"In the world of branding, you build what's called brand equity"
-Dave Brandon, Michigan Athletic Director, 2010-2014
I'm pretty mad about Dave Brandon on the internet, but in real life social cues prevent you from ranting for two thousand words at a time; mostly they argue for nodding silence. I kept the wild-eyed revolutionary on the internet. So it was crazy how Brandon angst followed me around.
One day during my ACL rehab, I was doing my various stretching things when one of the therapists came in steamed. He started relating to one of his buddies that he'd been booted from his position with Michigan football in favor of a kid who had literally just graduated from college, because that kid would worship Brandon as a god.
When we bought our house, one of the seemingly infinite signing ceremony things involved a conversation with someone who had been an assistant with a nonrevenue sport. My job came up, she had never heard of MGoBlog, she proceeded to sigh and say that the department was really something and then… not that any more.
A woman who Brandon tried to get fired from the alumni association because she had the temerity to disagree with him. Her friendship with Jamie Morris was demonstration enough that she "had no character."
One day, two staffers sent home for insufficiently ironed khakis, and then berated because their blazers were "from JC Penney."
Report after report that the regents couldn't stand him and he had a year, tops, left. For three years.
And of course, email after email in my inbox, all from the same insulting man prone to exclamation points and misused ellipses.
As a kid I was really good at memorizing things and had no friends. A large part of why, I would find out in retrospect, is that I was an annoying person. I was convinced I was the smartest person in the room, something that was often true for a given definition of smartest that stopped once the tests were turned in. It was never true when it came to interacting with something other than a piece of paper.
My attempt to be an adult centers around that fact: I'm an idiot when it comes to a lot of things. Faltering progress has been made. I hired Tom VanHaaren back in the day when he was just a guy with an idea to use social media to get information about recruits (this was controversial at the time). Tom proceeded to get his own bat signal. To this day he gets requests from people on the internet to hold him.
Tom's prose was rough at the time, prone to sentence after sentence with the same structure. A lot of adverbs. (I measure my progress as a writer by how many adverbs I edit out of my own stuff.) Twelve year old me would have been too annoying about it to deal. But by the time I made that decision I had realized that there were a lot of skills. zTalking to people you don't know and making them come out of that experience feeling like something good had just happened was emphatically not one I possessed. Tom is now at ESPN because of that skill.
Everyone has peaks and valleys in their intelligences, which is why I can do this for a job and still get pwned by Tom Dienhart whenever I try to act like an Actual Journalist.
That is how a guy can be in charge of three different things and still be an idiot: Dave Brandon's skill is for creating personal leverage for Dave Brandon. And there end the skills. There is that sub-genre of successful person that achieves seemingly without any reason to. They are nature's bullshitters. Charlie Weis is their treasurer. Dave Brandon is their king.
[After THE JUMP: a sordid history and the lessons learned: none]
INTRO: BABYFACE POP
Martin was ill-suited for the PR aspects of the job. So was his successor.
Michigan was actually forced to import Brandon early. Bill Martin was scheduled to formally retire for the opening of the luxury boxes at the beginning of the 2010 season but was ready to go sooner. Martin was extraordinarily camera-averse—in fact I don't think I even know what his voice sounds like.
When stretch-gate got dumped on the department, Martin was neither inclined to do nor suitable for the job. Brandon stepped into the void. For a moment, he seemed like a revelation. Parsing the minutiae of a bullshit NCAA investigation in front of a feisty press corps is the Brandon wheelhouse: he made noises about seriousness and defused catty questions, expertly saying nothing gradually.
I liked him at the time. He handled that like it should have been handled. The thin veneer of sincerity over an ocean of contempt was the right way to approach overheated accusations that Michigan's head coach was doubling, sometimes tripling, NCAA practice time allotments. He was the right man for that job, but veneer over the ocean turned out to be the whole of the man.
DRAWING LINES IN THE SAND
Brandon strolled into a press conference in January of 2011 beaming with self-confidence. He posited himself as the kind of rainmaker who can look deep into a man's character and separate the wheat from the chaff. He had just hired Brady Hoke.
Even then he was drawing battle lines between people who support him and people who can have a nice life:
"Those people out there who love this place, and care about this place, and understand this place… they're going to love this football coach and they're going to love the way this team plays.
And those people out there who like to tear apart and like to criticize and like to, you know, find fault, and you know all that stuff, they're out there. And let 'em be out there. But they're not going to detract me or this coach or our team from getting on the path we all want to be on."
