Ann Arbor — Before Jim Hackett was Michigan’s interim athletic director, he was a young boy growing up with three brothers in London, Ohio, the son of Bill Hackett, a veterinarian who just happened to be a consensus All-American from Ohio State in 1944 and the Buckeyes’ captain in 1945.
Jim Hackett was the son who got away.
His high school friend and teammate, kicker Bob Wood, who still shares Michigan’s record for most made point-after kicks in a season, was already playing for the Wolverines, and Wood had given Hackett insight into the Michigan program, something he could not get at home.
“I knew Michigan all through the eyes of the relationship with the Ohio State rivalry,” said Hackett, who eagerly awaits Saturday’s annual renewal of the Michigan-Ohio State game, which will be played at Michigan Stadium.
He took his visit to Michigan, spoke to coach Bo Schembechler, and suddenly, the Hackett family’s decided scarlet-and-gray balance was rocked.
“I got to meet Bo, and that was it,” Hackett said. “He was a version of the Death Star — you got near him and he had such a compelling pull,” Hackett said. “I got off the plane, my dad came to pick me up, and he said, ‘You’re not …’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ He said, ‘Don’t expect me to sing that damn fight song.’
“He knew Bo. He loved Bo. My dad was very close to Woody (Hayes), but I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to go down the same cow path that everyone was doing.”
Hackett’s three brothers were and remain Ohio State fans. Bill played on the Buckeyes’ 1968 national championship team for Hayes; Kevin, who resides in Columbus, played for Dartmouth; and Bob played for Columbia.
“My mother, God love her, went to Ohio State with my dad, and she told me she rooted for Michigan,” Hackett said. “I don’t know how my dad felt about that.”
Bill Hackett, a 5-foot-9, 191-pound guard, played for Paul Brown from 1942 through 1944 and was first-team All-American by the AP and Football Writers Association of America in 1944, his junior season. He was on the cover of Football Illustrated.
Hackett, who played with 1944 Heisman Trophy winner Les Horvath, was considered one of the all-time best at OSU at his position. He was inducted into the Ohio State Hall of Fame in 1986 and also named a Distinguished Alumnus of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Those were different times, with World War II raging. Bill Hackett was in the reserves, but he was given a deferment because he was in veterinary school. At the Ohio State end-of-the-season banquet in 1944, Hackett was voted captain for the 1945 season by his teammates.
“On a snowy night during the offseason, a driver ran a stop sign and hit him,” Hackett said. “He had a brain injury, but fortunately it was not debilitating the rest of his life. It was really fortuitous that a neurologist in the ’40s told him, ‘You can’t play football anymore.’”
Fast forward 30 years later, and young Jim Hackett was forging his own path, leaving his family’s Ohio State ways for Michigan and Schembechler.
“The minute I lost my first game against Ohio State, I was forever locked into the rivalry the other way,” Hackett said. “I’m fully dyed. It courses through me in ways very few people understand.”
During his senior year banquet at Michigan in 1976, he was reminded of his father while sitting next to former Wolverine Don Lund, then the assistant athletic director.
“I said probably five words to him,” Hackett said.
Lund then shared a story about Bill Hackett and Michigan-Ohio State.
“He said, ‘I have to tell you something. Your dad blocked my punt (in 1943),’” Hackett said. “My father used to say a blocked punt is an individual play that’s all about heart, wanting to do it. I couldn’t have been prouder of anything at that moment, graduating as a senior at Michigan, and Don Lund shared that story. I was proud of my dad and touched by Don, and I wanted to beat them more.”
Bill Hackett remained close with his Ohio State coach, Paul Brown. In 1967, he visited Brown in California, and Brown, in a 1971 story published in Cincinnati magazine, said he introduced the idea of an NFL franchise in Cincinnati to Hackett. Brown told the magazine that Hackett agreed to bring this to the attention of Ohio Gov. James Rhodes and well-known Ohio businessman John Sawyer.
“He used to talk about Paul Brown and his virtues like I do Bo,” Hackett said. “He had this notion the coaches live these isolated lives, that their sense of community comes from their players. He thought Paul Brown had all this success in high school, college and pro, and it would be great if it was reciprocated.
“Paul Brown was in his 50’s, had a lot of energy, and had a controversial ending with the Browns. He had won 11 of 13 NFL championships. My father did not have the net worth to sponsor the team, but he put a network of people today to create the Bengals with (Brown’s) son Mike. The two did a lot of heavy lifting.”
Hackett said he learned from his father’s relationship with Brown and believed it was his responsibility to honor his coach. When Hackett became CEO of Steelcase in Grand Rapids, he involved Schembechler in several events and functions. Later, he would extend that reach to former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
“That was my whole generation of people I was associated with,” he said. “That was the strongest relationship I had.”
When Hackett led the Michigan football coaching search a year ago, he dipped into his Michigan-Ohio State history as he pursued current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan for Schembechler and famously guaranteed a victory at Ohio State in 1986. Hackett knew the importance of the rivalry to Michigan, and he knew Harbaugh did, too.
“I think about the rivalry all the time,” Hackett said. “I thought about it last year when I was going after Jim.”
When Hackett introduced Harbaugh at the news conference on Dec. 30, he referenced Paul Brown. Harbaugh reminded him of Brown because of the success he had had at the college and NFL levels, understanding, of course, that Brown also had been a highly successful high school coach at Massillon High in Ohio.
But Brown’s reach extended beyond X’s and O’s. He created the playbook and invented the modern facemask. He was the first to experiment with putting a microphone in the helmet to communicate with quarterbacks.
“He was one of the most extraordinary innovators, and this guy we have at Michigan is like that,” Hackett said, referring to Harbaugh. “When I heard my dad talk about Brown, I now see it in this coach. (Harbaugh’s) always thinking about the construct of the game and ways to win it. All parts of it. I have a feeling it’s one a generation, these types of instincts.
“Look how far ahead (Harbaugh) was in the camp structure, and the practice schedule he put together for the spring. It was a Rubik’s cube of the highest order. He wanted to honor their academics and to build that schedule, he spent a lot of time on that. It was pure genius crafting that. The decision to use the field time instead of (football) class time in the spring, he had to think of a way to improve, because his team hadn’t been in a bowl game. It explains some of the progress he’s made that people didn’t expect. I deliberately stay out of their way. I’m not in the practice meetings, but someday I might ask him to let me to be in on the design of football.”
Hackett likes to say there is “no greater opponent than the one you respect the most,” which is why he eagerly awaits the Michigan-Ohio State game each year.
When he was a kid, he used to play with his father’s dressing-table items.
“There were these gold pants,” Hackett said. “He didn’t talk about them much, and I didn’t know what they meant.”
Then his brother earned a few of them. Jim Hackett knew what they meant then. He knows what they mean now.
The Game remains a friendly difference of opinion with Hackett and his brothers.
“There has to be a capstone to the rivalry,” Hackett said. “If you think about this event, it starts with the buildup and ends with the winner. As I became a player, the version of the gold pants was the phone call. If you won, you dialed the other person, and the reciprocal was not to answer. You knew why they were calling.”
During the swing in the series when Michigan dominated the John Cooper-coached Buckeyes, Jim Hackett was doing a lot of dialing.
“I’d call dad, and he never answered the phone,” Hackett said, laughing.
Hackett admits since Ohio State has won 10 of the last 11 against the Wolverines, he hasn’t answered the phone after the game.
“My goal is to make the call that week,” he said.
Sometimes the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is thicker than blood.