Niyo: Wolves circle Brandon, forcing president's hand

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Flint — It's a game of political football now, which means the outcome may already have been decided.

With the lines clearly drawn, and the clock winding down, Michigan's embattled athletic director, Dave Brandon, probably needs a "Hail Mary" to keep his job.

His leadership was alternately described as "toxic" and "nauseating" by students at the University of Michigan's Board of Regents meeting Thursday in Flint. And though he declined to specifically call for Brandon's firing, Mark Bernstein, one of six Democrats on the eight-member board, referenced both an "empty reservoir" and the lack of a suitable fire extinguisher as he spoke about the smoldering discontent.

The university's mishandling of the Shane Morris concussion diagnosis a few weeks ago — and the ensuing public-relations debacle, ultimately blamed by Brandon on widespread "miscommunication" — was "like a spark in a very, very dry forest," Bernstein said.

"And there's not a lot of water around right now," he added. "I think the actions of the athletic department … have drained whatever reservoir of goodwill there is in Michigan football, in particular."

For that, Brandon's at least partly to blame, Bernstein said.

"Maybe in a majority way," he added, noting, "There is an element of goodwill that a leader builds in their conduct with the people who care about their work."

They care about a football program that continues to stumble, losing 10 of its last 15 games dating to last season. The front porch of the university, as it is often described, is in serious need of repairs. And quite obviously, a great many people — students, alumni and, yes, fans with neither a tuition bill nor a diploma from Michigan — don't care what it costs: They want Brandon gone.

Show of support

For the record, any buyout of Brandon's guaranteed contract likely will cost $3 million or so, not including the refreshments or confetti. But any concerns about backlash from major donors might have been assuaged by last weekend's alumni gatherings surrounding the Penn State game.

Brandon was noticeably absent as Stephen Ross, the real-estate magnate whose $200-million donation to the university last fall included $100 million earmarked for a new athletic campus, took part in a question-and-answer session with university president Mark Schlissel, who reiterated his "disappointment" in the way the Morris situation was handled.

Ross has publicly supported Brandon in recent weeks. So did a collection of the university's varsity head coaches, who all signed a "letter of unanimous support" for Brandon that was sent to Schlissel.

Andrea Fischer Newman, one of the two Republican regents, also voiced her support for Brandon, once viewed as a possible GOP gubernatorial candidate, following Thursday's meeting.

"You've got to look at the whole athletic department," Newman said, citing the addition of varsity sports (lacrosse), facility upgrades and fundraising, among other items. "There's a lot of good things being done right now on campus with athletics."

But that's all being drowned out at the moment. And Thursday's board meeting — with a standing-room only crowd crammed into a banquet hall — was no different, as Schlissel began the proceedings with a prepared statement addressing the athletic department issues.

Two weeks ago, a crowd of nearly 1,000 angry Michigan supporters showed up for a "Fire Dave Brandon" rally that ended with a march on the president's house on campus. An online petition demanding his removal as AD has drawn more than 11,000 signatures, nearly half of them from students, according to a Michigan Daily analysis of the data.

Zeid El-Kilani, the U-M graduate student who started the petition, was among those who addressed the board during public comments Thursday. In calling for Brandon's dismissal, he decried he called the "corporatization" of Michigan athletics and the general "contempt" for issues raised by students, including "absurd" increases in ticket prices.

"We are convinced," El-Kilani said, "that cultural change starts from the top."

Greed factor

Even more damning, though, was a recent student survey, the results of which were presented to the board Wednesday night and made public during Thursday's meeting by Bobby Dishell, president of the student government.

One of the students' chief complaints — prices for season football tickets that have risen more than 50 percent during Brandon's four-year tenure — already is being answered. Dishell said the university has agreed to a "significant" cut in those prices — the highest in the Big Ten — for next season. (The threat of a student boycott of games earlier this month probably didn't hurt.) Brandon, in a statement released Thursday evening, said those 2015 ticket prices will be announced next week, adding, "This is an important relationship for us, one that we need to repair."

But the student government report went on to say that relationship may not be "repairable at this point." And to highlight that point, Dishell noted the survey asked students to describe their view of Michigan football before they arrived on campus. The most common answer: "Tradition." Asked what word they'd use now, the most frequently-used were "disappointing" and "embarrassing." Also clearly visible in that maize-and-blue word cloud: "business" and "greedy."

"There is a feeling that athletics has been stolen from them in some way," Bernstein said. "And it's our job to help get it back. That's an important job of this board, it's clearly an important role that our president appreciates, and I know that the president will make the right decision."

As to when, that's anybody's guess, though presumably a decision on Brandon's status needs to be made before dealing with the future of his hand-picked head coach, Brady Hoke.

And all parties made it clear Thursday the new president — Schlissel succeeded Mary Sue Coleman in July — would prefer to take his time as he tries to "chart a way forward."

"This university deserves nothing less than my careful due consideration," said Schlissel, who also made an impromptu visit to football practice — without Brandon — last week. "There are many, many stakeholders when it comes to Michigan athletics, and it is my job to reach out and consider the perspectives and interests of all of them."

A few months ago, when the regents fired the first public warning shots across Brandon's bow, pouring cold water on his plans for fireworks shows at two football games, Schlissel deferred to the regents. A former Ivy League provost at Brown University, he said he didn't have a full understanding yet what athletics — and particularly football — truly meant at Michigan.

"But he does now," Bernstein said Thursday, laughing. "He does now."

Soon enough, when the smoke clears, we'll find out what he really thinks.