Archives: Brandon motivated by 'unfinished business'

By Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News

From our archives: Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon had a wide-ranging interview with Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski in July, ahead of the 2014 football season. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Ann Arbor – Dave Brandon took over Michigan athletics during one of the most-tumultuous times in school history. More than four years later, the noise has abated a bit, but it never, ever stops.

Brandon's toughest task is keeping one foot in the past while planting the other firmly in the future, a balancing attempt that attracts attention and praise and criticism, and occasionally, some fireworks. Brandon hears it, but says he doesn't feel embattled.

During a lengthy interview in his office last week, he seemed at ease, explaining in confident, measured tones why he pushes so hard to reshape Michigan athletics, and how he handles pushback. When the regents recently voted down his request to use fireworks at two home football games, it sounded like the first subtle warning.

New president Mark Schlissel has a limited athletic background and no connection to this regime. Brandon's hand-picked football coach, Brady Hoke, is entering a critical fourth season coming off a 7-6 record, and the pressure is on. Brandon stands strongly behind Hoke, whose overall record (26-13) is much better than Rich Rodriguez's three-year mark (15-22), but obviously not good enough.

"We have unfinished business, and that's to get this program back where we want it," Brandon, 62, said. "I'm confident that's going to happen."

Michigan fans must acknowledge one truth – if the football team wins, none of the noise matters. Brandon has made a lot of things bigger – the size of the athletic department, the marketing budget, the revenue. But for those who long for the way things were, the big stadium is where judgment ultimately is rendered.

With the season approaching and plenty at stake, Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski sat with Brandon to discuss a variety of topics during an hour-long interview:

Hoke is safe

Wojo: Since taking over four-plus years ago, you've dealt with a lot. But at Michigan, the focus is always on football, and the record under Brady Hoke has gone from 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-6. Are you troubled by that?

Brandon: I'm not troubled. I have a high level of confidence that the pieces are being put together for this program to be what we all want it to be. I have to be patient because I know what's involved. I know what was here when coach Hoke arrived, in terms of how we needed to change.

We needed to get bigger, we went from one style (the spread offense under Rich Rodriguez) to a different style. You'd like to think you can snap your fingers and make that happen, but it takes time. So on the one hand, I have to be patient because I realistically know it takes some time, but on the other hand, I'm as impatient as anybody.

I want to win, and my expectations haven't changed one iota. We want to be in that game in Indianapolis, we want to be competing for that championship. We have unfinished business and that's to get this program back where we want it. I'm confident that's going to happen.

Q: You've said 7-6 is unacceptable, so the perception by some is that Hoke's job is on the line this season. What's your response to that?

A: It's not. Every football coach in America lives under enormous pressure, so I don't need to apply any more. We're the winningest program in the history of college football, we know what the expectations of our fan base is. Nobody has to tell Brady that. And I have all the confidence in the world that he's bringing in the right kids, that he continues to do the right thing in terms of getting his staff lined up. I'm convinced we're heading to a very, very good place.

Q: So you don't have in your mind a record that must be achieved this season?

A: I think that's great stuff to talk about with your buddies, and everybody's got a right to their opinion. But to look at it that simply is just grossly unfair.

Last season was a huge disappointment, but I think we lost four games by a total of 11 points.

Those were losses, we're not making excuses, we didn't finish. But it's not like we were going into games getting blown out by everybody.

Q: You've accomplished a lot as AD, and also stirred up your share of critics. What has been the biggest challenge?

A: The biggest challenge is you have so many stakeholders, people who are passionate about what we do, and they all have opinions. So on a daily, hourly basis, you've got bloggers and tweeters and Facebook and talk radio, so many ways for people to express their point of view.

But what I've learned in this job is, no matter what decision you make, there's gonna be some percentage of people that are gonna disagree with it and create controversy. You just have to know, going in, you have fans and alumni and donors and governing board members and faculty members and department members and coaches and student-athletes, so to get everybody supportive of any one direction or decision is virtually impossible.

Q: Along those lines, it became a hot issue when the regents voted to deny the use of fireworks at two home football games. Were you blindsided by that?

A: I don't know about blindsided, but it was surprising. Just because, No. 1, it's not the most important thing that's ever happened around here, so I was surprised it got so much attention. The regents have every right to approve or not approve use of pyrotechnics on campus.