In Dave Brandon's mind, to question Dave Brandon was to demonstrate you neither love nor care about Michigan. The department was subsumed to Dave Brandon. The contrast between him and his predecessor Bill Martin couldn't have been greater: Martin famously took a salary of one dollar per year and once got in a minor kerfuffle because an athletic department staffer didn't recognize him and tried to bar him from the press box he was in the middle of replacing.
Brandon was kicked out of Red Berenson's dressing room, cut down the nets when Michigan made the Final Four, and strode the sideline like Pat Bowlen in his mink frock era. It was his department. He drew a line in the sand. You are in, or you are out.
Everyone wanted to be in for a while.
The first rumblings of discontent from the fanbase stemmed from a WTKA interview Brandon did soon after the addition of Nebraska to the league. The Big Ten had decided to split Michigan and Ohio State in what turned out to be the dubious hope that they'd get a series of titanic back-to-back matchups between the league heavyweights.
It was a bad idea for Michigan. A protected crossover matchup against OSU disadvantaged Michigan against the rest of its division; the idea that Michigan and OSU would enter the Game using it as a warmup for another Game in an NFL stadium the next week was odious. But Brandon didn't get where he was by not carrying water for guys further up the totem pole, so he gamely tried to make the case. His potential solution to the problem was to move Michigan-OSU to midseason.
Had either Bo or Woody been alive to hear those words that would have been the end of Dave. Lasers would have shot out of their eyes, pierced the studio, and left a heap of dust where once had stood an expensive suit and the man inhabiting it.
It was a breathtakingly dumb idea. It was in opposition to the way the rest of college football is ginning up things like the Land Grant Trophy in a futile attempt to emulate the titanic-season-ending rivalry setup The Game and Iron Bowl and whatever they call the USC-UCLA game have. Meanwhile Miami and Florida State had already blown up their rivalry, possibly the best of the 90s, by moving it way up in the calendar. Once a bellwether of the national championship picture, Miami-FSU devolved into an early season confection.
It was the first sign that Brandon's suit was empty. Brandon envisioned a world in which the loser of the Michigan-OSU game could find redemption. That's not how it works. That's not how any of this works. You lose the game, you fume for 364 days until you have an opportunity to right the wrongs. This is not a carnival fun ride. It's college fucking football.
Michigan fans had a visceral NO response to this. Plenty took the opportunity to fire off emails to Dave Brandon's real email address, and a few forwarded on his responses to me. These were the first. The tone from the emailers was still hopeful, for the most part, as Brandon assured them he would safeguard Michigan's tradition. There were warning signs even then.
A typical example:
not previously published
What an asshole. This was the content of the email he responded to:
I was thinking like a fan, not a negotiator or decision-maker. Forgive my naive arrogance. I do believe you are the best man for this job, and I trust you would never forget who we are.
If decisions have not been made, that is the best news I have heard yet. I will hang tight and stand behind you. We need you.
Go Blue. -- bjk.
The guy who sent this to me in August of 2010 introduced this exchange by stating "I have done some letter-writing activism before and seen the various institutional responses one is prone to get. This took me by surprise." A lot of Michigan fans were in for similar experiences.
But at the time we were trying to hold on, because no one wants to think their favorite thing in the world has been hijacked by Idiocracy in a suit.
Over the next couple years this became horribly undeniable as incident after incident revealed that not only was Michigan athletics being run by an asshat, he was an asshat who could not find his hat with both hands and someone who used to work for the Knicks. Brandon followed up the move-the-game trial balloon by asserting that Michigan needs a mascot, which got the same wet fart reception "Hail and Unite" did. It, too, sought to innovate the space. Brandon quickly backtracked.
They did not backtrack a few months later when In The Big House was introduced to our lives. Steel your ears for one minute, good reader, and remember that Brandon tried to make this happen:
We are making internet fun of Adam Weiss and his misguided belief that public relations is a solution to being Adam Weiss these days. "In The Big House" is proof that the pupated version of him was athletic director. This was literally unbelievable to me at the time. I dismissed it as some craprock band's bid for publicity and worried about the day it would be a real thing:
The worst part about all of this is that someday the Assistant Vice Associate Athletic Director For Making Michigan Stadium Wicked Sweet is going to hear one of these things and think it is a good idea instead of a malformed baby we should leave on the mountain to die.
The day turned out to be that day. This was like We Are ND, except Michigan played it in the stadium. The only silver lining was the lack of a rapping hobbit.
