Big Ten: Dave Brandon

The year was 1968. Michigan football had finished with a losing record in four of the previous seven seasons. Attendance at home games was dwindling. A reluctant athletic director with a business background faced his first big decision after only a few months on the job: Hire a new coach.

After a careful search, Don Canham offered the job to Bo Schembechler and started the longest period of sustained success in program history. Schembechler and Canham spent the next two decades working together without a losing season. Their teams were ranked in the top 20 in all but one year during that stretch.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezJim Harbaugh was Michigan's full-time starting quarterback in 1985 and 1986, when the Wolverines went 21-3-1 and won one Big Ten title.
There is no telling when the cycles of history will begin anew, but the pieces are now in place for another fresh start in Ann Arbor.

Two of Schembechler’s former players, interim athletic director Jim Hackett and new coach Jim Harbaugh, give current-day Michigan its best chance to build on the program’s rich history without being crushed by it. Along with a new university president, Hackett and Harbaugh provide a promising leadership group. All three are competent in their jobs and confident enough in their own skin not to try to encroach on the others' roles.

Harbaugh flirted with the Michigan job four years ago before deciding to try the NFL. As painful as that may have been for some Wolverines fans, they should feel lucky it didn’t work out. Harbaugh’s personality would have almost certainly clashed with the ego of former athletic director Dave Brandon. His departure from San Francisco despite success on the field is evidence that a bad relationship with bosses can lead to a toxic situation, no matter how good of a coaching job Harbaugh does.

Brandon’s five-year tenure as athletic director was marked by public relations disasters, poor performances in football and political maneuvering that left the athletic department in figurative flames. As in 1968, attendance steadily shrunk amid three losing seasons in seven years. Brandon resigned in October and Hackett inherited the ashes.

For many at Michigan, Tuesday is as much of a finish line as it is a starting point. Harbaugh's arrival and the manner in which Hackett pursued him are a sign that the internal problems that plagued Michigan's athletic department are on their way out.

The university's new president, Mark Schlissel, did his homework before offering the job to Hackett. Then he got out of the way. Schlissel said he quickly learned how important football was to the university, and he empowered his interim athletic director with the resources and authority to make a slam-dunk hire.

It’s not clear how long Hackett plans to stick around, but after catching a blue whale the first time he put his line in the water, Schlissel would be smart to let him drop that interim tag whenever he wants. Hackett's first deposit in the bank of goodwill came when he said he wanted to eliminate the "Michigan Man" term that epitomized much of the entitlement and exclusivity that has held back the program in recent years. Landing Harbaugh is another major line on his résumé that should buy him and his new coach time to turn things around.

Harbaugh's past accomplishments -- turning Stanford from a Pac-10 bottom-feeder into a national power and then making three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game with the 49ers -- are even more convincing arguments for patience while Michigan tries to untangle some of the knots it has created during the past decade. His status as a former Michigan star quarterback and his passion for his alma mater are just icing on the cake.

College football programs with strong tradition have a tendency to slow themselves with the weight of past successes. It often takes a slash-and-burn break from the old to return to the top (Alabama hiring Nick Saban, for example). Hackett has served Harbaugh a clean slate on which to start building.

There’s no guarantee that Michigan can still compete in a college football world where momentum continues to tip toward the South. There's no guarantee that the Wolverines can even make it back to the top of Big Ten, where Urban Meyer and rival Ohio State have a healthy start on Harbaugh. But Hackett has done all he can to put his program in position to compete. If Michigan is going to return, now is the time.

Big Ten morning links

December, 18, 2014
Live football has almost returned. Until it arrives again, take a few spins on the coaching carousel.

The Wisconsin Way: Continuity should be back at Wisconsin, and the program made it clear that it won’t be compromising anything it proudly stands for to keep it. By sticking inside the family on Wednesday and officially bringing Paul Chryst back home, the Badgers have somebody who knows exactly what the job entails and a coach who almost certainly won’t be making a lateral move at any point in the future. Maybe the Badgers will start spending more money on assistants down the road, so there’s some flexibility there in regards to an issue that turned off Bret Bielema. But in terms of knowing the kind of recruits it can expect to land and clearly laying out the academic requirements moving forward, not to mention bringing in an existing relationship with the university and the boss, Chryst couldn’t be any better suited to provide stability for Wisconsin after a rough stretch of losing Bielema and then Gary Andersen after two short years.

Down to one: Wisconsin moving quickly leaves only Michigan active on the job market, and while there’s no telling when that search will end, it is effectively the only one that still has a chance of connecting on a true home-run hire. No offense to Chryst or new Nebraska coach Mike Riley, because those were smart, sensible hires that made perfect sense for each program -- but they certainly don’t qualify as splashy or scream that championships are on the way. If Les Miles is definitively out of the picture, it really seems as though Jim Harbaugh is going to have to come through for the Wolverines once his commitments to San Francisco are over at the end of the NFL season. And it seems like Michigan is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to deliver him. Maybe there’s another huge name secretly looming out there for Michigan, but if there was, wouldn’t there have been some indication of that by now? The Big Ten is down to one job, and there really only seems to be one guy who should claim it.

Coordinator corner: Just below those headline vacancies leading Big Ten programs, the chance to replace Tom Herman as Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator will be up there as a highly-coveted position this offseason as the coaching carousel spins. The odds are strong that Ed Warinner will receive something of a promotion from his co-coordinator duties and take on more responsibility as a play-caller, though he was already somewhat active in that regard in his current role. Warinner not only deserves a raise for the incredible job he’s done with the Ohio State offensive line, he has earned more credit than he currently receives for that work, which is perhaps why he hasn’t landed an opportunity to lead his own program yet despite a couple interviews over the last two years. The Buckeyes are actually fortunate that they don’t have to replace both Herman and Warinner simultaneously, but either way there will be no shortage of candidates lining up for the shot to potentially work with J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller at quarterback.

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Michigan is officially into its second week of a search to find its next head football coach, and there’s no reason to believe a decision is imminent.

