Hello. This is an excerpt from "ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall, And Return of Michigan Football" that John Bacon allowed us to run if I would once more refer to the book by its actual name instead of "Brandon's Lasting Lessons." I have now discharged that obligation.
We pick up the story the day after the Minnesota game. Shane Morris has been hit on the head, Devin Gardner lost his helmet and Morris re-entered, and the world waits for an explanation of what's going on…
At 11 a.m. Sunday, after every football game, the medical staff completes its routine postgame interactions with the coaching staff, including Brady Hoke, to apprise them of the status of all the players—something I’ve witnessed dozens of times. In addition, head trainer Paul Schmidt talked with Hoke once on Saturday, three times on Sunday, and once on Monday, giving him the complete information Dr. Kutcher and the staff had gathered on Shane Morris’s condition at each stage.
In short, there was no lack of communication between the medical staff and the coaching staff—nor within the medical staff itself, a group I’ve seen exhibit mutual respect, personally and professionally.
The Big Ten also called Michigan Sunday morning to let the coaching staff know the referee who had told Hoke, after Devin Gardner’s helmet had popped off, that calling a time-out would not allow him to put Gardner back on the field was, in fact, incorrect, and Hoke was right. It’s not that often the Big Ten office admits it was wrong, but they told the staff, not the media, so no one outside Schembechler Hall knew about it.
Finally sensing that a national story was rising around them, the department sent out a press release from Brady Hoke Sunday evening. It said, in part, “. . . Shane Morris was removed from yesterday’s game against Minnesota after further aggravating an injury to his leg that he sustained earlier in the contest . . . The University of Michigan has a distinguished group of Certified Athletic Trainers and team physicians who are responsible for determining whether or not a player is physically able to play. Our coaches have no influence or authority to make determinations if or when an injured player returns to competition . . .”
The release addressed some important points—that Morris had been pulled for his ankle, not the hit to his helmet, and that the coaches have no authority over the medical staff—but failed to answer the most pressing question: Did Morris have a concussion or not? If he did, why did he go back in the game?
Needless to say, instead of bringing closure to the story, this half-baked attempt would only raise more questions.
To withstand these slings and arrows, Brandon needed the Michigan family to band together like never before: the students, the alumni, the fans, faculty and lettermen, not to mention his own staff. But when he looked up, he found the family had already scattered. They had resigned, they’d been fired, they’d been angered, they’d been estranged. Some had simply become fed up with the whole thing, and walked away from something they thought they would love their whole lives.
Brandon would be on his own.
When the athletic director, his leadership team, his coaches, and the players woke up Monday morning, they found a pile of bad news on their doorstep. The football team was off to a disastrous 2–3 start. The department was still getting lambasted for the Cokes-for-tickets “retail activation,” and the stadium was showing large bands of empty seats—and that was all topped by the op-ed headline in the Michigan Daily: “Brady Hoke Must Be Fired.”
[After THE JUMP: nothing good happens in a 17 hour meeting]
“As [Morris] stumbled on the field,” the editorial board wrote, “it was clear that Morris exhibited concussion-like symptoms. Despite that fact, we watched Hoke make a move that jeopardized Morris’ health. Even 24 hours later, Hoke didn’t acknowledge the possibility of a head injury, referring only to Morris ‘further aggravating an injury to his leg’ in a statement to reporters. He added he is ‘confident proper medical decisions were made.’ They very clearly were not.”
Given what the Daily reporters had seen and heard in the previous 48 hours, they had good reason to make this judgment, and little evidence to counter it. Their view was quickly becoming the consensus, locally and nationally.
Brandon’s leadership team’s regularly scheduled meeting happened to fall that Monday morning, at 8 a.m. When they met in the Champions Room, at the corner of Hoover and State, they wisely got the more mundane matters quickly out of the way, to get to the bigger issues at hand. They also brought in people outside their team to figure out what to do next.
It turned out this would take them some 17 hours, all spent in the same room. Dave Brandon, Mike DeBord, Chrissi Rawak, who had agreed just four days earlier to add athletic public relations to her duties at Brandon’s urging, and a half dozen others were there most of the time, but before the long day was done, they would also be visited by compliance officers, medical staffers, a lawyer, media-relations experts, and more.
The obstacle they faced was large, but clear: What could they possibly say at this stage of the news cycle that anyone would believe?
When the medical team met that same day, in Schembechler Hall, they didn’t have to wring their hands over this question. They knew what to do: Report the truth, based on the science, and let the public react however it will.
