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Exploring the ups and downs of Wolverine football with John U. Bacon

The Wolverine football program, with its famed winged helmet, has taken some lumps over the years.
The Wolverine football program, with its famed winged helmet, has taken some lumps over the years.

This time a year ago, there was no scarcity of news coverage of the troubled University of Michigan football program, leading to the firing of athletic director Dave Brandon and coach Brady Hoke, and the eventual hiring of Jim Harbaugh as the new Wolverine coach.

But those headlines only skimmed the surface of this complicated story.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon started digging.

He interviewed more than 100 people, filled a thousand pages with notes, and the end result is his latest book: Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football.

If you think you’ve already heard the whole story, Bacon’s here to tell you that you don’t know the half of it.

Bacon tells us that at the time of Dave Brandon’s hiring, the University of Michigan’s football program was one of the most successful and respected in the country, and it was built to last.

“If you measured all different ways, championship success, reputation, finances, facilities … it was far from broken,” he says.

The Wolverines were pulling $10 million in annual operating surplus, had $60 million in the bank, and had renovated or built 14 buildings at a cost of over $400 million, all of which Bacon tells us was being paid off.

But according to Bacon, “the fall” of Wolverine football began when Brandon brought his “if it ain’t broke, break it” attitude to his new role as athletic director.

“It can be effective in some ways, in some situations,” Bacon says. “It is really not effective when you’re taking over a century-plus-old athletic department that has worked exceedingly well, [and] is probably the best in the country.”

Credit Ryan Grimes

Brandon was the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza, and brought with him a great reputation as a fantastic and effective regent, according to Bacon.

The first two months looked good, Bacon says, and no one saw the storm clouds coming.

“It really was a doggone near perfect athletic department with great staff, great camaraderie, a great team spirit, and it was built to last. And Dave came in almost immediately and kind of broke it all up by design,” he says.

In his book, Bacon talks about “Fire ‘em Fridays,” botched attempts to enhance the fan experience, misguided marketing strategies, flubbed crisis management and PR debacles, how the student government took Team Brandon to task, and why hiring Jim Harbaugh is such a big deal.

Listen to our conversation above to hear Bacon tell us more about the book and his experience writing it.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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