All major coaching searches take on a certain level of murkiness. The list of candidates and their interest, contact or flirtations with a school remain fluid until all of skeptic speculation ends in a hire. Under interim athletic director Jim Hackett, Michigan’s athletic department has avoided adding to the noise and confusion.

Former teammates and others close to Hackett say his deliberate and measured approach in rerouting the football program during the last six weeks is no surprise.

[+] EnlargeJim Hackett
AP Photo/Tony DingJim Hackett has sought input from all corners but made clear the decision on Michigan's next coach will be his.
“He’s very reserved. He was the quiet guy back when we were playing,” said Jim Bolden, who was a teammate of Hackett’s during the mid-1970s under Bo Schembechler. “He doesn’t make a lot of hoopla about much of anything.”

In what will come as a refreshing change of pace for many in maize and blue, Michigan’s third coaching search in the last seven years is reflecting the processes of the business world more than the political world. Hackett has made that much clear since taking over for Dave Brandon on Oct. 31.

Hackett is a rookie in athletic administration, but he is not new to leadership positions. Along with holding a seat on several Michigan boards of directors, he worked as the CEO of Steelcase, an industry-leading office furniture company, for two decades before retiring earlier this year. During his time at Steelcase, Hackett cut thousands of jobs and shifted the company’s focus toward technology. He has used a similar businesslike approach when making decisions about the football program so far in his time at Michigan.

“I think [making] choices about people is a difficult thing in business,” Hackett said at a news conference where he announced his decision to fire Hoke last Tuesday. “You can bet on a process that helps reduce that risk. I describe it as a highly divergent exercise in the beginning to make sure we see the landscape, and then we’re going to work quickly to narrow the question. I have a lot of confidence that process will yield a great answer.”

Hackett used boardroom lingo like walkaway dates and swim lane charts to describe the process he plans to use during the search. Hackett set specific dates for when he expects an answer from candidates before moving on to the next, but hasn’t made any of that timeline public. As the rumor mill cranks into high gear while dissecting names such as Jim Harbaugh, Les Miles and David Cutcliffe, there has been no posturing one way or another coming from the offices in Ann Arbor.

The newcomer has reached out to former Michigan players from several eras, including his own and current members of the team, to get a better understanding of what the program needs in its next head coach. He hired a search firm familiar with the university to help introduce to him as large of a candidate pool as possible. While he’s asked for help from many sources, he also has made it clear that he plans on making a unilateral decision when the time comes – a bold step in the heavily fractured hierarchy of Michigan athletics.

An initial gathering of names, what Hackett called “the divergent part of the process,” appears to be complete as Michigan moves on to contacting potential candidates and gauging interest this week.

It’s not clear how long the Wolverines will wait before naming their next coach, but the process to find him is playing out in a logical, thorough manner. That’s an encouraging first step for Michigan fans.

State of the team: Michigan

December, 3, 2014
Michigan will search for a new coach this month for the third time in seven years. New faces in positions of power give the Wolverines a chance to start over with a clean slate if they want to do so with their next hire.

The resources, support and tradition in Ann Arbor make it easier for Michigan than most programs to reroute itself in a positive direction. Expectations will always be high, but the current roster may not be built for an instant turnaround.

Here is where the rest of Michigan stands while its leaders search for a new head coach:

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesShane Morris struggled in his only start this season, leaving an uncertain future at quarterback for Michigan.
Offense: A young offensive line returns intact next season (barring transfers) after showing marked improvement in November. The Wolverines have several capable running backs, including USC transfer Ty Isaac, who did not play in 2014. The wide receiver corps was disappointing in its production this season but has the raw talent to improve under the right direction.

The big question mark is at quarterback. The only starter on offense who ran out of eligibility this season is Devin Gardner. His backup, Shane Morris, struggled in his one career start earlier this year. Brady Hoke never succeeded in recruiting or developing a program-changing quarterback. It doesn't appear there is a white knight on the way next year. Michigan's offense might be trending in the right direction, but without a talented quarterback in today's college football world it will take time for a new coaching staff to make the Wolverines competitive with the best in the Big Ten.

Defense: Michigan loses its top tackler, its two best pass-rushers and a veteran in the secondary this year. Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison left a well-stocked defensive line with young players who had a chance to gain experience in 2014. Some of those young guys will need to take a step forward in producing more pressure to replace Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark.

The Wolverines' biggest loss on defense is Jake Ryan, their leader and middle linebacker. Junior Joe Bolden is equipped to step into Ryan's place after finishing this year with 102 tackles. The secondary returns a strong mix of experience and young talent, especially when five-star recruit Jabrill Peppers gets healthy. Hoke definitely leaves the Michigan defense better than he found it. This side of the ball is a conference championship-caliber unit.

Special teams: Punter Will Hagerup and kicker Matt Wile are both out of eligibility. Both Michigan return teams finished 11th in the conference in production but could get a boost from a healthy Peppers. Special-teams play didn't win any games for Michigan. It didn't lose any either. A new coach could make improvements here if he wants to focus his efforts on the third estate. He might be better served focusing on other issues to start.

Fan base: This season was the first time Michigan didn't lead the nation in home attendance in more than a decade. The student section was notably thinned throughout the regular season. Much of the fan angst was directed at former athletic director Dave Brandon, who alienated alumni, students and former players during his five years in office. The Michigan faithful are a confident bunch, but an impatient one as well. Hiring a big name would go a long way in reigniting hope among the fans.

Leadership: Dysfunction among the higher-ups in Michigan's athletic department is, as much as any other single cause, the reason why the last two coaches failed. Brandon's resignation helped clear out a large chunk of those problems.

The university has a new president and an interim athletic director, neither of whom has significant experience in leading a major athletics operation. Jim Hackett, the athletic director, is the former CEO of Steelcase and has inspired confidence during his first month on the job. It's not clear how long he'll be around, and it's still too early to make a judgment on how well equipped he is for the position. The administrative leadership for Michigan is a mystery right now, which is better than anything you could say about it a year ago.

