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Michigan football: From 'Leaders and Best' to chronic unrest

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — So, what's a track guy doing running the athletic department?

That question, incredulous and, in some quarters, hostile, confronted Don Canham in 1968, when he became athletic director at Michigan.

For the previous 47 years, men intimately connected with the success of football, Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler, ran athletics. Despite 25 years as a track coach and athlete, many considered Canham an outsider when it came to football.

And it occurred at a perilous moment, like today.

The team struggled. Alumni, students and fans uttered harsh criticism. Supporters divided over the inheritance of the mantle of Yost and Crisler. A president of the university was in his first year.

The legacy was on the brink.

Largely on the strength of one hire, Bo Schembechler, Canham restored what fans of the Maize and Blue believe is a birthright: winning football.

Decades later, after years of decline, infighting and a series of missteps that alienated students and alumni, athletic director David Brandon resigned, coach Brady Hoke struggles, and a president on the job since July 14 is charged with overseeing the return of the glory of Michigan football.

"We're not getting the results we grew to expect," said Jamie Morris, a running back who set records for rushing and all-purpose yards in the late Schembechler era. "As Michigan football players, we're taught that what you do on the field is what you are.

"I don't think we've gotten soft, we've just gone through changes. We were spoiled by 40, 45 years of having the same coaches, and then we made a total change of personnel and then another change real quick after that."

When Schembechler's longtime assistant Gary Moeller succeeded him in 1990, the transition appeared seamless. But a confrontation in a restaurant in 1995 revealed Moeller at his worst, and the torch passed to Lloyd Carr.

With an amalgam of the two coaches' recruits, three seasons later, Michigan won a share of its first national championship in 49 years.

But eventually, under Carr, top-rated recruiting classes yielded too many losses, including a shocking 34-32 setback against lower-division Appalachian State at Michigan Stadium in 2007. Carr retired after that 2007 season.

Sudden instability

The program was in the hands of newly appointed athletic director, Bill Martin, a product of the sea-change in college athletics coinciding with Schembechler and Canham's retirement.

After public outcry over several scandals at institutions across the country, the NCAA urged presidents of member institutions to take control. As was the case on many campuses, James Duderstadt, appointed president of the university in 1988, accepted the charge.

Meanwhile, attracting players means developing facilities and striving to offer athletes and fans the best experience. Institutions poured evermore revenue into chasing evermore revenue.

In Ann Arbor and elsewhere, both trends moved the administration of major football and basketball programs away from old hands in college athletics toward business executives.

Schembechler succeeded Canham, and retired two years later.

In succession, academic administrator Jack Weidenbach and businessmen Joe Roberson and Tom Goss all had limited or no experience in administering athletics before serving short, often-troubled terms as Michigan athletic director.

After three directors in 67 years, Michigan had five in 10.

Michigan head coach Brady Hoke walks the field during warm-ups before the Northwestern game in Evanston, Illinois.

The fifth, Martin, had founded a successful real estate construction and management firm that developed 35 major properties in Ann Arbor over the years. As athletic director, he presided over the enormous redevelopment of venues and facilities and ran surpluses from 2000-08.

But when Carr retired, the inadequacy of the direction of the Michigan athletic department was underlined again.

Martin courted LSU coach Les Miles.

Carr did not help matters. The timing of his retirement announcement put Miles in the position of choosing between Michigan and LSU while the Tigers played for a national championship.

A number of observers, including former players, accused Carr of sabotaging the process and Martin of incompetence.

"Bill Martin might know how to build buildings but he has no feel for running an athletic department," said Bill Dufek, one of Schembechler's offensive tackles.

Carr and Martin did not respond to requests for comment.

Martin selected Rich Rodriguez the 11th coach at Michigan in 107 years.

From Bo to RichRod

Another outsider had arrived 40 years earlier, spurring a mass departure of football players unused to his intense workouts and elevated demands. Criticism reigned.

In fact, Schembechler was worse than not "a Michigan man." He was a disciple of Ohio State's Woody Hayes.

In the early difficult moments of Schembechler's tenure, Canham frequently spoke publicly in his support. So did Bump Elliott, the coach Schembechler replaced.

Schembechler praised Elliott, who was later athletic director at Iowa for 21 years, saying that defending a young coach, and a stranger in Ann Arbor, demonstrated the essence of "Michigan men."

No such benefactors nurtured Rodriguez.

West Virginia officials, bitter at his departure, unleashed a campaign of negative publicity. When the $4 million buyout provision in his contract became public, it appeared Rodriguez had sandbagged Michigan.

