In his book “Endzone: the Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” author John U. Bacon paints a loving picture of some of Michigan’s most famous athletic directors.
There was Don Canham, who knew how to market and raise funds but who kept his own salary relatively low. There was Bill Martin, a self-made millionaire who agreed to be paid only $1 per year while serving as AD. And of course, briefly, there was Bo Schembechler, the legendary former coach for whom the Maize and Blue always mattered much more than money.
Their own modesty contrasted with the tenure of Dave Brandon, the slick corporate raider who alienated fans and students while tarnishing the very brand he pushed so fervently.
Jim Hackett doesn’t have a track record as lengthy as any of those other athletic directors. His time as interim leader of the Wolverines is officially ending after only about 15 months on the job, with Friday’s announcement that UConn’s Warde Manuel will become the school’s new permanent athletic director. Yet history should not forget the enormous positive impact Hackett made in his short time, nor the manner in which he achieved it.
Naturally, any mention of Hackett’s time as AD must start with his hiring of Jim Harbaugh as head football coach. Now that Harbaugh has infiltrated every corner of social media while relentlessly promoting Michigan, perhaps it feels inevitable in retrospect that he would come back to his alma mater. But in late 2014, that certainly was not the case.
In fact, very few people gave the Wolverines much of a shot to actually reel in Harbaugh from the NFL ranks. Critics at one point wondered where the Michigan search was going as Hackett patiently waited until late December for Harbaugh to become available from the San Francisco 49ers. Meanwhile, Hackett went to work -- along with some highly-motivated alumni -- persuading Harbaugh to come back to Ann Arbor. It was a very tricky situation, and one that demanded that Hackett play it just right, both to massage Harbaugh's ego and to outfox any other potential NFL suitors.
It’s pretty remarkable, in hindsight, that someone with no experience handling coaching searches pulled off one of the greatest hiring coups in recent college football history. To no one’s surprise, Harbaugh has quickly transformed Michigan football from the laughingstock it became at the end of Brady Hoke’s reign into a budding national powerhouse. Unlike Brandon, Hackett has happily let the spotlight shine on Harbaugh while he worked behind the scenes, as an athletic director should.
Hackett also acted quickly and decisively in letting Hoke go. Sure, the move was basically unavoidable, but he didn’t drag it out like Brandon did with Rich Rodriguez. Hackett took on tough decisions with professionalism and straight talk. The embarrassment factory that Brandon created (the Coke Zero free ticket promotion, the Shane Morris concussion controversy, among others) disappeared overnight.
Hackett didn’t need to take on the mess he inherited. He had retired after serving as CEO of a successful, Grand Rapids-based furniture company. But like many before him, his abiding love for the Wolverines -- he played under Schembechler in the 1970s -- pulled him toward a sense of duty.
He certainly didn’t do the job for the money. In fact, Hackett recently announced that he and his wife had donated half his $600,000 salary -- Brandon received a base pay of $900,000 in his final year as AD, by the way -- to a campus program that supports the mental health of athletes.
That selfless gesture would have made predecessors like Canham, Martin and Bo proud. Michigan fans everywhere should similarly take pride, and fully appreciate, what Hackett accomplished for the program in a short amount of time.