Literally in that same post was an interview Lucy Ann Lance did with Knicks refugee and disgraced insta-fire Hunter "LochDogg" Lochmann that was even more ominous than it sounded at the time:
Event presentation and how people experience the brand at our events is a big part of building the brand, and we are in the midst of hiring some event presentation folks to really focus on making it a wow experience for our fans who go to basketball, hockey, football, soccer. It’s not just a PA announcement.
My skin crawls at this passage even after his departure; it means screaming at the person next to me to be heard. Lochdogg would respond to the controversy over the song by claiming the following:
"It's gaining traction," Lochmann said. "We know there are people who love it and some people who hate it, but our core customers — the players — they want to hear it."
The people who actually pay the bills were always peripheral annoyances to be milked by these people.
THE HORROR II
David Brandon scheduled a rematch with Appalachian State. This was the final straw for me and a legion of like-minded folk. The original Horror remains the worst feeling any Michigan fan has ever had about a game, and even seven years on it marks the point at which This Is Michigan transitioned from fact to aspiration. To dredge that back up was a breaking point. In the aftermath I referenced this scene from Fargo:
Marge is trying to comprehend an alien intelligence's decisions. That's where I find myself today. I can't begin to fathom the kind of thinking that would go into scheduling Appalachian State again. I get there are reasons, just like Grimsrud had reasons, but for the reasons to win out over the costs the kind of value judgments that are going on in the decision-maker's head must be frightening.
I declared that Dave Brandon was "not a Michigan fan," because if he was he would not have done this thing or any of the other things he had done since adroitly deflecting questions in the stretchgate press conferences.
Brandon couldn't see "how it could be a negative," a blind spot that the rest of the internet did not share. This was the moment where Dave Brandon, idiot, was loosed into the greater consciousness of college football. Spencer Hall:
No matter what happens, greater glory is paid the lowest point in the history of the Michigan football program in exchange for national television exposure. This is Michigan football becoming a celebrity rehab patient. This is Michigan's amateur sex tape that no one wants to buy. We're beginning to think Dave Brandon is not a very smart person.
As predicted, the game—a rote walkover of a team making the rough transition to I-A—was used as an excuse to pepper college football shows with highlights from 2007 and hope that Michigan could blow it again. The upside was zero, and the reaction in the aftermath demonstrated that:
The only mention of Michigan's game before insomniac time was one dismissive sentence from Rece Davis, something about how there will not be "another seminal college football moment" this weekend. They didn't even take the opportunity to put gratuitous Funchess on the screen.
The only difference between this game and Michigan's opening-weekend romp over CMU last year: a nation's hope Michigan would blow it again. Once it became clear this would not be the case, a nation forgot the game happened before it had even ended. This was the best possible outcome.
So 1) hooray for the best possible outcome and 2) don't let that change your opinion about whether this was the dumbest scheduling decision in the history of scheduling decisions. The nation knew this about Michigan before Saturday: lol Appalachian State. This is what they know today: lol Appalachian State. On College Football Final their brief treatment of the game gave more time to 2007 than 2013. We are experiencing the maximum possible upside from this game, which is everyone immediately forgetting about it like Michigan was thumping a MAC opponent.
Things had been sliding towards a point of no return for a while when this game was scheduled. After, there was no hope of redemption, just resistance.
A SERIES OF PETTY ABUSES CONFIRMING WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW
Heel turn irrevocably complete, Brandon took every opportunity to (metaphorically) wear Hated Rival's jersey in public in search of cheap heat.
Michigan mouthed some mealy platitudes about terrorism when banning water bottles from the stadium. In a perfect distillation of Brandon's worldview, he tried to buy off the plebes with a "commemorative" bottle of water (one he used as an advertising platform) for the first game post-ban. Then they ran out of water midway through a sweltering September nonconference opener the next year. Medical officials were overwhelmed, and it was only the good fortune of a torrential downpour that prevented an out-and-out disaster. All for some nickel-and-dime bullshit designed to increase revenue 0.0001%.
They turned the season ticket waiting list into an "interest" list charging 500 dollars to be on. By the time Brandon was run out of town, Michigan was unable to sell out. The legendary, decade-long list had whittled down to nothing.
Michigan donned surprise bumblebee uniforms against Michigan State, changing in the locker room after warm-ups instead of deciding not to throw in a trash tornado.
As soon as the basketball team got good, Crisler was reseated, kicking medium-ballers who had endured the Ellerbe and Amaker eras with stoic cheerfulness and checks into the rafters while johnny-come-latelies moved into prime territory.