We've used them before and we got the feeling that worked really well and fans enjoyed it. I would've bet it was kind of a customary, no big deal kind of thing. It turned out differently, and that's OK. We'll figure out other ways to create excitement. I'm not sure it necessarily should've been the lead story in the news, but welcome to Michigan football.

Warning shot?

Q: The regents' vote was viewed by some as a shot across your bow. Did you take it that way?

A: No. No. If I took things like that personally, I couldn't function in this job. You know what, I'm happy to accept their decision and move on. We can't always do everything we want to do.

Q: A new president, Mark Schlissel, took over July 14, and he told the media, "I want to be sure athletics exists in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does." Is this any hint of a subtle cultural shift in athletics?

A: Again, I think people micro-analyze everything that has anything to do with what we do here. No, I don't think the new president was saying anything other than his belief, and it's factual, that Michigan athletics doesn't show up in the mission statement of the university.

I had some time with him after his appointment, we had a nice dinner and got to know one another. I think he's going to be terrific. He's been on a little road tour around the country, meeting with a variety of stakeholders, and one thing he's learned is how passionate people are about athletics.

Q: You had a strong relationship with former president Mary Sue Coleman. As you get to know the new president, do you anticipate anything different?

A: I've seen no indication that our new president wants to make any kind of change, although he's been here two weeks, and it's hard for me to predict. The one thing I think Mark wants to do is learn more about Michigan athletics. He wants to come and meet some of the coaches and tour the facilities.

But most people observing what we're doing wish they were a $150-million enterprise, wish they got the donor support we have, wish they could do some of the things we're doing with our facilities. We know there's always room for improvement, but there's a lot to be proud of.

Q: Revenue has grown under your leadership from $96 million to $150 million, facilities have been built and renovated, staffing has grown. Is there such a thing as too much growth?

A: The department has grown, for sure, but sometimes what gets left out of the equation is, in five years, we've added two very meaningful sports – men's and women's lacrosse – at a time when athletic programs have been slashing budgets. Then we took the spirit squads -- the cheerleading and dance programs -- which were in the rec sports area and brought them into the athletic family.

We're providing more athletic training, more medical support, more mental wellness and academic support, and more coaching support for our student-athletes than we did five years ago. To do those things, you have to find the resources, because we don't get any taxpayer dollars, we don't get any subsidies from the university. In fact, we send a few million dollars up to them.

Q: I'm sure you hear it – too much commercialism and marketing. Some of the stuff is viewed as un-Michigan-like, such as the skywriting and multiple uniforms, etc. What do you say to that?

A: The hardest thing we do is try to strike the appropriate balance between tradition and what I'd characterize as necessary change. A lot of people want it to be the way it always was. I could pull out the uniform I wore when I ran out of the tunnel and it doesn't even resemble the uniforms we wear today.

I long for the day when Whiskey would come out at the end of halftime – remember the dog that would roll a soccer ball and when it crossed the goal line, everybody would cheer? People loved that. Well, I loved that too. I want Whiskey.

The reality is, we have to make changes to stay contemporary and stay fresh and adapt to the times. Our biggest competition in college football and college basketball today is flat-screen television sets. Television ratings are going up and ticket sales and attendance have gone down, just about everywhere.

So one of the things we think is important is to provide entertainment value. That's above and beyond having a good football team and a great product on the field – of course we understand that's first and foremost. We need to be competitive and win more than our share. But on top of that, we need to make that game-day experience as great as we can.

'Not everything works'

Q: So the game itself isn't necessarily enough, especially for young people?

A: There are things we hold dear – Maize and Blue, the Victors, the marching band, the winged helmets – that don't change. We don't advertise in the stadium – there are two stadiums in Division I football that don't advertise (Michigan and Notre Dame) – because that's one of our values. But when Beyonce intros the marching band, the student section goes crazy and we get nothing but positive feedback. When those guys at the first night game parachuted in with live cameras, we got incredible feedback. I don't think it diminishes the Michigan football experience.

Q: Is there anything you tried that you regretted?

A: Oh, not everything works. The skywriting over East Lansing was just silly. There's no need for that.

Q: How much pushback do you get from older Michigan fans and alums?

A: I don't get nearly as much as you might think. I don't pay a lot of attention to the social media stuff because I don't know who those people are and what their motives are. You can't be in this job and do a litmus test with every decision and find out what's the most popular thing.