The department’s leadership team did not feel they had the luxury to be so direct, without explanation. After sending out helpless PR people to defend the department again and again—after the fiascos over seat cushions, noodles, and skywriters, to name a few—Michigan fans and media could not be counted on to believe department officials, even when they were telling the truth. The credibility bank had long since been emptied. When the department needed the fans and media to give it the benefit of the doubt, and trust that the medical staff was telling the truth, it seemed few were willing to play along.
Over his four years, Brandon’s troubles had grown from private to public—but that was, literally, his problem. But now his lack of credibility and good will were metastasizing, spreading from his office to Hoke’s and the training room. By the end of this long day, the cancer would reach the hospital and the president’s office.
Dave Brandon was everybody’s problem now.
After everyone had gathered in the Champions Room, it was not clear who was in charge of the meeting. It also was not clear what their mission was: to find the truth, or shift the blame?
They started out by trying to find the truth—and even that would be hard enough.
“Everybody just wanted to make sure the facts were the facts,” Paul Schmidt told me. “Start there. But as we found out, multiple people have facts, and those facts can differ. Doesn’t mean anyone’s lying or trying to make anything up. Especially under times of duress, your own memory of what you saw and heard and thought is not always completely reliable—even if everyone is doing their best to find the truth.”
As another staffer told me, “Chrissi’s there, running point, trying to put together a response. But she has no experience at this—zero. You’ve got a lawyer, you’ve got compliance, you’ve got medical staff. The lawyer is worried about saying anything about the medical facts, because if they’re contradicted, that’s a legal problem.
“So now they’re parsing every single word—and I mean every single word. ‘You can’t say this. You can’t say that.’ So we’re making no progress, because these guys are fighting over every if, and, or but.
“How much better can we make it with each draft, with each change? This is diminishing returns. We spend another hour, then another, changing a few words, and changing them back? We’re not getting anywhere—and the clock is ticking.”
While they dithered, Brady Hoke drove to Crisler Center for his weekly press conference, which was coming up at noon.
Brandon called Hoke right before the press conference to tell him they hadn’t finished their statement yet but would have one soon. Brandon advised him to tell the press that, and nothing more about the situation.
The press conference following the Minnesota game was a disaster [Fuller]
But if Brandon and Hoke thought the press had packed the media room to discuss the 2-and-3 Wolverines’ upcoming game at Rutgers, they had another thing coming. Repeated questions forced Hoke to repeat just as often that a statement would be coming soon, but his unprepared, and necessarily evasive responses to the reporters’ very predictable questions tested the patience of the media and even the most loyal Michigan fans, who had seen Morris wobbling on the field before Hoke had.
Hoke was also in the bad habit, when asked an honest question, of not answering it. This was especially true when it came to injuries, which he called “boo boos.” It was considered cute when they were winning, but when he finally needed credibility on the subject, he didn’t have much to draw on.
In order to re-establish some trust, Hoke needed to answer three basic questions: Why was Morris put back in the game? When was he examined for a concussion? And what were the results? Simple, straightforward questions, for which Hoke should have been given simple, straightforward answers to provide the press. Get those right, and the rest was dust.
Hoke whiffed on all three, instead droning on about Rutgers, and how tough his players are. When candor and clarity were called for, Hoke failed to provide either, as he’d been instructed.
Hoke did everything but answer the questions asked, admit any mistakes, or take responsibility for anything. He told reporters Morris hadn’t suffered a concussion, and he hadn’t spoken to his boss, the department, or anyone else. The one thing Hoke said that he was supposed to say—repeating endlessly that the department would be issuing a press release on all of the above, including statements from the medical staff, as soon as Hoke finished the press conference—the department itself was hours away from finishing, making even that statement look like a lie.
The sad part, for the many players who loved Hoke and believed in his fundamental goodness, was watching the public wonder aloud if Hoke was even an honest man, who cared about his players. Why did it take him several plays to pull Morris? Why did he put him back in the game instead of using a worthless time-out?
Hoke had good answers to these questions—but he didn’t deliver them.
Michigan’s problems were mounting, on and off the field. The season was already looking lost. The fans were leaving by the thousands. But until Monday people could still believe in the basic decency of Michigan’s head coach, and the values he represented.
Now, thanks to woefully poor public relations, that had become an open question—and Brandon’s role in it did not sit well with some of the hard-core Michigan Men.
“The whole thing with Shane was terrible,” John Wangler said, unable to finish that sentence. “It was hubris, the CEO mentality. ‘I can spin this.’ Well, sometimes you can’t, and it catches up to you.
“To let your coach go out there with no information and look bad for you—man, what can I say? That was flat-out wrong.
“That’s not Michigan.”