They put a hashtag on the field for the spring game and pretended this was innovating the space with non-language:
"This initiative will help our athletic department use technology as a competitive advantage to engage and connect to fans, build brand loyalty, grow the digital audience and monitor and listen to what is being said through the digital engagement cycle," said Jordan Maleh, U-M's director of digital marketing.
The justification was worse than the event.
Michigan signed up for a game against Alabama in Dallas, portrayed it as a financial windfall, got less than they would get for a home game despite tickets starting at $125, refused to send the band until people got up in arms about it, and then got their face punched. Michigan got rooked.
Brandon said, out loud, that northern sites for a playoff "weren't fair" for southern teams. He responded to the backlash by asserting that people who wanted to see local important playoff games were selfish because players want to take vacations and won't someone think of the players.
Michigan refused to rent the stadium for the annual Big House, Big Heart charity run.
Amongst various other uniformz crimes they wore a matte helmet with numbers so pale they were impossible to discern at the Outback Bowl.
Michigan had All State field goal nets in the stadium and a giant Kraft noodle until fan yellin' forced them to pretend like there was no way either of those things would actually make it in for game day.
They sky-wrote GO BLUE over Spartan Stadium and flat-out lied about it until the company they hired outed them.
They chose a DJ over Michigan's alumni pep band for a home basketball game… against Arizona.
They instituted a disastrously implemented general-admission policy that was reversed after one year with help from the student government; they oversold the student basketball section by 50%; they jacked up ticket prices on their future customers until they had to remove big chunks of the student section this year.
Michigan moved a home hockey game against Michigan State—the centerpiece of any hockey season—to Chicago, announcing this after season ticket sales were due.
An inappropriate "retail activation" set the price of Michigan tickets at half a coke.
At some point a pattern became clear.
- Decide to do something for a tiny amount of short-term revenue without regard to your brand.
- Wait until the decision reaches the internet.
- Panic as half of internet rolls its eyes at the stupid decision and the other half invades Ann Arbor Torch and Pitchfork, rants at you.
- Hastily reverse decision.
- Blame the internet for overreacting, make nonsensical argument that it leapt to conclusions.
Either that, or just lie through your teeth.
THE PR PATTERN CAUSES THE INCOMPETENCE MIRACLE
The petty bullshit demonstrating that Michigan's athletic department only had bad ideas and worse public relations came home to roost in two parts. First, Brendan Gibbons was belatedly expelled for a sexual assault that occurred before Brandon or Brady Hoke arrived.
Assertions of a cover-up or serious wrongdoing were ill-founded. It is now clear that the odd timing of Gibbons's removal was due to outside forces. The increasingly famous OCR "Dear Colleague" letter forced colleges to adjudicate sexual assault hearings on a preponderance of the evidence standard. It's caused a wave of expulsions and a wave of counter-suits from the expelled; at Michigan it put institutional penalties for Gibbons on the table. In this case they seem justified.
What was not was first lying to the public about why Gibbons was not available for the Ohio State game—a "muscle tweak" was the explanation offered—and then telling the media Gibbons would not make the bowl trip because of a "family issue." When the Daily published the true reason for his absence, the media had a weeks-long blowup about it met with the same ocean of contempt Brandon initiated his tenure with.
Things eventually blew over, but at long last the department had found a topic on which its characteristic arrogant bluster would not be sufficient. This had heft. A reasonable approach to the situation would have been honest from the drop, knowing that public knowledge of Gibbons's removal was mere weeks away. Instead the department may have played and definitely lied for a player who they knew the university was going to expel for sexual assault.
A month of heat followed. In the aftermath, questions about how seriously Brady Hoke took sexual assault lingered. Fair or not, the department's approach to a PR crisis exacerbated an issue that was not of their own making. It was an opportunity to learn.
They learned nothing. There is nothing to learn when you are perfect.
When Shane Morris was hit in the head very hard against Minnesota, Hoke first failed to realize his quarterback was in no shape to continue. He left him in the game to a shower of boos. He then re-inserted him to another shower of boos. Both plays happened mere moments after he had suffered a concussion.
Here, too, was a moment of heft. Worse, the spectacle of a woozy Shane Morris waving awkwardly at the sideline was broadcast to a national audience, ready to repeat at any television news producer's desire. If there was ever a moment to practice Don Canham's famous maxim about not turning a one-day story into a two day story, this was it.
Instead, Michigan executed a public relations strategy so galaxy-spanning in its incompetence as to be miraculous. On Sunday, they tried the bluster and lie tactic. A statement from the department brazenly claimed that Morris had not in fact been concussed, and had instead been removed from the game due to an ankle injury. That was widely derided as ludicrous. The statement purported to come from Brady Hoke, scheduled to have a press conference the next day.
