I loved Bo Schembechler. I knew him well. Spent crazy time with him. I even co-wrote his autobiography. For years, I got to feel his wrath, brilliance, passion and affection.
And I am here to say this:
Michigan should stop invoking his name.
As the university begins searching for its next athletic director — and if expectations are to be believed, its next coach — the sentence “he played for Bo” cannot be the deciding factor.
Nor can the phrase “A Michigan Man.”
I was there when Bo invoked those words. Remember the occasion? It was after Bill Frieder announced he was taking a job at Arizona State but still wanted to coach the Wolverines in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Bo turned red. Molten lava red. He famously banged a lectern and said, “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!”
People have been falling in love with that sentence ever since.
But Bo wasn’t saying, “Unless your blood is maize-and-blue, you can’t work here.” He was saying you can’t serve two masters. That’s all. It is worth noting that the “Michigan Man” Bo replaced Frieder with assistant coach Steve Fisher, who never had attended U-M. Fisher won a championship that season — and also presided over the most destructive years of the basketball program, years that led to NCAA investigations and sanctions.
He was ultimately fired.
So before everyone starts invoking “Michigan Man” as some sort of litmus test (and I’ve already heard new president Mark Schlissel use that term applied to himself, something I would caution him against), let’s be clear.
Dave Brandon is a Michigan Man.
Brady Hoke is a Michigan Man.
How’s that working out?
The stunning downfall of Brandon
I’m not saying someone who played for or worked with Bo is a bad idea. I’m saying it’s not the only idea. What you want in the next AD is a man (or woman) who stands for what Michigan should stand for. You find that in character, career and credits — not in some old photograph of the guy in a Michigan football uniform.
Let’s examine why Brandon didn’t work out. He played for Bo. He had been a highly successful businessman. He was loyal to his school. At the time of his hire, people loved him for those things.
“With his widely acclaimed leadership skills, business acumen, long-term involvement with the university and personal knowledge of the challenges and rewards of being a student-athlete, David Brandon is an ideal candidate for athletic director,” U-M president Mary Sue Coleman said in a news release in 2010.
What she didn’t say — what nobody pointed out — was that he had never run an athletic department. Never had big involvement with sports besides football. Why didn’t that bother anyone?
Maybe because a perceived “outsider,” Rich Rodriguez, was coaching the football team and it was losing (which cannot be overstated). Some felt the only “cure” was a deeper connection to U-M’s roots.
In hindsight, maybe someone should have said, “Dave Brandon runs a pizza company. Pizza is largely about marketing. Inching every dollar out of promotions. Making sure your brand is everywhere.”
As it turns out, those were pretty much the priorities Brandon brought to the AD job, weren’t they?
And now he’s out partly because of them.
The job Schembechler hated
I don’t really care whether Brandon would have been fired if he hadn’t resigned. Nor do I care about his severance. The time to argue over severance packages is when you hire someone.
What I care about is that the traits that rubbed people the wrong way about Brandon — a sense of arrogance, money over everything and an inflated belief in Michigan’s greatness — aren’t repeated in the next hire. A dose of humility would be nice. Michigan is a fantastic school, but it’s not the only school. It has a great football program, but not the first or the last.
Someone who recognizes that you don’t build a future by ripping open your shirt to reveal your super past will help Michigan far more than retelling old Bo war stories.
Hey, I was with Bo when he (briefly) held the AD job. You know what? He hated it. Hated the meetings. The politics. The money.
And he’d hate it today. Bo abhorred night football, television’s influence, the reach of Title IX and the emphasis on national championships. Yet these are realities for any athletic director today. So maybe invoking Bo’s name every other sentence isn’t the way to go with this position.
The tradition of Michigan is excellence, dedication and talent — athletic and academic. If you show those traits once you arrive — the way Bo had to, the way every new student and athlete has to — then you become part of the legacy. And that’s what Michigan should focus on. Becoming part of the legacy. Not arriving with it.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter@mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go tofreep.com/sports/mitch-albom.