Coach-AD woes shift from East Lansing to Ann Arbor

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Connections between head football coaches and athletic directors, and how continuity affects success, seem clear enough. But it wasn't until some Tuesday morning reflections on Michigan-Michigan State took shape that the relationship took on some extra sass and timeliness.

How those coach-AD tandems work or don't work at Ann Arbor and East Lansing today spells the difference in how this week's game and MSU's supposed edge is measured.

Stick for a moment with some chronology:

It was 1973 and a college sports writer was covering his first Michigan-MSU game. Michigan romped in the rain, 31-0, at East Lansing in a clash so mismatched the Spartans a time or two punted on third down.

Denny Stolz (first year) was State's head coach. Burt Smith (two years after replacing Biggie Munn) was athletic director. Conversely, the guys from Ann Arbor, Bo Schembechler and Don Canham, had been in their jobs at Michigan since 1968 and were on a run of beating MSU eight straight times and 13 of their first 14.

It was a pattern of bashings that continued for as long as Schembechler and Canham worked together. Even after Canham retired in 1988 the bloodlines were retained. Schembechler moved to the AD's office, strategically, so that he could make Gary Moeller Michigan's next head coach, which would ensure another Schembechler disciple, Lloyd Carr, was ready in a pinch when Moeller had a bad night out and lost his job in May of 1995.

Michigan went 30-9 against MSU in the 44 years that Schembechler, Moeller, or Carr ran the Wolverines, mostly as a result of the epic choice Canham made in his first year as AD when he grabbed Schembechler from Miami (Ohio).

MSU meanwhile — no news bulletin here — was running through football coaches at almost the same pace as athletic directors. It was a race to see who was fastest at clearing out an office. And not coincidentally, the Spartans didn't often beat their friends from Ann Arbor.

Stolz and Smith were gone from their jobs in 1975 minus a single victory over Michigan. The gents who took over in 1976, Darryl Rogers (coach) and Joe Kearney (AD), left as a package for Arizona State in 1980 only four years into their jobs.

The gore and drama continued...

In and out

Muddy Waters lasted three years as Spartans football coach after Doug Weaver, who had become AD in 1980, made Waters his initial ill-begotten pick to run the Spartans. Three painful years later, Weaver opted for the guy he nearly had tabbed to follow Rogers, George Perles. It probably isn't a surprise the Spartans won a single game, in 1978, during the 1970-83 era.

MSU's history gets richer by the decade. Perles ended up replacing Weaver as AD in 1990 all while hanging on as AD, a dual assignment that worked for a couple of turbulent years, after which Perles returned to his trademark job until he was pushed out in 1994.

The Wolverines went 9-4 during the 13 years Weaver and Perles, or Perles and Perles, were in charge. It was a slightly better stretch quickly overrun by MSU's knack for making all the wrong headlines.

A string of ADs (Perles, Merritt Norvell, Merrily Dean Baker, Ron Mason) begot in a 12-year span four more coaches: Nick Saban, Bobby Williams, John L. Smith, and in December of 2006, (drum roll) Mark Dantonio.

Events at Ann Arbor were also turning interesting as the '90s and a new millennium dawned.

Jack Weidenbach took over for Schembechler in 1991 once Schembechler had installed Moeller, then left to become, of all jobs, president of the Detroit Tigers.

Soon the AD parade began at Ann Arbor and, not coincidentally, it inevitably created some of the same strife and coaching upheaval that seemed for decades to have been East Lansing's eternal fate.

Beginning with Weidenbach's arrival, the Wolverines were about to know five athletic directors inside of 20 years. This is a turbulent timeline that can accommodate football success as long as you have a head football coach in place who can tap into that past Ann Arbor bedrock. And so long as Moeller and Carr were around to replicate Schembechler's football DNA, the Wolverines were thriving, and fairly regularly mauling the Spartans.

But notice what happened after Carr retired at the same point two of those five U-M athletic directors and their short tenures began to converge.

Bill Martin messed up ahead of the 2008 season in guessing Rich Rodriguez's football ways would be a cultural or tactical fit at Ann Arbor. The Wolverines began to reel and MSU loved it. The Spartans went 3-0 against Rich Rod.

Next came a new AD (Dave Brandon) and a new football coach (Brady Hoke), and what looked like a happy marriage is now either headed for counseling or dissolution. The Wolverines have had back-to-back tough seasons and have lost to the Spartans five of the past six times, with Saturday at East Lansing expected to feature more of the same.

Stability in East Lansing

MSU would explain the turnaround thusly:

An athletic director, Mark Hollis, who pretty much picked Dantonio in 2006, has been on the job for the past six years. Dantonio has been his lone coach during this particular interlude, which might or might not remind some people of a similar relationship that existed in Ann Arbor during the '70s and '80s.

What happens at the end of this season to Hoke, or to Brandon, or to both men, has yet to be formally decided. But it's a hallmark of history that events and tendencies do, in fact, repeat themselves, for better or for worse, and East Lansing and Ann Arbor tend to confirm just that.

At Spartan Stadium this week, a direct link between the AD's office and the sidelines might never be more fully displayed or appreciated. At least since the days when Canham and Schembechler were around.