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Michigan's David Brandon Missing Recipe for Success

Jan 5, 2011 – 2:30 PM
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Joe Lapointe

Joe Lapointe %BloggerTitle%

Rich RodriguezWhen David Brandon ran the Domino's Pizza business from Ann Arbor, Mich., the product deteriorated so much that the company tried to turn its negatives into positives.

In television commercials, it admitted its crust chewed like cardboard and its sauce tasted like ketchup. Late in Brandon's watch, Domino's vowed to improve the product that had declined while he was boss.

Brandon is now the rookie athletic director at the University of Michigan -- a school with a lot of dough and plenty of crust -- and he is facing a similar crisis in his historically prestigious football program. Lately, it's gotten kind of cheesy.

Although Brandon did not hire Rich Rodriguez as football coach, he fired Rodriguez Wednesday after three seasons. Rodriguez brought the Wolverines a 15-22 record -- including 0-6 against Ohio State and Michigan State -- and NCAA violations that put the program on probation for the first time in its history.

This sloppy firing ended a two-day fiasco of closed-door meetings, rumors and media speculation. It came less than a week after a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

Had Brandon done the smart thing -- firing Rodriguez during the season after the sanctions were imposed or immediately after the regular schedule -- he would have had time to hire a coaching staff and offer a stable building plan to potential recruits.

He might have hired Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback who just finished a 12-1 season as coach at Stanford.

David Brandon's Press Conference
In a news conference Wednesday, Brandon hinted that Harbaugh may still be on the Michigan menu.

"I think the world of him," Brandon said. "I have talked to Jim Harbaugh. I will continue to talk to Jim Harbaugh. He's a Michigan man.''

Also, however, Brandon said, "I personally believe Jim Harbaugh is headed to the NFL.'' He said "a bunch of billionaires" who own NFL teams were chasing Harbaugh.

Money, however, will be no object for the Wolverines. Noting that Michigan has traditionally paid its coaches at around the middle rate of their profession's pay scale, Brandon said that should change.

"There's a market out there,'' he said. "You pay for value. My boss and my boss's bosses understand that concept.''

Brandon's boss is school president Mary Sue Coleman. In supervising her athletic department, Coleman's two biggest decisions have been the hiring of Rodriguez and Brandon.

When Bill Martin was still the athletic director at Michigan, Coleman traveled with him to Toledo, Ohio, to convince Rodriguez to come up the road over the state line to Ann Arbor. Now, she has to pay Rodriguez $2.5 million to leave town.

If Coleman and Brandon cannot hire Harbaugh, other "Michigan Men'' mentioned as candidates are San Diego State coach Brady Hoke and LSU coach Les Miles.

Whoever is chosen, he must quickly hire a staff, sign recruits, prepare for spring practice and try to keep stars like quarterback Denard Robinson from abandoning ship.

Perhaps Brandon's past will suggest his future actions. He might try a public relations campaign. When his pizza company conducted its damage control, it used video from focus groups and customer complaints from the internet.

"Worst excuse for pizza I ever had,'' one critic said.

"We basically had to start over with a new recipe,'' responded a company employee.

Even comedian Stephen Colbert reacted to the ads. "We're the human garbage cans who bought these trash discs by the millions," Colbert said.

Somehow, Brandon emerged from this mess hailed as a business genius while being touted as a rising star among right-wing conservatives in Michigan's Republican politics.

That makes him an interesting fit at a college widely reputed to be liberal. When Brandon was on the Board of Regents at Michigan, he was one of Coleman's main allies in forcing through an elaborate plan to build luxury boxes for the wealthy during a recession that battered the state of Michigan worst than most.

It illustrated the priorities at an athletic department that has traditionally exhibited a high regard for its mission but has lost a little of its luster in recent decades. The Rodriguez transgressions did not reach the level of scandal of the Michigan's "Fab Five" basketball program of the 1990s.

But they caused a rift among the national following of the maize and blue. "We've been divided," Brandon said. "To a large extent, we continue to be divided. We need to rally around our new coach."

And now Brandon gets a chance to mix a new recipe for a sport that has fallen into disfavor and disflavor. In summarizing what football means to his school, Brandon used the jargon of retail business.

"Michigan football is the primary revenue generator,'' he said. "Michigan football is the front door to the University of Michigan in terms of the shaping of the brand and the image.''
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