Typically, when a major college football program takes a downswing and gets embarrassed, like Michigan did against Utah, the fans clamor for the head coach to be fired. And make no mistake about it, fans are clamoring for Hoke to be fired, after a relatively uninspiring run as Michigan headman.
But Michigan fans also reserve a special enmity towards their athletic director, Dave Brandon. Why? ADs are typically just suits. They aren't meddling with the day-to-day operations of the football program (although enough people seem to think Brandon does that he needed to deny it). They're traditionally just handling the behind the scenes stuff.
But the Michigan community's dislike of Brandon is well justified, and if and when the Wolverines decide to clean house, they should start at the top; not just for the good of Michigan, but for the entire Big Ten.
Perhaps the most public duty for an AD is to hire coaches, and Brandon has hired a few, including a new baseball coach. Big Ten baseball isn't exactly a premier destination, but it's not like Michigan's program is without tradition. The Wolverines won three straight Big Ten titles from 2006-2008, and the program has even won a national title twice.
After Rich Maloney departed, Brandon hired Erik Bakich, previously the head coach at Maryland. Bakich's since compiled a less than impressive 70-98 record in three years at Maryland, never making the postseason, or finishing better than 10-20 in conference play. After two seasons at Michigan, Bakich is 59-56, never cracking higher than fourth and never making the postseason beyond the Big Ten Tournament.
Ironically enough, Maryland earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 2012, two years after Bakich left the program. The Terps may now be one of the better programs in the Big Ten.
For women's basketball, Brandon hired Kim Barnes Arico from St. John's in 2012. In two years at the helm, Michigan is 42-25, with a Second Round NCAA Tournament appearance and a WNIT bid last season. The Wolverines have not finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten, and with Maryland and Rutgers joining, an already tough league is about to get tougher. Michigan women's basketball had struggled before Arico, as the program had only one NCAA bid since the 2001-2002 season. But early returns aren't anything to be exceptionally excited about, especially since the program is only 2-11 against ranked teams over the last two seasons.
Brandon also retained highly successful club lacrosse coach John Paul as the Michigan lacrosse program transitioned into an NCAA program. The on the field results have been a bloodbath, as Michigan has won a whopping seven games over three years, but the team plays a tough schedule and is recruiting well, and there probably isn't a reason to think that Paul won't be a capable choice. With Maryland, Rutgers, and Johns Hopkins, along with a capable Ohio State squad on the schedule in the future though, it's going to be a few more years before this program is anything resembling a finished product.
So three job openings for sports that people follow, and right now, it doesn't look like any are home run hires, although it's still early. And then there is Brady Hoke.
How should we evaluate the job Hoke has done so far? Well, let's ask Dave Brandon:
We have what I call the "benchmark competitors" as part of my review here at Michigan. It's important that we win all our games; and it's important that we are competitive for all of our games. But I look at Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, and any bowl opponents - as my coach [i.e., Bo] used to call those, "red-letter games." If you want to be successful at Michigan, you better win more than your share of those red-letter games. And those red-letter games over the last three seasons, we've been 3 and 15. And we have to have a coach who's able to come in and put us in a position where we can compete with those programs, because they're good.
Okay, that's fair. Brandon believes his head coach needs to be successful against the best teams on the schedule, given that Michigan is Michigan after all. He didn't specifically add Nebraska or major non-conference games (other than Notre Dame) in there, but in the spirit of that quote, let's go ahead and include them as well.
How does Hoke do? Not great.
Since the start of his tenure, Hoke is 7-14 in so-called "Red Letter" games. He's 0-9 on the road, and if you take 2011 away, he's 3-12 -- and that isn't even counting Utah. With Penn State and road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State still on the schedule, this record will probably get worse before it gets better. All the highly rated recruiting classes in the world can't save you if you are putting up results like that.
How important is it to nail a head coaching hire? From Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian's The System:
Still, Brandon knew he could ill afford to make a mistake. For an athletic director today there is no more important hire than that of a head football coach. Mess up and bowl and television revenue begin to dry up, donations drop, the entertainment and merchandising dollars find other outlets.
"You're dead," Brandon said.