That press conference was a disaster. Hoke continually referenced a statement from the medical staff that was forthcoming. He muttered about not knowing things, he obfuscated. At no point did he step up and take responsibility. He lied about talking to Dave Brandon since the incident.
Here was Brady Hoke, Brandon's needle in the haystack, frankly and finally pathetic in front of the world. The on-field bumbling now extended to Hoke the man, repeating "it's all in the statement" instead of standing up for himself in any infinitesimal way. Whatever authority he may have had was long gone. The apology to Michigan State after Joe Bolden drove a railroad spike into their field a few weeks later was just the extra point on Brandon's castration. A lot of people believe Brady Hoke is a great guy, and I don't dispute that. By the end of his tenure at Michigan he was a shell of whatever he had been, undermined at every turn.
Meanwhile the release did not come, and did not come, and did not come. It was finally issued at 12:30 AM, admitted that Morris was in fact concussed in direct contradiction of Hoke's Sunday statement, and set off a firestorm of recriminations nationally. The Daily got it in their issue anyway, because fuck you that's why.
By nine PM Wednesday, five days after the incident, Sports Illustrated's college football landing page was this:
That day featured scathing takes from almost anyone with a platform who talked about football, and several others besides. It made Al-Jazeera.
Dave Brandon turned a one-day story about the incompetence of the man who he hired to coach the team into a five-day story about the incompetence of the entire university. It was literally during the grassroots rally to oust him on Wednesday that an adult stepped in: poor President Schlissel, parachuting in from Brown to find himself in a warzone he didn't know existed.
After this it was all over but the shouting. The emails moved up the execution date.
If Dave Brandon's off-the-wall head coaching choice had turned out to be Nick Saban 2.0, fans would have allowed Brandon to ritually flay them on the Diag if he so desired.
But you know who isn't being chased out of his job? Jeremy Foley. The guy who hired Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. Florida football is currently at an unwatchable nadir, just like Michigan, and Florida fans got a 'Bama acolyte with three reasonably successful years at Colorado State with a high chance of failure. Dan Mullen is not the next guy because he doesn't get along with the AD. Foley's pursuit of Jim McElwain was hilariously public, committing Florida to a middling hire with a huge buyout by ignoring realities of the Flight Aware era. Florida fans are not marching on the president's house in protest of this fact. At most they grumble a bit.
Why? Well, hiring coaches is hard. Foley's had some successes; he's had some failures. But one thing he has not done is drag a proud institution through a cycle of blame, incompetence, and recrimination. One day after Treon Harris came off the bench to beat Tennessee, he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation. Florida delayed its Monday press conference, released a forthright, transparent statement, and kept everyone up to date as the investigation progressed. There were no explosive revelations five days later. Nor were there marches.
That takes a special kind of incompetence, the kind of incompetence it takes to get run out of town on a rail as an athletic director. I cannot recall another incident like it. In this, at least, Brandon's certainty that he is a unique individual is correct.
The concussion debacle was Michigan's institutional policy come home to roost. The first deployment of the "dave brandon creates the future" tag on this blog was Brandon flat-out saying "no" when asked if the night game uniforms leaked by the Free Press were accurate; the second is Michigan releasing uniforms identical to the leaked ones. As one of life's bullshitters, Brandon's response to literally everything people were mad about was to lie. It finally caught up to him.
I've tried to work my way around this, to try to find some other way to express it. It's not credibility building to say it like this, but I can't find anything truer than the bluntest thing, the one that will not leave me.
Dave Brandon's great failure is being a piece of shit human being. His overwhelming arrogance is not coupled with any intelligence. His skin is so thin he seemingly responded to every single shitty email he deserved. Despite growing up on and coming through Michigan he managed to escape without the tiniest semblance of why it might be special. He cannot stand dissent. He eviscerated Michigan's athletic department of its institutional memory specifically to engender personal loyalty. He identifies only one talent in the people he hires: his ability to make them heel.
Michigan deserved a caretaker of its great tradition. It got a megalomaniac who thought he was Jerry Jones. Dave Brandon is a McDonald's commercial come to life. He appears to be a man, walking and talking upright, but inside the thin veneer is nothing. Utterly nothing.
Dave Brandon is a hollow shell filled with nothing but pride and self-regard, a walking expression of venality. His only positive impact on the University of Michigan was reminding us what we treasure about the place by showing us the black, shriveled vacuum opposite.