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The man charged with fixing the University of Michigan's troubled athletic department is a longtime corporate executive who played center for Bo Schembechler's Wolverines.

Jim Hackett, 59, who retired this year after 19 years as chief executive officer of Steelcase, a Grand Rapids office furniture maker, was named Friday as the interim replacement for athletic director Dave Brandon, who resigned.

UM president Mark Schlissel announced Hackett's appointment at a Friday afternoon news conference, and introduced him.

"Jim Hackett is a highly experienced and respected business leader, a man of integrity and a devoted member of our Michigan community," Schlissel said. "I am confident Jim will immediately begin the process of moving the department forward, including working closely with me to develop a plan to identify and recruit Michigan's next permanent athletic director."

Hackett said he was humbled to be asked to fill the position.

"First, I want to thank Dave Brandon for his commitment to Michigan," he said. "The athletic department is in great financial condition, we have new varsity sports that will continue to make Michigan a destination for aspiring student athletes. Dave worked extremely hard to modernize Michigan's athletic facilities."

Hackett then spoke of his lifelong heroes he was introduced to while attending UM in the 1970s: Schembechler and former President Gerald Ford, a Wolverine football star in the 1930s.

"Both of them would be quite certain that the future of Michigan is not in doubt," Hackett. "They would be reminding us all of the legacy of the extraordinary performance in the classroom and on the field and how that unique combination put us in a very rare position."

Hackett's ties to the Schembechler era could soothe students, alumni and donors upset by the football team's poor record this season and the handling of an on-field injury to quarterback Shane Morris.

He noted that this weekend is UM's homecoming. "This is a time for alumni to remember what has been special in their lives," Hackett said. "The university is here for students. … We're first here for them."

Hackett's former teammates and professional colleagues say Hackett is authoritative, engaging and down to earth.

John Wangler, 56, was a freshman quarterback for the Wolverines when Hackett was a senior center.

"He can relate to corporate executives, and everybody up and down the food chain at a business," said Wangler, who works in sales for Adidas. "Jim has a relationship with all of them. He takes a genuine interest in people, and cares about them. He's a guy you want in the foxhole with you if there's a battle."

Beside his career at Steelcase, which began in 1986, Hackett has been a board member for Northwestern Mutual Life, Fifth Third Bancorp and Ford Motor Co.

Allan Gilmour, a former president of Wayne State University and retired Ford executive, was active with Hackett in Business Leaders for Michigan and called him a "first-class person."

"Number one, he's nice," Gilmour said. "Number two, thoughtful. Number three, clearly deep. … He is a thoughtful and organized person. And he may be the interim (athletic director) but he won't be a caretaker. He will be moving the athletic department ahead."

Hackett also is a member of the boards of advisers to UM's Life Sciences Institute. Alan Saltiel, director of the UM institute, said Hackett has been on his Leadership Council since its inception.

"He is a brilliant leader, insightful about people and what motivates them," said Saltiel, a cell biologist. "He is experienced, wise and amazingly innovative about organizations. He's especially good when it comes to pulling together people with diverse opinions and experiences, to get the most out of them.

"With our group," Saltiel continued, "he always refers to building 'sticky connections,' and he's great at it himself. I've never met anyone so connected!"

Hackett received his bachelor's degree from UM in 1977.

While moving up the corporate ladder, Hackett kept in touch with his old coach and spoke with him just two days before Schembechler died in November 2006.

During that conversation, Schembechler wanted to talk about a former UM player who had recently died of leukemia, Hackett told The Detroit News then.

"Bo was confirming with me how frustrated he was that we couldn't have a found a match for him for a bone marrow transplant," he said. "It was just so perfect, as the week played out, that this was what was on his mind, taking care of somebody else."

Schembechler was equally complimentary about his former player, praising his work ethic and leadership during an visit with Hackett during a speaking engagement in Grand Rapids in 1996.

"Now, think about that Hackett for a minute," Schembechler told The News. "He didn't play much, but he worked hard, and I loved that kid. Now he's the CEO of Steelcase, and every one of his 8,000 employees — from the janitors to the vice-presidents — can call him up and get an appointment."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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