About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review of John Bacon's Endzone

Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football
John U. Bacon
St. Martin's Press, 2015
480 pages

Several years ago, I realized that I had lost my passion for college football.  It was not a sudden process.  The arrival of baseball in Washington D.C. in 2005 and the explosion of new information via the saber-metrics revolution consumed most of my sports bandwidth as I sought to reacquaint myself with the sport of my youth.  In the wake of NCAA's miserable handling of the Penn State affair, I decided I was pretty much done with college football except at a very casual level.

In the past year or so, though, several things have happened to bring me back around.  First, the NCAA largely reversed its position on Penn State, restoring to it 112 wins that had been vacated.  For reasons I explained earlier, I find the vacating of wins to be an unacceptable means of enforcing rules.  Perhaps it's the history buff in me, but I'm not good at pretending what happened didn't happen and I don't want to invest my time in a sport where the game is never really over.

The other major development was the return of 49ers head coach and former University of Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh to coach at Michigan, one of my two alma maters.  For those unfamiliar with Michigan football it's hard to fathom the depths of exactly precisely how big of a phenomenon this was.  Among other things, the story of how Harbaugh returned to Michigan engendered a new book before he had coached a single game there.

So intense was the interest in Harbaugh's return,
  Endzone was published before Harbaugh
hadcoached a single game at Michigan.
The story begins in 2007 when tiny Appalachian State shocked the collegiate football world by coming into Michigan Stadium and knocking off the Wolverines.  The following week saw Oregon humiliate Michigan 39-7.  Although the "Maize and Blue" would win nine of its last 11 games to finish 9-4 with a Citrus Bowl victory, coach Lloyd Carr was done.  West Virginia head coach Richard Rodriguez was brought in to coach in 2008.  But under "RichRod" and successor Brady Hoke, Michigan football would average less than seven wins a season from 2008-2014.

The results on the football field, however, were only the manifestation of years of decline, according to John Bacon's Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football.  Bacon, author of numerous books on the Michigan football program and now its leading scribe, describes how and why Michigan Football declined, what it meant to the University and those who are part of it, and finally how it "returned."  To do this, Bacon takes his reader back to the founding of the Michigan athletics program in the late 19th century and provides a guided tour through its highlights.  It was out of this history that Michigan's traditions emerged, none more important than the enigmatic concept of the "Michigan Man."

The Michigan Man (or as Bacon acknowledges Michigan Woman as well these days) is someone who values community, putting the needs of the University of Michigan before their own.  Excellence at Michigan is a given.  But it must be coupled with a strong ethical core as well.  Cutting corners is unacceptable.  Excellence, ethics and community are at the heart of the concept of the "Michigan Man/Woman" to Bacon.  After the retirement of revered coach Glenn "Bo" Schembechler, the University's leaders largely lost touch with these values.

Jim Harbaugh (left) and his mentor, Bo Schembechler
By 2014, the entire Michigan community had come to realize this.  As Bacon astutely notes, when students marched over to President Mary Sue Coleman's House, they did not demand the firing of the head coach (as they would have had they simply been concerned about wins and losses).  It was the Athletic Director, Dave Brandon, they were after, and most of Endzone is concerned with his tenure as A.D. and its legacy.

Although just a bench warmer, Brandon himself had played football at Michigan under Schembechler.  He became in his own words an "All American" at business however, amassing a multi-million dollar fortune as CEO of Domino's Pizza, and served on the University's governing body.  On paper he appeared to be a "Michigan Man" par excellence.

Bacon documents carefully, though, that Brandon had not learned what the concept truly encompassed.  Stories abound of how Brandon put himself about the community and ran the Athletic Department like a business, forgetting as Bacon notes that college football is more akin to religion than business despite the big bucks involved at the highest levels.

Through numerous missteps, Brandon antagonized and alienated virtually all of his constituencies. Long time employees were let go.  Former Michigan athletes alienated by the failure to extend trivial, customary courtesies.  Students were forced to pay greatly inflated prices for games featuring lower and lower quality opponents and  suffered under Brandon's policy of seating students by general admission leaving it nearly impossible to enjoy games with friends.  As demand for tickets dropped, the department began to virtually give away seats, diminishing their value and hurting loyal long term season ticket holders.  As a result of these missteps, when Michigan began losing games Brandon found himself without a lot of friends willing to stand by him.

Many of his mistakes seem to have been driven by Brandon's maniacal pursuit of the "Director's Cup," awarded to the collegiate athletic director for overall athletic performance.  Millions were spent in pursuit of excellence in relatively obscure sports to the detriment of those with greater interest among the alumni and fan base whose support was vital to keep up with Brandon's growing levels of spending.  It was as if Brandon was trying to make up for not being an All-American football player at Michigan by being an All-American Athletic Director.

An antihero but not a villain, Dave Brandon lost sight
 of what it meant to be a "Michigan Man" pursuing
reputation at the expense of the greater Michigan community.
In 2011 Brandon's insecurity with his legacy would lead to his biggest failure of all. After deciding to let Rodriguez go, Brandon bungled the pursuit of Jim Harbaugh, who many felt should have been hired as Michigan's next head coach.  But Brandon set difficult conditions, in effect telling Harbaugh that Brandon would be the face of Michigan.

In Harbaugh's words, the negotiations left him "not feeling the love."  The man who had put first San Diego State and then Stanford Football on the map would choose the NFL instead, guiding his team to the NFC Championship in his first year as a pro coach and the Super Bowl the next.  Michigan meanwhile would endure a four year slide under Brady Hoke, culminating in a 5-7 season.

By late 2014, however, things had changed.  Brandon was out, seemingly as the result of a P.R. miscue involving an injured Michigan player he failed to contain.  Another A.D. would likely have survived, but Brandon had burned through all of his good will.  On the other side was a determined, fired up group of students, regents and alumni more than ready to show him the door,  With Brandon gone, Harbaugh was back in play.  This time, there would be no miscues.  Every possible button was pushed to recruit him and his wife by letting them know how badly they were wanted in Ann Arbor.

It's telling that Bacon's declared that Michigan football had "returned" occurred before playing a single down under Harbaugh.  Michigan football isn't about wins, but doing things a certain way, the "Michigan way" with the belief that the wins will eventually follow.  Bringing in a coach who understood this and embodied the school's values was all that was needed to constitute "return."

For anyone who wishes to understand this episode in collegiate athletics, Endzone is really "must reading."  It eschews simple explanations, delving deeply into Bacon's seemingly endless reservoir of Michigan history to produce a compelling and highly thoughtful analysis. Even those with no connection to the University will be fascinated with the story of how a great institution loses it way and what it must do to restore itself by remaining true to its values.  As such it would make a great case study for business school.  Finally, Bacon's loving portrayal of Michigan is so compelling that any high school student who reads it will likely make it a first choice.

Things are looking bright at the "Big House" these days.

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