Recruiting: Hoke's tumultuous final year took a major toll on Michigan's recruiting. When four-star tight end Chris Clark reneged on his commitment Tuesday, the class shrunk to six prospects planning to play for the Wolverines next season. That's the smallest group of committed players among any Power 5 conference team at this point.

Michigan has top-notch facilities and is a well-respected university. Hoke's staff could go head-to-head with anyone in the Big Ten when it came to recruiting. The next staff should be able to have the same success but probably won't have time to salvage the 2015 class.
Michigan has made the difficult but correct decision to part with one of its own, a man who took the Wolverines' head-coaching job without discussing salary, who said he would have walked to Ann Arbor from San Diego for the gig.

"Getting over the Rockies would have been a little tough," Brady Hoke said in January 2011, "but we would have figured that out."

Hoke delivered that and other memorable lines during an introductory news conference that he won by four touchdowns, mainly because he accentuated his love and appreciation for Michigan's traditions and history. His three-digit labels for his Wolverines teams nodded to the past -- Team 132, Team 133 and so on -- and his refusal to call Michigan's rival by its full name delighted the fan base.

This guy gets us, they said, unlike that last guy. Never mind those unremarkable head-coaching credentials (47-50 at Ball State and San Diego State).

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsAs Michigan searches for Brady Hoke's replacement, winning should be the focus, not ties to the program.
"He doesn't have to learn the words to 'The Victors,'" then-athletic director Dave Brandon said at the time. "He has sung it many times in the locker room."

But Hoke didn't sing "The Victors" enough during his three-plus years at Michigan, and that's why he's out of a job. Appreciating and extolling Michigan's tradition isn't enough when you don't add to it. Dinging Ohio State isn't enough when you don't beat the Buckeyes very often. Defining successful seasons by Big Ten championships isn't enough when you don't deliver any. Wearing legends jerseys isn't enough when the current players aren't performing anywhere near legendary levels.

Hoke fit Michigan's culture better than Rich Rodriguez did. But neither man restored the glory. Michigan hired the opposite of Rodriguez in Hoke -- a defensive coach with deep roots in the program -- but got similarly underwhelming results.

As Michigan embarks on its third coaching search in seven years, it must truly look outward rather than inward. The school must cast a wide net and not eliminate candidates just because they've never set foot in Schembechler Hall and can't recite how many Big Ten championships the Wolverines have won.

It's 42, by the way. Michigan's top priority must be finding the guy who can win No. 43.

I'd be all for Michigan hiring Les Miles as its next coach or, as farfetched as it sounds, Jim Harbaugh (I don't consider John Harbaugh even a fringe candidate). But not because Miles and Harbaugh played at Michigan, or because Harbaugh grew up in Ann Arbor while his dad worked as a Michigan assistant coach.

Both are good hires because they win. Harbaugh transformed the Stanford program and has guided the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance and three NFC title games. Miles owns a national title and 103 wins at LSU.

Their Michigan connection is a nice bonus, but not the driving force.

If both men say no -- a likely possibility for Harbaugh, who will have other NFL opportunities if he parts ways with the 49ers; Miles, meanwhile, might want to stay with his damn fine football team in Baton Rouge -- Michigan must cast a wider net. Insular thinking will hurt Michigan in this search. So will arrogance.

Any coach interim athletic director Jim Hackett hires will have at least a decent knowledge of the program's tradition. Hackett, who, like Brandon, is a former Wolverines football player under Bo Schembechler, will make certain of it.

But celebrating what Michigan used to be ultimately isn't enough. Hoke showed that. It's about transforming what Michigan is -- a program that, despite every imaginable resource, has failed to win the Big Ten in a decade -- into something more successful.

Tradition is a great thing in college football. It also can be a crutch. Michigan's next coach should emphasize forging a new chapter in program history, while maintaining respect for the past.

If the right coach has no previous ties to Michigan, so be it. Alabama fell out of relevance when it made hiring its own -- Mike DuBose, Mike Shula -- a priority. Nick Saban was an outsider, and he's done OK in T-Town.

Former USC assistants Paul Hackett and Ted Tollner didn't work out as Trojans head coaches, but Pete Carroll, a first-timer at Heritage Hall, certainly did. Oklahoma has had more recent success hiring outside the Sooner family (Bob Stoops) than inside it (John Blake, Gary Gibbs).

College football history is filled with outsiders who pushed tradition-rich programs into the future, from Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame to Mack Brown at Texas to Schembechler at Michigan.

"I'm sure a job of that magnitude, that'll be a national search," an agent who represents college football coaches told me. "That'll be a big one."

During his introduction, Hoke bristled when told of the perception that Michigan is no longer an elite job.

"This is an elite job and will continue to be an elite job," Hoke said. "This is Michigan, for god sake."

He's right. But what Michigan is and what Michigan was are different things. Michigan fans hate the notion that the program is stuck in the past.

This hire is a chance to move Michigan forward. The right hire might happen to a Michigan Man, but it can't be the other way around.

B1G early look: Setting up Week 11

November, 3, 2014
The week we have had circled on the Big Ten calendar for the past month, if not far earlier, has finally arrived. Michigan State and Ohio State is the league’s marquee regular-season game this year, and the rest of Saturday’s slate should provide some insight into what to expect as we approach the postseason. Here is an early look at this week’s storylines worth following:

And the playoff nomination goes to: The Big Ten’s best chance to land in the initial College Football Playoff will be the winner of Saturday’s Michigan State-Ohio State matchup in East Lansing. The College Gameday crew will be in town for a week that will include plenty of buzz about both programs, who have become offensive juggernauts in the past couple years. Both teams enter the game with one of the country’s top five scoring offenses. Can this game in the national spotlight help change the perception of the Big Ten as a boring, cloud-of-dust league? Can it help cement a budding rivalry between the conference’s new Big Two? Can it live up to the hype it’s been receiving for the past month?