A great example is the alternate uniform issue. We're recruiting 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids, and they're watching programs around the country, watching what the NFL is doing, and these things are important to them -- the stuff they wear, the way we present them.

So our basketball team will be over there in Crisler with six different uniforms and nobody will ever say boo. Our hockey team will have five different jerseys. Then there's the football team. Do you listen to your kids, your recruits, your coaches and let them make some of these decisions because they know what's important for their programs? Or do you turn it into a referendum as driven by the echo chamber?

Q: So, alternate football jerseys will remain in the rotation? Like, this year?

A: I can't imagine a world where we're not gonna do it, from time to time. Because I think it's important to the kids, based on what I'm told by coaches and what I hear sitting in that chair once in a while with recruits. Frankly, I want them and their parents to talk about the academics and the facilities, and oftentimes, that kid will look at me and say, 'Mr. Brandon, will we ever be able to do what Oregon does?'

Whoever is in this job, you have to stay current with the world changing around us, the world of entertainment. The easiest thing we could do is come up with a cookie-cutter approach for a football game, and although there'd be some people that would like that, I believe over time, we'd lose momentum competitively, because it's not what other programs are doing.

Q: Yet ticket sales have dropped, primarily among the students.

A: This season, we're kind of getting hit with a double-whammy. One is, we're coming off a less than exciting year. And then we had the schedule change.

In 2014, our original schedule had us at Notre Dame, at Nebraska and at Ohio State. It had us playing Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern at home. Then fast-forward a year later, we add Maryland and Rutgers and completely reformat the divisions and schedule. We lost Northwestern and Iowa and Nebraska at home, and we gotta play Michigan State two years in a row in East Lansing.

Q: How did that happen, two straight trips to Michigan State?

A: There's no conspiracy, although people want to think that. There's a computer firm in Chicago and the Big Ten has this algorithm, and you plug in all the variables and the computer spits out what's do-able.

They sent me the schedule and I called and said, 'Is this some kind of mistake? Have you people lost your mind?' Well, then you dig a little deeper, and Minnesota's coming here two years in a row and they're not too happy. Everybody is a little bit sore about something, and that was our thing to be sore about.

But in 2015, we got BYU here for the first time ever, we got Oregon State here, we got UNLV here for the first time, we got Michigan State at home, we got Ohio State at home. That's a schedule that's gonna be wow.

The take on tickets

Q: Michigan has a streak of 251 straight games of 100,000-plus attendance. Are you concerned that could end this season?

A: No. That's why we're marketing tickets. We've had a little slippage in our season tickets, but not a lot. We lost about 1.5 percent, only a little bit more than we normally have.

Our season-holder ticket base is predominantly fine. The difficulty we have is with our student section. It went from just under 20,000 last year, to we're projecting around 12,000. That creates capacity in the seats above the student section, but we don't want to sell those as season tickets because we have a strong feeling next year (the demand) is going to be different.

We've heard from the students, and No. 1, they're always impacted by the momentum of the team, so 7-6 didn't help. They're clearly impacted by strength of schedule. And the third thing is, last year we implemented general admission seating and they hated it.

In an effort to try to solve a problem – they're either arriving late, or some games we had 5,000-7,000 no-shows – we found out what other stadiums were doing, and they were all doing general admission. It was an incentive to get students there earlier, to get a better seat.

It works for a lot of other places, not for us. This year, we went back to reserved seating for our students, and we didn't have price increases for any of our tickets, and yet we see this big drop-off. We think it's a combination of factors and a bit of an anomaly.

We'd gone seven years in a row without raising ticket prices, then did it two years in a row. So we've increased prices twice in 10 years. Is that out of control? Right now down in Columbus, you spend 14 dollars a ticket more than you pay at Michigan for a season ticket.

My expectation is, we'll have more than 100,000 people in the stadium, but we're gonna do some marketing to make sure. I think the 100,000 mark is an important, emotional, psychological thing for all of us.

Q: The home schedule is thin because the three red-letter games – Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State – are on the road. Should a coach's performance be defined by those big-name games?

A: More than the coach's performance, you define the team's performance. But the reality is, they're all important.

Look, I hate the fact that Notre Dame is going away, I just hate it. But they are. And as you can see, we're filling that void with Virginia Tech and Arkansas and Oklahoma, and we'll be announcing some more. I think Michigan-UCLA is a great matchup. We're working hard to make sure our schedule is attractive.

