So first thing’s first. I have a couple confessions.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been inspired by something at Michigan enough to write a column, and it’s never a good sign that the last person to inspire me was a team led by Turtleneck Tommy.
My second confession is that I have a terrible habit. While some people, when they see a famous or mildly famous person, they will take a photo from afar with an iPhone. I, however, tend to saunter right up to them and ask for a photograph. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had this happen with two extremely embarrassing, out of touch people: Sarah Palin and David Brandon. One of those people is a publicity whore, a shameless self promoter, whose lack of knowledge and prowess on issues they claimed to be important to them was disturbing. The other one is the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
When I was 7 years old, my dad finally felt that it was time I could enjoy a Michigan football game. I still remember that day. November of 1991. It was cold, and Michigan was playing Northwestern. I still remember the blowout, still remember Desmond bringing a punt back for a touchdown. That day, the rich guy, the poor guy, we were all in the same bowl. The crowd wasn’t filled with obscenities like at the Silverdome (my father, for some strange reason, decided to take his 7 year old to Lions games. Seems cruel in retrospect.). It felt important, and it felt like everyone there was it in together. But the best part of it was that it felt old timey, even then. The weird cheers, the fight song, the band, the lack of music. Michigan wasn’t selling nostalgia then. In fact, at the $30 we paid for a ticket, they weren’t selling much at all.
Over the next 17 years, a lot changed at Michigan: the "business of college athletics" turned into a monstrosity. But for a long time, Michigan resisted it. That was until a wall street plutocrat and arrogant businessman approached the scene.
David Brandon "played" for Bo in the 1970s. I’m sure you already know this, as David Brandon would be the first one to tell you that. As far as anyone can tell, this is basically Brandon’s only defense for anything that he does to offend Michigan fans. David Brandon also became extremely wealthy during the 1990s by working for Bain Capital, and reforming Domino’s Pizza after Tom Monaghan sold America’s Worst Pizza to Mitt Romney’s company in 1999.
Brandon then used his extreme wealth and Republican Party connections to get himself elected to the Board of Regents, all the while increasing his public persona, appearing in such national treasures as The Apprentice. After making Domino’s pizza extremely profitable, he moved on to doing the same with Michigan sports. The problem, of course, being that Brandon had no idea what the difference was between selling Michigan Football and selling terrible "pizza." And he would take over the department at just the right time.
First thing was first however: It was time for @DaveBrandonAD to set his own brand. It started with his ubiquitous appearances at everything—the man was turning himself into Michigan’s Jerry Jones—both public and private, sitting in on football film sessions. I’m sure that made the coaches feel very comfortable as their boss directly sat behind them diagraming plays. Then, as if the money that he made from Bain Capital wasn’t enough, Brandon decided he needed to be paid three times as much as Martin for a job that most Michigan MBAs would do for free. But most Michigan MBAs didn’t play two snaps for Bo. Indeed, the transformation of the Brandon Brand had begun.
During the late 2000s, former Michigan A.D. Bill Martin presided over a large construction boom at the athletic campus, and began raising funds for some substantial projects. Because of when he retired, Pizza Boy began to take credit for these projects, and move Michigan away from its traditional stances towards fans: first, fans who had suffered through years and years of horrible basketball suddenly found themselves crowded out of the lower bowl of Crisler, forced into upper bowl seats or out of the arena entirely. That was the reward of sitting through 38 to 4 vs. Duke at the 16 minute timeout, or the entire Ellerbe/Amaker years: A big fat kick upstairs. That was the David Brandon way.
But that wasn’t enough for the man who used to preside over the company that gave us the Noid. Instead, funds needed to be raised further: "The same way Ohio State did," he said. Not enough, of course, to allow the Michigan Marching Band to travel, but instead to spend funds to allow Dave to travel in style, hiring marketing managers, and of course, furthering the Dave Brandon brand. While Ohio State’s band travelled out west to Cal, and to three other road games this year, Michigan’s could only travel to Michigan State and Notre Dame. While most SEC bands travel to all games, Michigan nearly had the embarrassment of showing up in Dallas for the Alabama game without a band at all. Only public outcry—and another fat check—prevented that disaster. But good news for Michigan fans—David Brandon was on TV with his apparent idol, Jerry Jones, and that was good enough for him.
For about the past 7 years, myself and several Michigan alumni have maintained an email list to discuss the team, and complain as fans do. For the last few years, my ire has been entirely on Brandon himself. And then, last week, as I watched Michigan lose for the 9th time in 10 years to Ohio State, and then to Jeff’s interview with MGoBrian, I realized that Dave just didn’t get it. At first, I thought it was politics, and we just disagreed—Dave is a Republican, I’m not. But that wasn’t it at all. But I’ve spoken to Republican friends who feel the same way. It wasn’t politics that separated us. It was the worldview. David Brandon was not a fan of Michigan. He was something else. Because he was the athlete, on the sidelines, then in the regents box, Dave had no idea what it meant to be a Michigan fan. Clueless, out of touch, and completely self-assured. A dangerous combination in any business. That’s who Michigan had hired to represent what John U Bacon calls "the front door" of Michigan’s most prominent university.
Because of his tenuous association with Bo, Michigan had handed the keys of the athletic department to a foolish, arrogant corporate raider, who was in the process of turning Michigan football from that program that meant so much to so many, into the Detroit Vipers. During Jeff’s interview with Brian Cook, the founder of MGoBlog noted that Brandon’s marketing guru claimed he was marketing to a family of four who came to one game a year from Grand Rapids. This statement was enough to make me apoplectic. Then, I remembered that my next time seeing Michigan football, I’d have to relive one of the worst afternoons of watching football I have ever endured, as Michigan will be playing Appalachian State. Why? Because, like terrible PR opportunities for a pizza chain, David Brandon believes that all press is good press. Torturing your fan base, as long as they show up and pay your seat licensing fees, is okay, because its business. David Brandon doesn’t get it.
The list could truly go on endlessly with these little slights: cancelling TheWolverine subscriptions given to every Michigan donor over a certain amount. Telling the Alumni Band there were no seats for them at Michigan basketball’s upcoming game against #1 Arizona, then coldly turning around and selling those seats to the general public. It should be noted, of course, that all Michigan got for this was another thousand or so Arizona fans chanting "U..of..A," and of course had no band to drown them out. It’s a quick buck here, another dollar there. Last season, Brandon decided he was going to ban seat covers at Football games, only to charge season ticket holders $90 to have them installed. "Security risk," the corporate raider claimed. But David Brandon doesn’t understand why Michigan fans root the way they do. Instead, he tries to find the quickest way to make a buck, looting a company for all its worth, and then moving on to the next one. Sound familiar?
To David Brandon, Michigan is just a corporate entity, another stepping stone on his endless quest for more power, more publicity for the Brandon Brand. Meanwhile, the fabric of an institution that has survived almost 140 years nearly untouched is ripped away, so he can make another buck. To Pizza Boy, Michigan is just a brand to be hawked. And when you strip away all that’s unique about Michigan, all you’re left with is Minor League Football. And nobody is paying $4000 a ticket for the Toronto Argonauts.
But there is good news. Because of Michigan’s status as a public university, Michigan residents can get rid of this eyesore of Ann Arbor next fall. In the spring, when the major parties announce their candidates for Regent, ask the candidates: will you support someone who believes he is bigger than the University he swears to love? If the candidate supports Brandon, vote the other way. Enough is enough. Time to put someone who can put their self promotion behind the greater good of the Michigan Athletic Department in charge on South State Street. Until then, Michigan fans will be nickel and dimed all the way to David Brandon’s ego and personal success.