Ross: UM donations couldn't save Dave Brandon's job

By Daniel Howes and Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Dave Brandon

New York real estate mogul Stephen Ross may be a $300 million donor to the University of Michigan, but that guaranteed nothing in his effort to save Athletic Director Dave Brandon's job.

"To show you how much they listen to me, I was very much in favor of Dave staying," Ross said in an interview this week with The Detroit News, adding with a chuckle: "Is that how influential I am?"

Ross, founder and chairman of The Related Companies, the nation's largest privately held real estate development company, is one of the largest donors in Michigan history. He's also owner of the Miami Dolphins, giving him a unique perspective on the nexus of sports, business and his alma mater.

He's donated more than $300 million to the university. Its prestigious business school now is the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Of the $200 million he pledged as chairman of the $4 billion Victors for Michigan campaign, $100 million will go to the athletic department, which will rename its central complex for Ross.

In a rare interview, Michigan's mega-donor pushed to dispel suggestions he exerted outsized influence on President Mark Schlissel's choice of Jim Hackett as interim athletic director, the recruitment of Jim Harbaugh as football coach or the futile effort by some to keep Brandon as AD.

"The president asked me what I thought, and he picked somebody — Jim Hackett — and I think Jim did a great job," Ross said. "I didn't know who he was until he was selected. I spoke with Jim a couple times. He had his ideas on what he was going to do. The fact you're a big donor doesn't give you the right to usurp them.

"We spoke about it because I had experience in picking a coach, having been there before. So I told him my opinions and he told me where he was going. It was all him. I thought he did a great job in securing Jim Harbaugh."

Aftershocks remain. The embarrassment of another losing season, empty seats at the Big House and controversy surrounding the resignation of Brandon and the subsequent firing of Brady Hoke as football coach exposed factions tugging at Schlissel, the university's Board of Regents and its athletic department.

"It was a bad thing that when all that was going on ... there was a new president," Ross said, which "made it a more difficult situation." The campaign to oust Brandon "started to percolate a little" early last summer, "but it really started to pick up steam after" retired President Mary Sue Coleman "had left."

Dominoes began to fall for Brandon over the summer, when the regents rejected a routine approval to use fireworks at an upcoming game; when students, frustrated by the team's lackluster play, rallied in front of the president's house to complain about ticket prices; when an online petition pushed for his ouster.

Mounting losses and the concussion controversy over Shane Morris didn't help. Video of a wobbling quarterback staying in the game came to symbolize a poorly managed program, compounding internal squabbling between the athletic department, the president's office and a few regents over a news release on Morris issued at 1 a.m.

"What Dave had to go through, I was very sorry to see that," Ross said, calling Brandon a "very bright" guy. "His heart was in the right place and he knew Michigan. Michigan now needs to hire the next athletic director because Jim is the interim one.

"That's what everybody is expecting, and you can see what happens when people don't agree with something at Michigan as it relates to football."

Hackett doesn't sound like someone ruling out the possibility of dropping "interim" from this title. He acknowledges discussing the issue with the president, but adds "that it has been second to a number of other things."

"You have to remember," he said, "I stepped in when somebody resigned the position, and I had never met the president. It's really clear, he owns the hiring of the athletic director at Michigan, so it's kind of his decision."

Daniel.Howes@detroitnews.com