When I tweeted that I was excited to get my advance copy of John U Bacon's newest book, "Endzone, the rise, fall and return of Michigan football", the response I got from Ohio State fans was, predictably, less than positive.
"Return of Michigan football? Seems awfully premature to write a book about that before the play a single game this season. Typical Michigan hubris," was a pretty common theme in my mentions and elsewhere on social media, and if I'm being honest, when I first heard about the book, I might have thought something a little similar.
But this book is not that at all. Instead, it's an exhaustive history of the behind the scenes at Michigan, what led to the Dave Brandon era, why the Brandon era struggled (and perhaps not coincidentally, the Hoke era as well), and how Michigan wiffed on Harbaugh the first time, and managed to beat the very long odds to bring in the hire the second time around.
The fact that the Dave Brandon struggled while at Michigan was not a secret. Things got so bad that I wrote way back in September, before the Shane Morris hit, before the "you should find a new team to support" emails, that Brandon should be fired from Michigan. Things were so bad that a thousand Michigan students showed up at a Fire Dave Brandon rally (how many students at say, Maryland or Northwestern, can even name their athletic director?). The biggest misfires, from a protracted and public squabble with the Michigan student body over ticket policies, to the ugly and ostentatious marketing campaigns, played out in the public sphere, all but emptying out whatever mystique was left in the reservoir of Michigan athletics. It was really bad.
Actually, it was probably worse than that, since every public Brandon misfire was built upon multiple private ones, several of which really threatened the Michigan athletic department. Bacon pulls no punches in an exhaustive, and fair, recounting of not just what happened, but what it meant in the context of Michigan athletics.
Bacon is able to do this because he's a true Michigan Man, and I say this without any pejorative sense whatsoever. Bacon's from Ann Arbor, he teaches at Michigan, he's connected to all corners of the Michigan universe, from regents and big donors to student journalists and MGoBloggers, and can bring a healthy appreciation for the values and history of not just Michigan athletics, but Michigan, the institution. Having that background, while it may cause a hardcore Ohio State partisan to roll their eyes a few times while reading, is critical to placing the events in 2014 in their proper context, and understanding the whole story.
So, after reading the 450+ pages, what else did we learn?
- Dave Brandon wanted to pitch a 16 team Big Ten, but broken down in a way that would nuke the idea of an actual schedule. From the book: " ..Dave says, "I've got this great idea! Expand the Big Ten into 16 teams, eight a side, and break those down into groups of four, A, B, C and D, that just play each other. After the third game, you reshuffle the deck, and the top teams play each other, and the second teams play each other, and so on.". It was, surprise, not well received.
- Speaking of bad ideas, in the throes of Big Ten divisional realignment, Dave Brandon proposed that the Ohio State/Michigan game be occasionally moved to October, or in some cases, not played at all. He also proposed that Ohio State and Michigan be in different Big Ten divisions.
- Astute fans have often wondered if the official attendance records are actually accurate, especially Michigan's, since they claimed to still have 100,000+ in the stadium for every game during the Rodriguez and Hoke eras. That skepticism is well-founded. Bacon reports that during the 2014 Michigan/Miami (OH) game, only 87,608 tickets were sold, and even when you add in the glut of tickets that Michigan gave away, it only added up to 97,751. Michigan reported attendance of 102,824 for that game. Only 83,268 fans paid to watch Michigan take on Maryland that year as well.
- The biggest cause for that? It actually wasn't among season ticket holders or even general admission, but student attendance, which cratered in 2014, thanks to increased prices, a terrible home slate and bad team performance, plus a protracted fight with the Brandon administration over where they could sit and with whom. Athletics directors have worried a lot recently about a general decline in student attendance, but rather than spending money on expensive consultants or fretting over Wi-Fi, it's almost as if letting students sit with their friends, at affordable prices, watching quality football matters more.
- Those that clamored that Harbaugh going to Michigan as being extremely unlikely are not wrong, and Bacon chronicles the series of unlikely events that needed to come together in order to make it happen, from regent elections, to unlucky bounces on the football field, to Brandon being dumb enough to send those emails (and MGoBlog being able to publish them) to the 49ers implosion, to both sides patching up hard feelings about Harbaugh's 2007 remarks about academics at Michigan. Perhaps one of the most important brokers to get Harbaugh to Michigan wasn't a letterman, or a major donor, or politician, but a 40-something dishwasher at a pizza place. It's a weird story.