Ann Arbor — Brady Hoke's fate was sealed before Shane Morris wobbled on the field, before the clumsy statements and misstatements, before every media outlet in America leapt on a juicy controversy complete with compelling video.
This is on athletic director Dave Brandon now, and if Hoke should be fired, likely after the season, Brandon should be, too. We can debate the timing and the logistics, and I guarantee plenty in Michigan's hierarchy are doing precisely that. School president Mark S. Schlissel entered the fray Tuesday expressing "extreme disappointment" with the response to Morris' injury, and that's a loud warning shot to those in charge.
This isn't just about concussions and player safety, although that's an important cause to wrap it in. If Morris' concussion in the loss to Minnesota on Saturday sparks more awareness, better training and more-comprehensive NCAA guidelines, that's good. But the controversy sizzles and sells because it's symptomatic of larger ills under Brandon and Hoke. Michigan's 2-3 record — 4-9 in its past 13 games — dwindling attendance and communication collapses are why it's time for another new direction.
When a lack of strong, smart decisions contributes to a series of disasters, blame shoots up the ladder of leaders. Is willful maliciousness going on? Highly doubtful. I believe Hoke didn't see the entire picture when Morris was hurt, which is his prevailing problem — an inability to grasp the size of the job.
Brandon has asserted so much control over athletics, he can't escape culpability. A few hundred fans actually marched onto the lawn of Schlissel's campus house Tuesday night chanting for Brandon's dismissal. There's a mob outrage to this, which is uncomfortable. But Brandon has alienated people to the point where it's virtually impossible for him to be an effective leader.
Michigan should finish out the season as best it can, and if the players support Hoke as much as they say, they can show it starting Saturday night at Rutgers. But the fundamental flaw in Michigan's program right now is its inability to handle pressure, from the quarterback scrambling behind a poor offensive line, to the coach and athletic director scrambling behind contradictory statements.
UM students rally to fire Dave Brandon.
Fans and students complain about Brandon as much (or more) as they do about Hoke, from ticket-price hikes to heavy-handed changes in student-seating policies to the corporatization and huckstering of a program that's not what it was. Updating was necessary, but overhauling? Maybe some of the old-guard department officials who were let go could've helped avoid these public-relations blunders.
For instance, Brandon's release early Tuesday acknowledged the concussion and outlined a "serious lack of communication that led to confusion on the sideline," but it became an issue as much for the post-midnight timing as the content. Hoke's news conference earlier Monday was awkward and vague, especially when asked if Morris had a concussion and he answered, "Everything that I know of, no."
Hoke also said he hadn't yet spoken to Brandon on the issue, which was illogical. Obviously, Hoke shouldn't have addressed it before the medical report explained it. And while Brandon was negligent for not apprising his coach of the discrepancies, Hoke has no excuse for being ill-prepared.
Arrogance in Ann Arbor
This is about Michigan's institutional arrogance that its storied football program is somehow immune to common crisis. It's unfortunate Morris is stuck in the mess, and the sophomore quarterback tweeted this plaintive plea Tuesday: "I just want to play football."
It's plausible Hoke and others on the sideline didn't see the late hit that rendered Morris woozy, and I'd be stunned if Hoke saw it and simply disregarded it. He didn't have the benefit of a quick replay. This is not an attack on his character, which is highly regarded, but an attack on his ability to react quickly to changing circumstances.
In his fourth season, Hoke still doesn't have a stable quarterback or offensive line, and still doesn't know what to do with Devin Gardner. That's how he got into the latest mess, by benching the fifth-year senior for Morris, who clearly wasn't ready. Morris' concussion is the flashpoint, but the most ridiculous mistake occurred earlier, when Hoke left a completely ineffective Morris in the game despite an ankle sprain.
That's the first critical error in judgment that led to all the others. Michigan admitted it screwed up its on-field response —carelessness more than callousness — and is instituting changes. But it further showed this regime struggles with damage control, despite considerable practice.
The program's seven-year decline has spawned a predictable media frenzy that Michigan keeps feeding, similar to the way Roger Goodell and the NFL did. The charge there is the same as here: Arrogance. Michigan once wore that label proudly, and Bo Schembechler epitomized it. That only works when your leaders are competent enough and smart enough to back it up.
I think Brandon does some elements of his job very well. He raises money, upgrades facilities and pours vast resources into the smaller sports, something other schools don't do. He has friends in high places, such as billionaire Michigan donor Stephen Ross. Perhaps there's another role for him at Michigan, outside of the athletic realm.
I don't get the impression the new president will meddle, but along with the board of regents, Schlissel can't ignore the string of gaffes. Brandon and Hoke have been linked since Brandon fired Rich Rodriguez four years ago. There were positive early signs, including Hoke's 11-2 record his initial season, but the plan and the record have veered dramatically.
Many welcomed Hoke and his rabid embracing of the Michigan way, and the message resonated successfully at first. I've always believed Brandon and Hoke have good intentions and the right ideals, but the jobs require more than a willingness to work and an eagerness to sell a narrative. Their message has been lost, irretrievably so.