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Domino Effect

Former corporate CEO Dave Brandon's arrival at Michigan was supposed to herald a new era for athletic directors but instead brought about new lows for a storied program

DAVE BRANDON didn't wind up "resigning" in his fifth season as Michigan's athletic director last Friday because he dared to propose shooting off fireworks at Michigan Stadium. The former Wolverines defensive end and Domino's Pizza chairman and CEO didn't get pushed out just for jacking up the prices on student tickets after eliminating priority seating for upperclassmen. Nor did Brandon hit the bricks solely because his handpicked head coach hasn't won enough games or because Brandon liked to watch film with coaches on Sundays and suggest strategy.

All of those factors conspired to spell doom for Brandon, who tried to run Michigan's athletic department the way he had run Domino's: He was a marketing guy in a performance business. He learned the hard way that you can't treat fans—especially those of a team that is falling short of expectations—like the consumers of $10 pizzas. Hungry cheese lovers look for the best deal, and they might be swayed to your offering by a $2 discount or a new crust stuffed with bacon or marshmallow. But college football fans, many of whom are born into their fandom—or paid dearly for it through tuition—operate differently. Brandon reportedly responded to emails from angry fans by suggesting they find another school for which to root, one of many indicators that he didn't get college football. He failed to understand that rooting for Michigan and not Ohio State is not the same as choosing Domino's over Pizza Hut.

Fans of one of the nation's most hallowed football programs are already loyal to the bone. Their allegiance isn't deepened by a new uniform or a jazzier in-stadium experience. Michigan supporters were insulted by a rescinded promotion to give away two tickets to the Minnesota game with the purchase of two bottles of Coke. (Tickets many had spent hundreds on were suddenly worth less than a few bottles of soda?) Fans are customers, but they're also invested—emotionally as much as financially. They buy history and tradition and success. They want a winner.

So what now? Who can Michigan hire to build back trust and replace Brady Hoke with a coach who will win more? The modern AD must be an excellent fund-raiser, and he also must understand how to straddle the line between modernizing the operation and changing it so drastically that fans no longer get that surge of school spirit when they see the players slap the GO BLUE banner on the way to the field. At the same time the best ADs also know enough about football and basketball to hire winning coaches in the two revenue sports.

Michigan's hiring of Brandon in 2010 represents one extreme of the continuum between the grizzled ex-coach AD and the plucked-from-corporate-America AD. CEOs with backgrounds in low-priced consumables may have run nine-figure organizations, but being an AD requires more than management skills. The best private-sector equivalent is a good casino head, because he or she would understand how to appease the whales (big-money boosters) while also keeping the $10 blackjack tables full. This isn't to suggest that Michigan, which chose former Steelcase CEO and near Brandon clone Jim Hackett as its interim AD, should hire the guy running Caesars Palace any more than the one atop Little Caesars. But the school should be looking for someone with that breadth of skill.

Lucky for UM, there are plenty of people already working in college athletics with the proper management toolbox. While Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, a former Wolverines administrator and football graduate assistant, is a Michigan Man, school president Mark S. Schlissel, who came to Ann Arbor from Brown in July, wisely says that such connections aren't a prerequisite for the job. Long is a great candidate, but there's no need to narrow the applicant pool. Northwestern's Jim Phillips has emerged as an early favorite. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione is the gold standard, and any school would be lucky to have him if he were interested. Kansas State's John Currie, who modernized that athletic department without taking away its charm, has the skills. So does TCU's Chris Del Conte, who raised enough money for a stadium rebuild in a down economy.

Michigan is too proud of an athletic program to wallow long. Football can reclaim its place in the upper echelon of college sports quickly with the correct hire. Schlissel seems to understand what is required. If any candidate suggests free bread sticks with the purchase of a football ticket, chances are the interview will be over.

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