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Rebuilding the Michigan athletics empire: Questions remain in wake of Brandon's resignation

Courtesy photo

On Nov. 17, 2006, Bo Schembechler died. He was 77.

For Michigan fans, the bad news hasn’t ended. Second-ranked Michigan lost the next day’s game to top-ranked Ohio State, missing a shot at a national title. Then the Wolverines lost the next three straight, including the historic upset by Appalachian State. That was followed by Rich Rodriguez’s troubled three-year run, and now almost four years of Brady Hoke. After Hoke’s honeymoon season in 2011, the program has been sliding steadily downhill.

Since the day Bo died, mighty Michigan has gone 54-46 – not the kind of numbers that made Michigan the sport’s winningest program. Former athletic director Dave Brandon stumbled for a number of reasons, but the current team’s disappointing 4-5 record didn’t help.

So, what now?

In a whirlwind courtship, the same day President Schlissel announced Brandon’s resignation, he named Jim Hackett the interim AD. Like Brandon, Hackett played for Bo in the '70s, earned a few Big Ten title rings, and became a Fortune 500 CEO, leading Steelcase to the top of the office furniture industry. But Hackett’s teammates, colleagues, and employees will tell you he’s no carbon copy of Brandon.

The lesson was simple: Don't take your good fortune for granted.

Fourteen years ago, I met both of them for the first time, while researching a book on their old coach. Brandon told me the story of getting kicked off the team – something that happened to a lot of Bo’s players – then begging Bo the next day to get back on. The lesson was simple: Don’t take your good fortune for granted.

Hackett told me about going to see Bo after a sleepless night. He had been on the team for almost three seasons, didn’t complain when they moved him from linebacker to center, and never took a single play off in practice. But Hackett started to wonder if his contributions on the third-string demo team really mattered.

This is where Bo took over the story. He told me you cannot be a leader unless you like people. If you don’t listen to what your people have to say, they have no reason to respect you, and won’t follow you.

He added that, even if you’re doing everything else right, if one of your people comes to you with a personal problem, and it just goes in one ear and out the other, “you will fail!”

To illustrate his point, Bo told me his version of Hackett’s story. When Hackett came down to see him, on a Tuesday in 1975, Bo recalled he spilled his guts. When Bo was sure Hackett was done, he looked him straight in the eye and said, “Jimmy, I know how you feel.” Because he did, going back to his playing days at Miami, Ohio.

Bo told Hackett exactly why he wasn’t starting: He was simply not big enough or fast enough to beat the incredible competition they had at center that year. But he also told Hackett knew how hard he was working, and he never missed a practice. “And because you never take a play off,” Bo added, “the guy you go against every day, who sees you more than the rest of the Big Ten combined, is an All-Big Ten noseguard, and that’s another reason why we’re undefeated!”

Years later, when Hackett became Steelcase’s CEO, he instituted the same open-door policy. He explained to Bo that it wasn’t just the right thing to do, it’s how he learned what was really going on in his company: by talking to people all over the organization, every day.

It's a crucial lesson: If you're going to lead, first you have to listen.

It’s a crucial lesson: If you’re going to lead, first you have to listen – to the people who play the games, and the people who pay for them. In fact, President Schlissel himself is traveling to Michigan alumni clubs around the nation right now, armed with smart questions, and the will to listen to the answers.

This still leaves plenty of questions unanswered – about interim ADs, permanent ADs, coaching staffs, and the timing of it all. But when you’re trying to rebuild an empire that thousands of people helped create, listening to them is not just a good place to start. It’s the best place.

*Correction - an earlier version of this post stated that Michigan's record was 44-46 since Bo Schembechler's death. The correct record is 54-46. It's been corrected above.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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