A round-robin begins in the West: Iowa travels to Minnesota this week for the first head-to-head meeting between the four teams still in contention for the West Division’s seat in the Big Ten championship game. Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin all have one conference loss so far. All four will play each other in the final four weeks of the season, setting up a de facto round-robin tournament to see who wins the division. Each Saturday will have at least one game with postseason implications from here on out. Minnesota might have the toughest road remaining. In addition to playing those three opponents, they also host Ohio State on Nov. 15.

A bowl-eliminator weekend for the bottom half: A handful of Big Ten teams will be competing to keep alive their chances of extra practice time this December. Indiana (3-5) needs to find a way to score points against Penn State to have a realistic shot at making the postseason for the first time since 2007. Purdue (3-6) needs to find a way slow down Wisconsin’s offense this weekend to keep its bowl hopes alive. Northwestern and Michigan, a pair of five-loss teams, face each other in Chicago. The winner of that game is in good shape, the loser will need an upset to get to six wins. The Nittany Lions (4-4) still have Temple and Illinois left on the schedule and could pretty much punch their ticket to the postseason with a win against Indiana.

Can anyone slow down the Badgers? Wisconsin welcomed the two Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers by beating them by a combined score of 89-7 during the past two weeks. After a clunker of a loss to Northwestern, the Badgers and Heisman hopeful Melvin Gordon have been running over their competition. What makes this team an emerging Big Ten title contender, though, is its stellar defense. No team in the country gives up fewer yards than Wisconsin’s 253.8 per game. Another big win against Purdue on Saturday will set up a game with potential playoff implications against Nebraska the following week. The Badgers, with two losses, aren’t really in contention for the playoff at this point, but they can spoil the Cornhuskers’ chances or give their resume a healthy bump.

Michigan begins its search for a new athletic director: The Wolverines revived a little momentum Saturday with a win against Indiana, but the attention in Ann Arbor this fall will likely remain away from the field. Former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon resigned last Friday. If the football team plans to make a coaching change after this season, there isn’t much time to find a replacement. Michigan won’t be filling that seat permanently this week, but there will be plenty of debate about potential candidates and what each might mean for a possible coaching search in the near future.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

October, 31, 2014
Happy Halloween! Before filling up on candy, dive into the mailbag to get set for the first weekend in November.

Austin Ward: The Nebraska star has certainly packed what might be a productive career for some running backs into a little more than half of a season, and Abdullah is doing some truly special things with the football this year. I'm not sure that he needs to add another 200-yard game to his resume necessarily to be worth of a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, but if he can tack one more on, it seems like a lock that he should be among the finalists. There are really two factors left for Abdullah at this point in his campaign for awards. First, the Huskers need to keep winning, and Abdullah carrying the team to the West Division title and maybe even the College Football Playoff would be huge for his candidacy. The second is shining in a specific game against another guy who will be getting votes in what should be a wildly entertaining matchup on Nov. 15 against Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin. And if Abdullah gets to that 200-yard mark again that week, just go ahead and punch his ticket to Gotham. Austin Ward: There's no one-size-fits-all answer that applies across the league, but the bottom line is the Big Ten needs to start winning more games outside the conference when it gets primetime opportunities against marquee opponents. Falling short in games against LSU, Oregon or even Virginia Tech isn't a good way to generate much momentum, and the SEC's stranglehold on the national title recently hasn't done the Big Ten any favors. This might be something of a chicken-or-egg situation since having great players obviously helps in claiming those meaningful victories, but programs such as Michigan State and Ohio State already have the athletes to go outside the league, win games and boost the reputation of the Big Ten. It just has to get the job done. Austin Ward: One search is already underway in the Michigan athletic department, and it seems a certainty that another will start when the season ends with Brady Hoke. And given how important knowing who the boss will be to the next coach for the Wolverines, they had better work quickly to replace Dave Brandon as the athletic director. The short list figures to have plenty of names with ties to the program, starting with UConn's Warde Manuel, Jeff Long of Arkansas and Boston College's Brad Bates. But if Michigan can't get somebody in place soon, things could get messy when it comes to firing Hoke and hiring a replacement. That's one reason it's difficult to envision Jim Harbaugh taking the reins, and it also continues to be tough to imagine he's ready to leave the NFL right now to head back to the college ranks without winning a Super Bowl. Somebody representing Michigan will have to make a run at him, though, which again underlines the importance of filling the AD vacancy as soon as possible. Austin Ward: The Spartans don't have many, but there are areas that aren't as strong as others that Ohio State will be focusing on next week ahead of the titanic battle in East Lansing. On defense, Michigan State doesn't seem nearly as solid across the board as it was a year ago and it might not be as athletic either. Purdue was able to move the ball without much trouble running an offense that looked pretty similar to Ohio State's, and it doesn't have nearly as much talent on offense as the Buckeyes. Offensively, Connor Cook has put up some impressive numbers and the Spartans are scoring seemingly at will, but the quarterback has looked a bit careless at times with the football and recently had a three-week stretch with at least one interception in every game that raised a small warning flag. He's going to have to be careful next week against an Ohio State secondary that leads the Big Ten in picking off passes.
Dave Brandon had no previous experience working in college sports when Michigan hired him as its athletic director in 2010. He was a businessman, most famously as leader of the Domino's Pizza chain.

He set about trying to run the Wolverines' athletic department like a business, which in many ways, of course, it is. But Brandon's tenure also reflected some of the worst tendencies of modern American corporate culture: the incessant focus on short-term profits over long-term loyalty, viewing customers as revenue streams and beating people over the head with marketing and "branding."

We could go over Brandon's many missteps -- the revelation of his incredibly tone-deaf emails to fans this week likely serving as the last straw for school president Mark Schlissel and the board of regents -- but in the end, it's pretty simple. Whether you work on Wall Street or State Street, any CEO's job depends on the bottom line. Brandon's fate wasn't sealed by a quarterly finance report, but by his football team's inability to play competently for four quarters under Brady Hoke.