Q: You and Hoke are linked, because he was your hire. The suggestion by some is you have heavy influence, even to the point you pushed the firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges and the hiring of Doug Nussmeier. Your response?

A: It's just nonsense. When Brady called me and said he thought he had a shot at bringing in Doug Nussmeier, I said, tell me about him. I never met him until the night before the press conference.

I go weeks at a time and I don't see Brady. He's down at Schembechler Hall, he's a football coach, I'm not. I'm not qualified to be a football coach, I don't want to be a football coach.

You can ask anybody who's ever worked for me. One of the things I preach is, leaders get to pick their teams. I've never told a head coach to fire anybody and I've never told him to hire anybody. But I do hold the head coach accountable for results.

Q: OK, but you spoke at the Nussmeier press conference, while Hoke didn't.

A: If there's somebody out there who thinks, for whatever reason, that I'm this micromanager pulling strings, No. 1, they don't know Brady Hoke, because he wouldn't work under those circumstances. After all that fervor, next time there's a press conference, I'm gonna hide behind the curtain. I've learned my lesson.

Q: Beyond all the noise, you know it comes down to wins and losses. What makes you most confident it will work with Hoke?

A: It's a combination of the talent he's recruiting, the attitude and culture of the team, the pieces that are being put in place. My message is, we're close, and we're knocking on the door. It's never gonna be as fast as you want it to be, but I see progress, and I think our fans will this season too.

'Very committed'

Q: You've been here during one of the most-tumultuous periods in Michigan football history. You've done lots of other things in your career -- how much longer you want to do this?

A: (Laughs). Depends on the day. It's a very intense position, when you have 931 student-athletes, 31 head coaches, hundreds and hundreds of events going on. And it's added pressure because you know whatever decision you make, you're gonna anger 20 to 30 percent of the people.

I understand there's criticism about commercialism, but I can't tell you I completely understand why. I think part of it is, I'm an unconventional candidate for this job. I'm a business guy, a CEO for 22 years, so I immediately get painted with this corporate Dave thing. People don't focus on the fact I was a student-athlete here, that I got a degree in education and really wanted to be a teacher and a coach. People don't think about the fact I was a trustee at Central Michigan for five years and a regent here for eight years.

All they think about is, this is a CEO marketing guy, Domino's Pizza. Am I guilty of pushing the needle in terms of trying to grow this enterprise? Yeah. I aspire to be No. 1 in the Director's Cup (Michigan was fourth in the all-sports national ranking this year). I aspire to be Big Ten champions in every sport. I have very, very high expectations.

Am I guilty of spending maybe more time than some athletic directors raising money? Yeah. Because we can't re-do Crisler, we can't do $228 million in the football stadium, we can't do $16 million at Yost, unless I reach out to our donors and say I need your help, and thank God they're giving it to me. I can't apologize for that because I actually think everybody in my line of work in America is doing the same thing.

Q: That's why I ask, with the changing landscape and a new president, if it ever wears to the point you'd leave? (Brandon's contract runs through 2017-18.)

A: This is a very tough time for college sports, with all of this restructuring, reform agenda at the NCAA level. But what motivates me is one thing and one thing alone -- I have a chance to build relationships with these 931 kids. As long as I can still get that enjoyment, as long as my health is good, and as long as my family continues to put up with it, I'd like to do it for a while. If it gets to the point where any one of those three things doesn't work, then it's time for somebody else.

For right now, I'm very committed to taking care of some unfinished business here. I want to get this facilities plan done. I want to go to a Rose Bowl with our football team. We're working on an incredibly important initiative, creating something I don't think exists in college sports -- our life after athletics initiative. We've created what we call the Center for Leadership Development and Career Preparation, and I'm as excited about it as anything we're working on. That's what motivates me to do this job and put up with some of the bullets you have to take.

Q: OK, we've talked for a while, and I've saved the biggest question for last. Where do you stand on the Brady Hoke headset issue?

A: (Laughs). We've joked about that. I look back at films in his coaching career, he's never marched up and down the sidelines wearing the headsets. A lot of coaches like to hear all this squawking in their ears, but Brady hates it. He says while all this stuff is going on in his ears, he can't be talking to players about something he saw on the field.

He's also got a kid standing behind him with headphones, and if anybody wants to talk to him, Brady gets on. That's just his style. Now, the year we were 11-2, I never heard anything about headphones.

Q: Never?

A: It's amazing how that works.