Wojo: Manuel looks like ideal addition to Michigan team

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Warde Manuel

Ann Arbor — Warde Manuel thanked former coaches, teammates and administrators. He thanked the university president and his family. Michigan’s new athletic director was alternately joyful and poignant, acknowledging as many people as he could squeeze in, including the guy most likely to determine his success.

“To my first captain, Jim Harbaugh,” Manuel said, nodding to Harbaugh in the second row. “I couldn’t have imagined sitting in the back of the (team meeting) room as a freshman, that one day he would be leading our football team as well as he is, and I would come and work with him. When you come full circle like that, it’s meaningful.”

This was a meaningful day in many ways for Manuel and Michigan athletics, the latest move in a crucial stabilizing process. Manuel appears to be the ideal addition, and not just because of his connections with the school, and as a player under Bo Schembechler. It’s his understanding of what Harbaugh is trying to do, and his willingness to be the boss without playing the boss.

Harbaugh has made an enormous impact in one year, and continues to stir it up on the recruiting trail. It’s what Michigan needed, a hotly competitive recharge. Harbaugh’s hard-driving ways have been known to wear on people, so one of Manuel’s biggest tasks will be to monitor without meddling, to lead by building a solid relationship with the most important person in his department.

Manuel, 47, certainly has the personality and smarts to do it, and the credibility to back it up.

“A-plus-plus,” Harbaugh said when asked about the Manuel hire. “We come from the same learned experience of being part of a ball team. We view the athletic department, the university, our individual teams, we’re all a part of that team. So yeah, we’re working together. He will be our leader, and I can’t wait to work with him.”

And in case anyone was wondering about perceptions, Harbaugh leapt up during the introductory news conference Friday to present Manuel with his Michigan jersey No. 79.

“I just want to give you a hug!” Harbaugh shouted, and then hugged.

It was a symbolic embrace for a program aggressively repairing fractures. A lot has changed at Michigan after years of uncertainty and tumult, and perhaps it was a necessary trip of enlightenment. If there ever was a doubt about the staggering impact of football, there isn’t any longer, based on the rocketing momentum in one year under Harbaugh. School president Mark Schlissel essentially conceded as much Friday, after previously wondering if sports were playing too big a role in the university environment.

Pushing the momentum

The athletic department now could be set up for sustained success, from Harbaugh to basketball coach John Beilein to legends such as hockey’s Red Berenson and softball’s Carol Hutchins. Interim Jim Hackett did a superb job with his focused agenda — hire Harbaugh, extend Beilein, land a gigantic apparel deal with Nike — and Manuel is charged with pushing the positive momentum. That’s also known by another phrase: Don’t screw things up.

Harbaugh and Manuel probably won’t have many conflicts over how to run the football program, but checks and balances are good, and also necessary. Manuel is the first Michigan AD ever hired with prior AD experience — yes, ever — after serving six years as AD at Buffalo and four years at Connecticut. Harbaugh and Manuel shared one season at Michigan (1986, when Harbaugh was a senior captain), and Manuel was a defensive lineman from 1986-89 until a neck injury ended his career. He then worked 10 years in athletic administration here, and joked he’d sign a 20-year contract if he could.

Harbaugh on recruiting criticism: 'We don't hide how we operate'

Meanwhile, Michigan had athletic directors coming and going, and football coaches coming and going. Almost all the ADs had business backgrounds, from Dave Brandon to Bill Martin to Tom Goss, and these days, the business of Michigan athletics is in great shape.

Of course, that’s always contingent on the football part staying in great shape.

“Our relationship is going to be connected because we have a bond that’s hard to explain,” Manuel said. “I know his love and passion for the success of Michigan football. And he should know mine without even saying a word to each other. We know that’s imbedded in who we are.”

Football still king

If it seems like I’m belaboring one sport in a vast athletic enterprise, well, that’s how it works at Michigan. Obviously, Beilein has put together a highly respected program, and that’s another essential element. Look at Michigan State, where AD Mark Hollis has a tremendous relationship with Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, setting the tone for the entire department. Coaches stay when they enjoy the environment, and ADs stay when their coaches win within the rules.

Manuel hit all the key points about integrity and competing for national titles, not just Big Ten titles, in all sports. But I’m guessing 90 percent of the issues that stir public interest will relate to football. For instance, there’s the flap about Harbaugh’s recruiting tactics, after several players decommitted saying they no longer were wanted. Hackett adamantly defended Harbaugh, saying the coach isn’t allowed by NCAA rules to give his side of the story.

“The stuff I’ve been reading, I would tell you, is not accurate,” Hackett said Friday. He went on to explain how circumstances — grades, injuries, under-performance — can change a recruit’s status.

Former UM AD Goss on Manuel: He was quick study

That’s pretty much what Harbaugh said in brief comments after the Manuel introduction. His main point is, not surprisingly, that recruits are offered scholarships on merit, and the evaluation of their merits doesn’t end.

“We don’t hide how we operate and what we do,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a meritocracy in everything we do in our program. It’s going to continue to be that. … They’ve got to continue to perform when there are early commitments, in the classroom, on the field and as a citizen in their community. That’s what we demand.”

That’s about as forcefully as Harbaugh can respond without being specific. Recruits will sign in five days and it’ll be another big story, with Michigan angling for a top-three class. This is the way it long has been for Michigan football, and at least the new AD doesn’t have to get used to it. He already knows it.