[+] EnlargeDave Brandon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDave Brandon, hired as the Michigan Wolverines' athletic director in 2010, resigned on Friday.
So what Brandon's resignation on Friday really signals is the beginning of a new way forward for Michigan football. There was no real way Hoke was going to survive this season, not with a 10-12 record since Jan. 2013 and a host of embarrassing defeats. Hoke was already on his way out the door after the Shane Morris concussion debacle (aided by Brandon's own bumbling of the situation from a PR standpoint). Another blowout loss to Michigan State -- which included a silly pregame spectacle that prompted another public apology -- slammed and locked that door.

But the Wolverines couldn't move on from the Hoke era without first getting rid of the man who hired him. Brandon no longer had enough support or credibility to make the next major football decision. Dream candidates like Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles or really any other established head coach would have steered well clear of Ann Arbor if it meant working under Brandon and in the toxic atmosphere around him.

Brandon has long been viewed as a meddling AD who liked the spotlight; the former benchwarmer under Bo Schembechler had some definite Jerry Jones traits when it came to inserting himself into the football operations, so a low-key coach like Hoke was a good fit for him. The past few seasons have shown that the Michigan job is probably too big for Hoke, and no alpha-dog coach would want to deal with Brandon's interference. Even the Big House doesn't have enough room for two giant egos.

The timing of Friday's announcement should allow Hoke to finish out the season as coach. The Wolverines can take a month or so to hire the right athletic director, whether that is someone with Michigan ties like UConn's Warde Manuel, Boston College's Brad Bates or Arkansas' Jeff Long, or one who is not a "Michigan Man." Schlissel has only been school president for a little more than three months, and he won't and shouldn't be beholden to finding an AD who can play the six-degrees-of-Schembechler game.

The next athletic director's first agenda item will likely be the most important one he or she will ever make, as the Maize and Blue can't afford to whiff on a third straight football coaching hire. The next AD would also be wise to learn from Brandon's mistakes and listen to what Wolverines fans want, though that doesn't have to mean retreating into the tradition-worshiping navel-gazing that has hamstrung this program at times.

Michigan is too big to fail. Or at least it should be. Maybe Brandon could have survived the football setback had he not alienated so many people in the process. But CEOs are always slaves to their bottom line, and Michigan football is a stock that has bottomed out. This is the first step back up.

Big Ten morning links

October, 29, 2014
Welcome to a new age of college football. The year is now 1 CFPE. The College Football Playoff Era began last night with the first release of the selection committee’s Top 25 rankings.

1. The Big Ten landed three teams in the initial poll, which is about as good as the league could have expected. The No. 8 Spartans lead the way. Nebraska coming in at No. 15, one spot ahead of Ohio State, was the biggest surprise for Big Ten teams. As entertaining as it was to see the first rankings unveiled, next week’s will be far more interesting. Then we’ll find out if the committee will let its previous rankings affect the new version -- one of the biggest faults of the AP and Coaches’ polls -- or if it will more liberally move teams up and down based on how they look at the moment. Either way it’s safe to assume there will be just as much consternation and complaining about snubs as in the BCFPE.

2. Speaking of snubs, somehow Penn State’s Mike Hull was somehow left off of the list of 15 semifinalists for this year’s Butkus Award for the country’s top linebacker. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has a vote for the final winner, said he will make Hull a write-in candidate. Fitzgerald said the semifinalist lists, which he was on as a player in the mid-90s, are just a popularity contest. Hull did get noticed by the Bednarik Award folks this week. They added him to the watch list for their top defender award.

3. No snubs this week, however, were more headshaking than the ones Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon dished out to Wolverines fans via e-mail during the past year. A report on Tuesday revealed a collection of snarky and condescending e-mails that the beleaguered athletic director has sent to fans. It’s baffling that a man described as a master of public relations when he took the job at Michigan in 2010 could be so tone deaf when talking to his customers. Brandon called the blog report "nonsense" when asked about it leaving an award ceremony Tuesday night, but the messages can’t sit well with the university president currently mulling over Brandon’s future at Michigan.

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In Dave Brandon's ongoing battle to save his job at Michigan, Tuesday was not a good day for the beleaguered athletic director.

A Michigan spokesman said the school had "nothing else to add" to a report from that the highly-paid administrator sent caustic and condescending emails to fans who wrote to him with their concerns about the athletic department. The website reviewed email exchanges between Brandon and several different fans in which he allegedly told one to "quit drinking and go to bed" and another to "find a new team to support."

[+] EnlargeDave Brandon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsA report on says emails from Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told Michigan fans, among other things, to "find a new team to support."
The report, posted Tuesday morning, acknowledges there is no way to completely verify the messages were sent by Brandon himself, but goes to great lengths to eliminate any possibility of a hoax.

Brandon did not respond to messages from asking to confirm or deny the report. The university has yet to respond to ESPN's request to review messages sent from Brandon's official university email account through the Freedom of Information Act.

Both the report and the silence that followed from Brandon's office Tuesday is yet another public relations disaster for a man who was pitched as a whiz in that field when he left his job as Dominos Pizza CEO to become Michigan's athletic director. Those issues have been compounded by a struggling football program and a consistently shrinking profit margin that leaves Brandon's future in jeopardy.

The fifth-year athletic director and former Michigan football player has alienated students, alumni and fans in a variety of ways during his tenure. Former players say he ignored requests to set up a place where they could congregate during home games.

Students were upset when Brandon reworked the seating arrangements for football games without consulting them and raised season ticket prices for students to the highest in the Big Ten -- an issue he recently attempted to fix by dramatically dropping the price and promising to be more connected to the student body. Despite the change, the Michigan Daily reported that students still plan to distribute 2,000 "#FireDaveBrandon" T-shirts for Saturday's homecoming game against Indiana.

His detractors started online petitions and organized rallies to demand the university remove him from office earlier this autumn. Their main gripe in early October stemmed from Michigan quarterback Shane Morris playing in a game when he displayed concussion symptoms and the athletic department's butchered response to the incident.

The university's president and its governing board said they would conduct a "deliberate" review of the department at their October meeting. One regent, Mark Bernstein, said afterward that the reservoir of good will for Michigan athletics had run dry because of the department's recent mistakes.

"It's like a spark in a very, very dry forest," Bernstein said.

