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Commentary

Time to rebuild the football team and re-examine U of M sports in a new era

Jack Lessenberry

More than 30 years ago, I had just become national politics writer for a Midwestern newspaper, and was sent off to cover a national Roman Catholic Bishops’ conference in Chicago.

I was somewhat indignant about that.

I complained to the managing editor, a red-eyed old Irishman who seemed straight out of The Front Page.

I was the politics writer, not the religion writer, I said. He fixed me with a bleary stare. He was a Catholic himself. 

“This has nothing to do with religion. It’s all politics,” he said.

Turned out that he was completely right. I thought of this yesterday, when Brady Hoke, the University of Michigan’s football coach, was fired.

This was about as surprising as the news that the days are getting shorter and the temperatures colder. I am not an expert on sports. My football strategy is all about trying to avoid being trapped somewhere where I’d have to watch a whole game.

But what’s been going on here has to do with politics as well as football. And it seems to me that what has happened in recent weeks – the self-destruction of athletic director Dave Brandon and the demise of his football coach – is a tremendous gift for new U of M President Mark Schlissel.

That’s not saying that he wanted this to happen. I have never met President Schlissel, and am privy to nothing behind the scenes. But the fact is this: Michigan is one of many schools where the athletic department and the football team are powers unto themselves.

Brady Hoke and even some of his coaches were paid more than the president of the university.

President Schlissel came to the U of M from Brown University, an Ivy League school where football is not a major factor.

Dealing with a powerful athletic program hadn’t been part of his responsibilities. He had never set foot in Michigan before taking this job, and there were concerns that he might be bowled over by an entrenched and politically ambitious athletic director. It was no secret that Brandon had thoughts of running for governor.

But now the new president has the opportunity to select his own athletic director, and rebuild the football team and reexamine U of M sports in a new era.

There’s one tradition in national politics that I think works pretty well. Whenever a new president takes office, all the members of the old president’s cabinet automatically resign, giving him, or someday her, a chance to build their own team.

Occasionally, you might have one holdover, like Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Yet basically, new Presidents are expected to come in with their own people.

Universities are different, but while President Schlissel wasn’t making as much as his football coach, he makes almost twice the salary of President Obama.

And he is the administrator of a multi-billion dollar operation that is hugely important to this state. Michigan is much more than a football team with a school attached to it, no matter what the guys at the corner bar think.

But that team is a huge part of the school’s identity. What has happened this fall gives the school’s new president an opportunity to make the athletic program truly his.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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