Of course Dave Brandon isn't the first prominent athletic director to swing and miss on a few hires. That alone seldom earns an administrator the ire of a fanbase typically reserved for their archrivals. And it isn't that Brandon is bad at managing the books. On the contrary, during his first three years, Michigan sports turned a $9 million dollar surplus.
But unlike a pizza company, Michigan athletics don't exist simply to make money. Fans only care if that money is conclusively used to further the goals of the athletic department.
For example, we're now seeing tweets like these:
The sad thing is that Utah got paid $1M to come to Ann Arbor to beat us but our school won't even give us $100 for gas money to our tourneys— Michigan Club Golf (@UofMClubGolf) September 21, 2014
Sure, that's a club sport and all, but those are bad optics.
Also, from noted Michigan Man John U. Bacon's excellent book, Fourth and Long, re: Michigan's trip to Cowboys Stadium to face Alabama in 2012:
In April of 2012, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon sent band director Scott Boerma an RFP, or a "request for proposal", which is how CEOs ask for a sales pitch. Brandon told Boerma to put together a page of bullet points explaining why Boerma thought it would be better for the band to fly to Dallas for the season opener against Alabama, on September 1.
"We did so" Boerma told me, "and we turned it in. We never expected Brandon to fly us down, but we hoped. At that point, it was my assumption that we would have a conversation about those bullet points, most likely making compromises on both sides. But a few days later, we heard that the answer was simply no. And that was it."
..If Brandon eliminated a home game or the possibility of an attractive home-and-home against Alabama for the chance to play in Jerry World primarily for the record paycheck, as he stated, then why couldn't Michigan afford the $400,000 it would cost to take the marching band?
But if you looked at Brandon's decision to leave the band behind purely from a short-term business perspective, it made sense. The band trip would have cost real money, coming right off the bottom line, but would not influence the outcome or ticket sales or TV. Fans would not wait in long lines to buy Michigan Marching Band uniforms...and EA Sports was not champing at the bit to put Michigan's drum major on the cover of its next marching band video game.
But hey, it's not like Michigan fans think their marching band is important or anything, right?
Shortly after Bill Martin became athletic director in 2000, he commissioned a survey titled "Fans Speak Out on Game Day Experience", by his good friend, Republican pollster Bob Teeter...When these season ticket holders were asked to rank the importance of twenty-three aspects of the game-day experience...the marching band finished a close fourth, with 83 percent, two places ahead of the final score, and four ahead of the quality of opponent.
Thus, whether the Wolverines won or lost, or which team they were playing, in other words, the football game, was less important to the fans than seeing the marching band. After all, the band remained undefeated.
It's almost like the pageantry and tradition of college football, which binds fans to the sport, includes aspects that can't be crudely measured on a spreadsheet. Eventually, a donor ponied up the money to allow the band to attend the game, and Dave Brandon heroically called the entire event a "misunderstanding" and a "family squabble".
This wasn't an isolated event. Brandon moved a Michigan/Michigan State hockey game away from Michigan's campus so it could be played in Chicago, after season ticket renewals had already happened. He gouged students on ticket prices and messed up where they could sit. He's so out of touch that he thinks that cell phone service is "the biggest challenge we have".
And then of course, for an athletic program that is nothing if not proud, the final insult:
Congrats, Michigan fans. The market value of your tickets is now roughly half of what you paid for lunch today. As you might expect, Michigan fans were not pleased.
Right after Brandon left Domino's Pizza, the chain made national headlines with a rather unconventional advertisement, where they acknowledged that their pizza did, in fact, suck:
It was a bold move, but Domino's was widely regarded as pretty bad, and acknowledging it and making some drastic changes helped them regain credibility in the marketplace. It's not typically a good sign for your the person synonymous with your brand if you have to make such an ad when you leave, but there you go.
Michigan is at that point now. It doesn't matter how good their sales team is if their product is terrible, and Michigan Football has become the Domino's Pizza of the Big Ten. As much as us Buckeye fans are loath to admit it, all of us benefit from a Michigan that isn't completely in the dregs.
It's time for Michigan to admit their product sucks, and make some big changes to restore public trust. That probably means replacing Brady Hoke. But it should include Dave Brandon, too.