make that call and they will both own it.

"The choices about people is a difficult thing," Hackett told a news conference, clearly trying to shape expectations he cannot control. "In business, where I have all the experience, there's no guarantees. But you know you can bet on a process that helps reduce that risk."

In theory, anyway. In football, theory ends when the game begins.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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