But, according to Rodriguez and others, the officials responsible for hiring him knew about the buyout from the start. Michigan would eventually pay $2.5 million of the buyout, Rodriguez $1.5 million himself.

"We had talked about the issue with the buyout and some of the questions I had regarding West Virginia, and their obligation and my obligation to them, and the administration at the University of Michigan," Rodriguez said in a recent interview.

"There was nothing that we did not discuss, out front."

The buyout situation is detailed in "Three and Out," a book about Rodriguez's tenure, by John U. Bacon.

After Carr reportedly met with former players to ease their transfer to other programs, according to Bacon, and as Rodriguez tried to implement his radical new offensive scheme, Michigan went 3-9 his first year.

Practice punishment

Before his second, the affair some call "Practicegate" emerged.

The NCAA eventually censured the university, placed the program on three years probation, limited practice hours, mandated Rodriguez attend a rules seminar, and determined he had failed to properly monitor the program. University officials reprimanded seven employees of the athletic department, including Rodriguez.

But, despite the breadth and gravity of the original allegations, the NCAA investigation of major violations — the first in history at Michigan — focused on the difference between "countable hours" of practice and "non-countable hours."

According to the investigators, rather than a brutal atmosphere in which football players were made to endure inhumane conditions — allegations similar to those that dogged Schembechler in 1969 — the football program exceeded practice limits by 15 minutes per week.

The NCAA also said forms intended to document practice time were repeatedly requested by the compliance officer, Judy Van Horn, and not received. The public report afforded no explanation.

Van Horn declined to comment.

Scott Draper, one official from whom Van Horn repeatedly made the requests, and a holdover from the Carr era, also declined to comment. Another, Brad Labadie, did not return phone calls.

"I thought the whole thing, the story and the investigation, was maybe a little bit questionable," Rodriguez said.

"You know, if I wanted to go back and reflect on it, which I really don't, you could maybe think that there was somebody, not in the program but in the department, that had different agendas and was not rooting for their own team.

"The policies and procedures, the way we went about getting those forms and the things that they want, was the same as before I got there. In other words, we had the same people and the same administrators in place and my direction was to do it the same way they had with Coach Carr's administration.

"I was a little bit surprised that there was an issue, when it didn't seem to be an issue before."

One of the former officials directly involved, who asked not to be named "while Michigan is down," said simply, "I think 10 years from now, people will feel freer to talk."

Before Rodriguez could finish the four to six years many believe coaches require to institute a new program, especially such a radical departure, he was gone.

Another new athletic director faced selecting another coach.

Brandon-Hoke era

David Brandon, a former regent and chief executive of Domino's Pizza, was the new director.

Brandon chose Hoke.

Hoke's first year, 11-2 with wins over Ohio State and in a major bowl, was the definition of success. In three seasons since, the team plunged.

Like Martin, Brandon succeeded by many strictly financial measurements, such as keeping the athletic department profitable, growing staff and introducing more facilities enhancements. But he was thwarted by his public relations fumbles and Michigan's losing football program.

In announcing he agreed with Brandon's decision to resign, another new president, Mark Schlissel, said, "To our alumni and others in the Michigan family, I want you to know that we are working to establish the right balance between academics, the competitiveness of our athletic programs, their financial stability and the athletic traditions we hold dear."

Schlissel and his interim director, Jim Hackett, preside over the future of Michigan football.

In 1981, four years after playing for Schembechler, Hackett walked into Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids. After 20 years as chief executive, he retired this year.

What has been demonstrated across the years at Michigan is that whether some stranger arrives in town to coach football, or someone far more familiar, winning heals all.

And, so far, the best seasons on the field have occurred when the prerogatives of athletic and academic administrators, former players and coaches, students and alumni, yield to Schembechler's essential imperative.

"The team! The team! The team!"

Leading the way

A look at Michigan's athletic directors and football coaches since 1968 and 1969, respectively:

Athletic directors

■ Don Canham, 1968-88

■ Bo Schembechler, 1988-90

■ Jack Weidenbach, 1990-94

■ Joe Roberson, 1994-97

■ Tom Goss, 1997-99

■ Bill Martin 2000-10

■ Dave Brandon, 2010-14

■ Jim Hackett, 2014-

Football coaches

■ Bo Schembechler, 1969-89 (194-48-5)

■ Gary Moeller, 1990-94 (44-13-3)

■ Lloyd Carr, 1995-2007 (122-40-0)

■ Rich Rodriguez, 2008-10 (15-22-0)

■ Brady Hoke, 2011-present (31-18)