Today is a day that Warde Manuel has imagined for a long time, and one that many folks inside the Michigan athletic department saw coming.
When Manuel, a Michigan graduate, was working in the athletic department in the early 2000s he and athletic director Bill Martin spoke often about his desire to be an athletic director and what he needed to do to get there. Manuel signed on for that job at Michigan earlier this week and was formally introduced Friday.
“We would talk about it a lot,” Martin said. “I think we all felt that Warde would eventually get there. I don’t think anybody at Michigan is surprised that he’s here. That’s been his path.”
The path to Manuel’s new post hasn’t always traveled through the athletic offices of major universities. Michigan’s last three athletic directors (Martin included) all came from a business background. This time around, the university wanted and needed someone different. They went looking for someone to fill a job that has become part general manager, part administrator, part CEO and part educator.
When it comes to handling the modern athletic director’s difficult array of responsibilities, Manuel checks a lot of boxes.
Borrowing alumni from the pages of Fortune has become a popular and, on the surface, logical move when considering that athletic directors today are controlling a business with nine figures of annual revenue. But when those hires ignore all the other hats they are supposed to wear (Steve Patterson at Texas, Dave Brandon at Michigan) things can get ugly.
The CEO types aren’t all bad. Outgoing interim athletic director Jim Hackett, a furniture company CEO for more than two decades, accomplished plenty during his 15 months in office -- bringing Jim Harbaugh home, signing a precedent-setting apparel deal with Nike, etc. And while you could argue that those moves were obvious, anyone who has been paying attention in Ann Arbor for more than a couple years knows doing the obvious things well shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Still Michigan’s search party, Hackett included, aimed for a successor who is familiar with all facets of the job. They reached out to long-tenured and respected leaders like Jeff Long at Arkansas and Jim Phillips at Northwestern. They found their man with Manuel, a 10-year veteran of directing athletic departments and a candidate high on the wish list throughout the process.
Manuel is well-versed in the expectations and tradition at Michigan. He played football for the Wolverines in the late 1980s under head coach Bo Schembechler, a name that serves as an automatic stamp of approval for many in maize and blue. At one time he shared a locker room with Michigan’s current head coach, Jim Harbaugh. An early protégé of former athletic director Tom Goss, Manuel spent nearly a decade learning the ropes in the athletic department as an assistant and then associate AD.
Along the way, he collected three degrees from the university. He even has a master’s in business that helps fill some of those CEO requirements. Manuel started his career as an academic advisor at Georgia Tech and has kept the academic side of the job as a focus during much of his climb up the ladder. Most recently, he helped a UConn basketball team drastically improve its APR scores after going on probation he year he arrived in Storrs.
One of Manuel’s earlier projects that made him standout as a potential future leader at Michigan was taking over an academic support program that Martin said was in need of a facelift. Those credentials should help endear him to university president Mark Schlissel, an Ivy League import who has said multiple times that keeping athletics in proper perspective is important to him.
Most importantly, though, Manuel checks the box as an experienced athletic director. He ran Buffalo’s athletic department for seven years (2005-2012) before leaving for the same position at Connecticut. He has hired successful coaches (Turner Gill, Kevin Ollie) and managed big-time personalities (Geno Auriemma) while not stealing their spotlight.
He’s been celebrated for his fundraising efforts at UConn and defended by his coaches when asked about the Huskies’ inability to land a spot in a Power Five conference during a recent bout of realignment. A year ago, Manuel was named one of the national athletic directors of the year by the organization that names such things.
There is a healthy-sized pool of college athletics leaders with Michigan ties, including Long, Boston College’s Brad Bates and Colorado State’s Joe Parker to name a few. Manuel’s mixture of experience as athletic director and time spent at the university make him as good a selection as any.
The new boss has been handed a Michigan that is in far better shape than it was when Hackett took over. Hackett served the department well, but Michigan was ready to move on to a more permanent, both-feet-in leader. Manuel has to work to do to keep his alma mater moving in the right direction. Fortunately, he’s got experience in that department.