The flint and steel returned this week with the report by

Michigan's biggest athletic donor, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, offered his support to Brandon in October. On Monday, Ross told the Wall Street Journal that he wouldn't stand in the way of any decision Michigan decides to make with the athletic director.

There's no word on if or when Michigan's president will make a decision on Brandon's future, but the timing of a potential change is quickly becoming an issue. With a 3-5 record this season, the Wolverines football team may be looking to hire a new head coach in December if Brady Hoke can't orchestrate a turnaround on the field. Attempting to fill a head coaching job and an athletic director's seat in a short time window is a difficult task.

The Michigan spokesman did not comment on what effect Tuesday's news might have on Brandon's future. He said there was nothing else to add.

Big Ten morning links

October, 20, 2014

Good morning. A few thoughts before we get to the links:

1. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is receiving loads of attention as Ohio State continues its incredible offensive surge. And rightly so, because Barrett's numbers (20 total touchdowns, five interceptions, 65.2 percent completion rate) are astounding. He has the highest ESPN QBR score in the country since Sept. 6, the date of the Buckeyes' loss to Virginia Tech.

But let's not forget the improvement of Ohio State's offensive line. The young group with four new starters looked like a liability in the first couple of games. Since then, it has become a source of strength. The Buckeyes allowed no sacks on Saturday against Rutgers, whose defense came into the game leading the Big Ten in that category. The Scarlet Knights only had two tackles for loss and just one quarterback hurry. Ed Warriner's group showed similar dominance against Maryland, whose defensive front caused Iowa's offensive line all kinds of problems on Saturday.

Urban Meyer had his players give the assistant coaches a standing ovation after the Rutgers win. It's hard to tell just how good the Buckeyes are right now, Bob Hunter writes. But they look pretty darn good.

2. As great as Ameer Abdullah is, I thought Nebraska needed one more weapon to take its offense to a truly elite level. The Huskers might have found that extra option on Saturday at Northwestern.

De'Mornay Pierson-El, who to this point had done most of his damage on punt returns, had three catches and even threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong Jr., evoking memories of a famous trick play from Nebraska's past. The speedy true freshman gives Armstrong another target along with Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp. The Huskers were dominant offensively in the second half against a pretty good Northwestern defense, and Pierson-El was a big reason why.

"De’Mornay and Ameer and Kenny, when does it end?” offensive coordinator Tim Beck told the Omaha World-Herald. “You want those guys on the field, because now you've got to guard them all.”

3. Indiana just can't seem to sustain any kind of positive momentum. The Hoosiers were a trendy pick to make a bowl this season, especially after winning at Missouri on Sept. 20.

But since then, Kevin Wilson's team has gone just 1-3 (with the lone win over North Texas). And as IU showed in Saturday's 56-17 loss to Michigan State, it's highly doubtful that there is another win left on the schedule.

True freshman quarterback Zander Diamont clearly isn't ready, as his 5-for-15, 11-yard performance vs. the Spartans confirmed. He should be redshirting, but season-ending injuries to Nate Sudfeld and Chris Covington thrust him into action. Even with Tevin Coleman having a season for the ages, the Hoosiers don't have much of a chance without a passing attack and with a defense that can't win Big Ten games on its own. There's much to like about the young talent Wilson has brought to Bloomington, but Indiana continues to be stuck in program quicksand. The last five games will test the resolve of Wilson and his players.

West Division
East Division
And finally ...

Ohio State's band put on another amazing halftime show. Rock out to it. The Pinball Wizard part is my favorite.

Big Ten morning links

October, 17, 2014
I went to college with Brook Berringer. I did not know him well.

Berringer was 17 months older than me. The few times I interviewed him for the school newspaper, I thought he seemed much older than that, probably because he somehow stayed above the fray -- especially late in his career as a quarterback that happened to coincide with the most controversial and successful period in Nebraska football history.

Because of my own youth and lack of awareness, I failed at the time to recognize the impact of Berringer on people in Nebraska.

I saw him as just another guy with a good story. That is, until April 20, 1996, two days after Berringer died when the small plane he piloted crashed in a field north of Lincoln.

At Nebraska’s spring game, instead of celebrating consecutive national championships or another batch of Cornhuskers drafted into the NFL -- Berringer likely would have been among them -- the school and state mourned its fallen hero by playing a video tribute on the big screens.

Sports are often emotional. But not like that. That was not about sports. The stadium went completely silent. It remains the only time I’ve shed tears while sitting in a press box. I was far from alone.

The Big Ten Network documentary, “Unbeaten,” a 54-minute production on the life and death of Berringer, set to premier after the Nebraska-Northwestern game on Saturday, will similarly stir emotions for those who remember Berringer, and it will educate a generation of fans too young to have watched him play.

This fall marks the 20-year anniversary of his greatest football achievement, leading Nebraska to eight wins in place of injured star Tommie Frazier.

The documentary, directed by Matthew Engel and Kevin Shaw with Bill Friedman, BTN coordinating producer for original programming, hits all the right notes on Berringer.

It features no narration, only sound from a diverse lineup of former Berringer teammates and testimony from others, including Nebraska assistant Ron Brown, who recruited Berringer to Lincoln, and Kyle Orton, who has worn No. 18 since high school as a tribute to the QB.

An archived Berringer interview away from the field is particularly haunting. Forgotten audio from Keith Jackson lends important historical perspective.

“We wanted Brook to have a voice,” Engel said.

For Nebraska fans, the first half of the film largely serves as review of the 1994 and ’95 seasons, with impressive insight into the complicated dynamic of the Frazier-Berringer relationship. The final 25 minutes includes powerful reporting on the plane crash and its aftermath, poignant footage and a final sequence certain to move viewers like that April Saturday 18 years ago in Lincoln.

“He’s a guy who represents all that’s good about a college football player,” Friedman said. “He was a symbol of how Nebraskans want their football to be portrayed.”

Berringer’s impact is lasting, memorialized with a statue of the quarterback in uniform with his coach, Tom Osborne, that stands outside the entrance Nebraska’s athletic offices on the north side of Memorial Stadium.