Back in the Champions Room, the debate over the press release raged on, while one hour passed, then another.
Brandon realized it had to be finished quickly. He said if he catered a decent lunch, they would stay longer, so he didn’t feed them. It was not intended to be a staff retreat. Late in the afternoon and into the evening, a few folks tossed bags of cookies and chips in the middle of the table, and someone scared up some bagels and fruit.
Morris visited Dr. Kutcher and Paul Schmidt again that evening. After Morris finished his visit, he was summoned to Dave Brandon’s office. Before Morris left the trainers’ room, however, Schmidt pulled Morris aside. Given the threshold for firings under Brandon—especially when the boss didn’t look good—nobody in that building, including the trainers, could have any illusion that their jobs were at stake. Nonetheless, the team’s medical professionals felt strongly then, and still do now, that they had gotten it right, throughout.
But, Schmidt advised Morris, “Don’t you get yourself into trouble over this. All we ask is that you tell the truth. Let them deal with the rest—including us.”
It would be naïve to think finding the truth and communicating it to the public was the top priority of everyone involved in this story. But among more than a few vital figures, it was still all that ultimately mattered.
Hoke’s press conference reopened the debate over the medical facts, and how much they should share, if anything. True, that night Morris would sign the HIPAA release form, allowing Michigan to share the relevant medical information. But since Morris would do so in the presence of the athletic director and two lawyers Brandon had brought in, without his father, his coaches, or the team doctors present, the medical staff had misgivings.
“What’s he going to do,” one asked me, “not sign it, with his coach’s boss, and two lawyers, telling him he should?”
When the medical staff members met that day at Schembechler Hall, they considered sending out their own press release. They decided they should either say nothing about the case, because it’s a medical issue, and that’s that; or they should share exactly what happened, down to the minute, with nothing but the truth, all science.
“From my point of view,” one told me, echoing the comments of the others, “one of those two things had to happen. None of the physicians on the sidelines work under athletics. We all have appointments at the hospital and the medical school. So there was a bunch of that going on—doctors digging in their heels on the science.”
The medical staff was ultimately unanimous, as usual: They would say nothing. The last of the medical staffers who had visited the Champions Room left about 7:30 that night, with the press release still far from finished.
“We didn’t sign off on any press release—not one of us,” one medical staffer said. “The press release was just kind of done behind our back.”
In the midst of a crisis President Schlissel never asked for, and everyone promised him would never happen at a very stable athletic department, he carried himself with admirable calm. He did not act swiftly, but he was secure enough to resist the temptation to make things worse by overreacting, grandstanding, or hiding. He monitored the situation, waiting for a draft to come up the hill for his approval, before it went out.
With the sun going down, and water bottles, pop cans, and potato chip bags strewn about the big table, with stressed-out, haggard people surrounding the mess and the press release still not finished, the remaining team members called for Michigan’s vice president of communications, Kallie Michels, and much later, former sports information director Dave Ablauf.
The central difficulty they now faced was not the media, or Morris’s injury, but the conflicting objectives of the people in that room, and the interests they represented. As one person in the room told me, “They’re trying to get it right—re-enacting it all, bit by bit—but it’s all C.Y.A. stuff. You got the feeling some of them weren’t trying to spare the university. They’re trying to save their jobs, because they all think their jobs are on the line—and they probably are. You can see, with different versions of their story, they’re going to try to take out the trainer with one version, or a doctor with another version, or this guy or that guy. But it’s never anyone in the room—so it took some guts for [the medical staffers] to leave.
“They’re asking all kinds of questions. ‘What’s a “probable minor concussion”?’ I’m not a doctor, but I can tell you: It’s a fucking headache.”
At one point, as one person in the room told me, they showed Dave Ablauf their draft of the press release, and asked him if they should send it out.
Ablauf was the rare AD employee to survive. [Ricky Lindsay, Michigan Journal]
“I will not forget his answer,” this person says. “ ‘At this point, it doesn’t matter. You guys put a coach out there at noon, and you told him to keep telling them you were going to have a statement from Michigan officials as soon as he was done. That was seven hours ago. The media’s been waiting for this.
“ ‘So it doesn’t matter what you put out or when you do it. We’re going to get roasted on this. The media and fans won’t stop until they get a head on a platter. But given all that, you might as well tell the truth.
“ ‘Not that it will help much.’ ”
Hunger, fatigue, and Ablauf’s apparent ability to cut through the fog helped those still in the room to finish their draft by 9 p.m., 12 hours after they started working on the one-page statement that morning. Brandon sent it to President Schlissel, who gave it a few small tweaks, then sent it on to the Regents by 10 p.m. They also made some small adjustments, then sent it back to Brandon’s group by midnight.
Now the people who remained in the Champions Room had another tough decision: Do they send the statement out in the wee hours, or wait until the next morning? If they sent it immediately, they knew they’d be accused of trying to “take the trash out” under cover of darkness. But, they reasoned, if they didn’t sent it out, someone would call at 4 a.m. and ask for more changes. And then they would be back at the table working over another draft.
Regent Andrea Fischer Newman is a vice president at Delta who has seen plenty of crisis management. She kept close tabs on the process as it unfolded. “It was an insularity problem,” she told me. “There were all sitting in the athletic department, not understanding what’s swirling around them. No one was in charge of the message.
“The statement didn’t go out until 1 a.m., because they hadn’t gotten Mark Schlissel to approve it. Mark [Schlissel] had only been here a month.
“It wasn’t Dave [Brandon] that held it up. He was told to put it out ASAP. The Regents got in the middle of the statement, which is why it took until Tuesday at 1 a.m.”
At 12:52 Tuesday morning, Dave Brandon sent out a press release stating that Shane Morris had suffered a “probable mild concussion.” The release asserted that Brandon had been in constant communication with his head coach and everyone else involved, including the team’s medical staff, which contradicted what Coach Hoke had told the press just 12 hours earlier.
The response to the 1 a.m. press release was exactly as Ablauf had told them it would be: “We’re going to get roasted on this.”
The Internet didn’t wait until Tuesday morning to weigh in. Just about every regional and national media outlet that covered sports ran the press release, immediately, and picked it apart.
The students at the Michigan Daily literally stopped the presses. “We were in frequent communications with our printer to push back our deadline as much as possible,” Alejandro Zúñiga told me. “The football beat quickly wrote a response column. We gave the column and statement a full page. Got a lot of national praise for that as well.”
The Daily column closed with this: “Brandon’s press release explained there was a lack of communication on the field Saturday. The contradictions between the coaching staff and athletic director demonstrate institutional dysfunction within the Athletic Department.”
Hoke would get hammered, too, of course, yet I’ve since learned his version of events was closer to the truth than Brandon’s: the athletic director’s conversations with the central figures were not nearly as many or as deep as the release depicted.
As you can imagine, when Michigan football’s medical staffers saw the press release the next morning, they were not terribly pleased—and that’s putting it mildly.
“I saw it and shook my head,” one of them told me. “It did exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t: It didn’t tell everything, and it told too much. Once you make the decision to share a patient’s medical history, you might as well tell everything, to clear the air.
“The statement made it appear that we were incompetent, or lying, or both. We love Brady [Hoke], but if he had tried to overrule us [during the game], none of us were going to lie for him.”
Tuesday afternoon, the medical staffers met again in Paul Schmidt’s office, to vent their frustration and decide whether they should let the athletic department speak for them, or release their own press release. To help decide, they were communicating with the officials at U-M Hospital and the central administrators.
Ultimately, however, the medical staff decided once again not to respond. “We didn’t want to stoop to that,” one told me. “We’re physicians. We practice medicine, not public relations. We wanted to stay above the fray. Anything we released would be misinterpreted, and it was not in our patient’s best interest.”
Deitch with Mary Sue Coleman [Ann Arbor Chronicle]
Regent Larry Deitch happened to be in California that weekend, playing golf with his son. But, naturally, they found time to watch the game—and it wasn’t hard to find a TV that had it on. “Who would have predicted Minnesota–Michigan would be a nationally televised game?” he asks.
What should have been a welcome spotlight for the program quickly became a microscope. Like many viewers that day, Deitch couldn’t shake the memory of color commentator Ed Cunningham calling Michigan’s decision to leave Morris in the game, “Atrocious.”
That was one problem, of course, but Deitch took the long view. “The way that was handled was poor,” he says, referring to the aftermath. “When you have a problem—whether it’s at the university or my law firm—you come out quickly, acknowledge that this is a screw-up, say we’re sorry, this won’t happen again, and here’s what we’re doing to guarantee that. It’s not complicated—but I don’t think they got any of those steps right.
“Then, to let Brady Hoke go out there on Monday for his weekly press conference and look like a fool—a dishonest fool—when he’s not either of those things, was shameful. Simply shameful.
“For someone who seemed to like the spotlight as much as Dave [Brandon] did, to be nowhere to be seen when the heat was on, was highly problematic, and disappointing for me.
“A lot of the case against Dave stemmed from that weekend. I think it was the tipping point.”
I mean… wow.
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