Shaw said he visited Lincoln prior to documenting Berringer and saw the statue without knowing its significance. In learning about Berringer and remembering the statue, Shaw said, it was a “wow moment.”

“It was like, that’s that guy,” he said.

With “Unbeaten,” BTN succeeded in creating a film that will touch Nebraskans and teach others across the Big Ten about a quarterback who’s worth remembering for another 20 years and beyond.

Let’s go around the league:

East Division
West Division

Michigan knows win doesn't solve woes

October, 15, 2014
Two weeks ago, following a close defeat at the hands of Rutgers, Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess told reporters that wins and losses are only statistics. The sentiment appears to be the same around Schembechler Hall this week, despite the Wolverines at last landing on the happier side of that equation.

James Franklin, whose Nittany Lions lost to Michigan 18-13 on Saturday night in Ann Arbor, expressed the same idea with perhaps a bit more clarity earlier this year. Franklin’s team was 4-0 when he presciently (Penn State is 0-2 since) said wins or losses can mask the true state of a program.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesA win in his last game and a bye this week at least have given Brady Hoke some breathing room.
“Winning minimizes issues, and losing maximizes them, but the issues are still there,” he said.

Michigan’s primetime victory snapped a three-game losing streak and helped the team avoid starting 0-3 in Big Ten games for the first time in nearly 50 years. It provided coach Brady Hoke with a temporary reprieve from questions about his job security. The air is a little more breathable in Ann Arbor this week, but no one at Michigan is under the impression that a festive atmosphere and a single win have washed away the shortcomings of the first half of the season.

A loss to Penn State would have heightened the demand for Michigan to make the first in-season coaching change in program history, taking advantage of the upcoming bye week as a transition period. Even with the win, there’s no guarantee that turmoil will rest its legs during the bye along with the football team. Michigan’s Board of Regents, the university’s eight-person governing body, meets Thursday afternoon and plans to discuss the way the athletic department handled the controversy surrounding quarterback Shane Morris’ head injury. That group could heavily influence whether athletic director Dave Brandon survives the recent flubs in his department.

With the open date next on Michigan’s schedule, it seems a safer bet that Hoke will get a full two weeks to prepare for in-state rival Michigan State and sort through the mound of issues that have backed him and his program into a corner. It will be an unpleasant task made slightly more bearable by a successful night against Penn State.

“Winning always helps, but I think you make a mistake if you think it is the ultimate answer to everything that you’re doing,” Hoke said. “You evaluate and see what you can do better and what you need to do better. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of games left on the schedule and a lot of great opponents left.”

The pitfalls that have led to Michigan’s 3-4 record this season were not eliminated against the Nittany Lions. The running game’s struggles were amplified by the absence of leading rusher Derrick Green, who will miss the remainder of the season with a broken collarbone. Green’s replacements -- De'Veon Smith and Justice Hayes -- managed only 44 yards on 19 carries.

Senior Devin Gardner played a gutsy fourth quarter on a bad ankle, but he showed he has yet to eradicate the turnover issues that have consistently troubled him over the past two years. Gardner dropped a screen pass into the arms of Penn State defensive lineman Anthony Zettel early in the second quarter. The Wolverines narrowly avoided another momentum-swinging interception in the second half. Their turnover margin is still dead last among FBS schools.

Hoke said after the game that Gardner has played a big role in the locker room’s refusal to fold during the past month. On Tuesday, Michigan’s players were guarded when asked if the win validated their faith. They said there was a brief monkey-off-the-back sense of relief with winning, but they didn’t regain any confidence because they had never lost it in the first place.

The win, they admitted, makes smiling in the locker room feel slightly more acceptable and showing up to practice slightly more exciting. That will come in handy when attempting to chip away at the problems that winning can’t hide.

“It’s always good to win. It was a lot of fun,” said placekicker Matt Wile, who provided 10 of the team’s 18 points. “I definitely think that it gave us some momentum. We just have to keep bringing that momentum on to Michigan State."

Winning helps momentum and morale, but those were the least of Michigan's problems through seven weeks of the 2014 season. The win buys Hoke more time, but it doesn't make the task ahead of him any easier.

Michigan lights up the Big House

October, 12, 2014

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- An electric crowd, a stifling defense, modern-day trappings blended in proper proportion with an old-school Big Ten result. This was the vision that has danced in the heads of Michigan coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon for the better part of the past four years. For at least one night, they got to watch it play out.

Michigan (3-4) pounded its way to an 18-13 win Saturday over visiting Penn State (4-2) in front of the biggest crowd the Big House has seen this season. The 113,085 onlookers witnessed a dominant Michigan defensive line and a gutsy performance by its hobbled quarterback to seal the victory. Senior Devin Gardner returned from an ankle injury in the fourth quarter to push his offense just far enough for a game-winning field goal, ending the night’s drama in enough time to allow for a celebration and a collective sigh of relief.

“The environment, the crowd, there’s no place better in this country when you have a game like this than Michigan Stadium,” Hoke said.

Games like this have been hard to come by for Hoke and Brandon. Their Wolverines entered Saturday’s prime time matchup in a state of disarray. On the field, the team had lost four of its past five games and gave few reasons to be optimistic about a turnaround. Controversy and attempts to manufacture hype away from the field put the embattled coach and his boss on equally shaky ground in terms of job security.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess helped spark Michigan with this first-quarter catch against Penn State's Ryan Keiser.
Hoke heaped praise on his players after the game for their resilience during the past month, but acknowledged the team was in desperate need of some validation.

“It certainly helps,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

Michigan’s fortunes started to turn on its first possession. Gardner (16-for-24, 192 yards) lofted a pass down the middle of the field that looked destined to land in the arms of Penn State safety Ryan Keiser. Gardner was benched two weeks earlier largely because of turnover issues. Instead of another deflating mistake, though, wide receiver Devin Funchess stepped in front of Keiser and yanked the ball away to complete a 43-yard scoring play.

That would be Michigan's final trip to the end zone, but a fire blanket of a defense took the baton from there. Michigan’s front seven abused Penn State’s inexperienced offensive line and its star quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. The Wolverines sacked Hackenberg six times and pressured him into several other poor decisions.

Jourdan Lewis intercepted an ill-advised throw in the third quarter that set up a game-tying field goal. A three-and-out and shanked punt in the fourth quarter gave Michigan’s offense the ball in good position again. Gardner completed two passes to get place-kicker Matt Wile in range to give his team a 16-13 lead. More pressure backed Hackenberg up to his goal line in the final minutes and forced Penn State to snap a ball out of the back of its end zone for a safety. A defensive line missing its most effective interior rusher (tackle Willie Henry) played a major role in creating Michigan's final eight unanswered points.

The near sell-out crowd roared in approval. The week started with threats of a student boycott to show their disapproval with the direction of the program. The lure of a night game brought them out in full force, waving yellow pompoms and creating an atmosphere that Michigan Stadium hasn’t seen since its previous two “Under The Lights” affairs -- both wins against Notre Dame.

“That was awesome tonight,” center Jack Miller said. “We feed off that kind of stuff. We love it.”

The buzz inside the Big House continued during halftime with a well-orchestrated light show from the Michigan marching band. Former players lined the team's walk to its locker room earlier in a show of support. Brandon’s attempts to add new life to the storied old stadium finally struck the right chord with a student body and alumni that has grown tired with his previous gimmicks.

“We try to create a spectacle,” Brandon said following the game. “It’s a great stadium and when you light it up, that’s what it is -- a spectacle.”

When the sun rises Sunday morning, Michigan will still have a losing record. The prospects of a bowl game will still be dim. Its team will still be plagued with the same problems that have caused it to stumble more often that not this season. The offense still struggled to run the ball consistently against Penn State. Gardner still threw an interception. Hoke and Brandon will still be climbing a steep, uphill battle to restore their reputations and save their jobs.

Two weeks from now, after a bye, the Wolverines face in-state rival Michigan State -- a Big Ten power with the potential to wipe clean the memories of this weekend’s spectacle.

Still, Hoke and Brandon should savor the moment. Both men might not be around for more nights like this in Ann Arbor. If this is indeed their final season as Michigan men, at least they got a taste of what they expected at the start of a promising relationship. They showcased a tough team on a glitzy stage Saturday -- a vision realized if only for one night.

Big Ten morning links

October, 9, 2014
Chaos or calmness this weekend?

Fortunately we only have to wait two more days to find out. Until then, let's pass the time with some hot topics and the best links around for the Big Ten.

1. Undercover contender?: Maybe it's among the longest of long shots. Maybe the passing game is too weak, the schedule too hard and the rebuilding project too incomplete at this point. But if a one-loss Big Ten champion is likely to make it into the College Football Playoff field as I believe it is, why not Minnesota? Don't laugh. The Gophers will be favored in the next three games before taking the first Saturday in November off with a bye, and winning all those matchups would not only put them in the driver's seat in the West Division, it would potentially put them in position for an unlikely bid into the four-team field at the end of the season. Obviously the hard part will come next month when the Gophers host Ohio State and follow that up with an extremely difficult two-game road trip against Nebraska and Wisconsin. But if Minnesota can somehow find a way to run the table in the Big Ten, its only loss would be on the road against a TCU -- a defeat that looks better every week. Are the Gophers likely to pull it off? Of course not. But in a few weeks, the spotlight might be shining brightly on Jerry Kill's program.

2. Monitoring Michigan: The heat of Brady Hoke's seat hasn't cooled any, but at least for a week it seems like the attention has been more about on-field issues than what's going on in the Michigan athletic department or how the coach feels about his job security. Perhaps it's because there's really nothing Hoke can add to the conversation at this point or because it seems like his exit is inevitable at this point. Having a prime-time game with another storied opponent helps steer the conversation away from Hoke and embattled athletic director Dave Brandon as well, but expect that to just be a momentary reprieve if the Wolverines can't right the ship under the lights against Penn State. If Michigan falls to 2-5 heading into an off date with Michigan State looming, the scrutiny will return -- and probably reach record-setting levels.

3. Double-bye blues: Urban Meyer has made it pretty well known that he's not enjoying the extra weekend off this season, particularly with Ohio State building momentum with its young offense and eager to keep the ball rolling after blowing out Maryland on the road. It surely doesn't help that the Buckeyes just had an off date two weeks ago, which in some ways has disrupted the normal in-season practice routine and forced Meyer to get a bit more creative with how he handles reps and when to return to the field before next week's game against Rutgers. The double-bye season also contributes to a relatively light schedule in the league for Week 7, with Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska all resting on Saturday as well. In fact, the next three weekends all feature four teams kicking up their feet. With two fewer Big Ten football games to watch, count me with Meyer as no fan of the scheduling model this season either.

East Division
  • Michigan is still comfortable with the depth it has on hand at running back despite losing Derrick Green to injury.
  • Michigan State has another weapon emerging at wide receiver.
  • Penn State has attacked practice with a greater sense of urgency after losing handily to Northwestern.
  • Rutgers wrapped up its 2016 schedule by inking a deal with New Mexico.
  • Even after losing its first Big Ten home game, Maryland can still see the benefits of joining the league.
  • Urban Meyer wasn't quite sure who he voted No. 1 after a wild weekend in college football, but he thinks it was Florida State.
  • A look at what makes at the Indiana job so difficult.
West Division
  • Some Nebraska legends like what they see from De'Mornay Pierson-El.
  • Another scheduling tweak for 2016: Iowa's visit to Rutgers was moved up. The Hawkeyes will open Big Ten play on the road five years in a row.
  • Can Northwestern continue to improve on offense?
  • Minnesota will likely be without starting cornerback Derrick Wells on Saturday.
  • Statistics don't paint a pretty picture for the Illinois defense.
  • Is there more that Melvin Gordon could possibly do to help Wisconsin? Evidently he thinks there is.
  • The Purdue secondary is preparing for a big test against Michigan State.