clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Mark Schlissel and the Fork in the Road

New, comments

Mark Schlissel made some interesting remarks this week about "sports stuff." But, no matter how much Schlissel stresses he's taking his time to hire a permanent AD, there'll be a fork in the road he must face very soon.

Joshua Lott

It's been a decade since Michigan football was Michigan football. I wrote about this sobering development in my very first column at Maize n Brew in mid-August. The Wolverines may have claim to the most all-time wins in college football (915) and Big Ten championships (42), but, since 2004, they haven't earned a single share of a conference championship and own only the seventh-best win percentage (58.9 pct.) among the current 14 Big Ten schools. For context, from 1995 to 2004, their win percentage was 76.6 percent. Michigan has been mired in mediocrity for too long.

And, at the moment, Michigan football is in a state of complete turmoil. For starters, on October 31, 2014, Dave Brandon resigned as Michigan's athletic director under heavy criticism due to his corporatization of Michigan athletics, withering relationship with the student population, and litany of public relations blunders, including but not limited to his apparent attempts to hide Brendan Gibbons' expulsion for sexual misconduct and Shane Morris' concussion diagnosis from the public. Jim Hackett was named the interim athletic director, but he's not expected to be given the position permanently.

Additionally, Brady Hoke, whom Brandon hired to be Michigan's head football coach, may be joining Brandon in the unemployment line soon. After a surprising and somewhat fluky run to a Sugar Bowl victory, the Wolverines' win total has dropped each season under Hoke from 11 in 2011 to eight in 2012 to seven in 2013 to five in 2014 unless they can upset Maryland or Ohio State in these final weeks. It'd be one thing if they were demonstrating progress with their performance on the field despite the losses, but it's quite clear that this program is regressing significantly under Hoke's watch. There's enough evidence to indicate that a coaching change needs to be made if Michigan wants to return to national relevance and contend for Big Ten championships annually.

However, before Michigan can make such a change, there needs to be a permanent athletic director in place. This is why the future of Michigan football rests solely in the hands of University President Mark Schlissel, which may be slightly concerning.

I don't doubt for a second that Schlissel is brilliant, but, before he took office as the University of Michigan's 14th president on July 1, 2014, he had no understanding of or experience with how a major athletic department functions. The majority of his career had been spent teaching at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and U-C Berkeley, where he became the Dean of Biological Sciences in the College of Letters & Science, before, in 2011, he took his first administrative post as the Provost of Brown University, an Ivy League institution that views athletic success to be of little significance.

And, now, just a short four months into his tenure as Michigan's president, Schlissel is being asked to lead the search to discover the best candidate to head one of the nation's largest athletic departments, which he may not fully understand the inner workings of just yet, at a university that views athletic success to be of major significance.

See where my concern stems from?

Schlissel didn't ease my concern either when his statements about the "sports stuff" to the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) on Monday were reported by The Michigan Daily. My concern, though, is not with the interesting remarks Schlissel made, which he later clarified so not to insult the current student-athletes, about some Michigan football players having lower academic qualifications than the general student. Some may interpret this to mean he wants to (1) raise academic standards for incoming student-athletes, which would further limit the pool of high school prospects Michigan can recruit and damage its chances to reemerge as an elite football program, or (2) de-emphasize the importance of athletics altogether and transform Michigan into an institution suitable for the Ivy League, which is an extreme viewpoint. Yet I found these remarks to mean only that Schlissel wants Michigan to strive to ensure its student-athletes receive an education and succeed academically.

Where I'm concerned is Schlissel's comments on his timeline for hiring a permanent athletic director to replace Brandon:

"That's why I'm taking a bit of time with the search for Dave's successor," Schlissel said. "Some folks wanted me to hire an athletic director (earlier) so he could fire the current football coach and hire the next coach but I want to take the time to make sure we get someone who is not only technically adept, but can ensure that the program has financial and academic integrity, and also someone who shares the value system of realizing our mission."

"People have been saying all kinds of things about who I'm talking to about positions and this sports stuff, and they name names of people who I have no idea who they are," Schlissel said. "I've really learned that this whole athletic sphere and the usual way you approach things just doesn't work. It's just a crazed or irrational approach that the world and the media takes to athletics decisions."

I have questions regarding what Schlissel meant when he said that he's "taking a bit of time" with his search for a permanent athletic director. While Schlissel was correct that he needs to ensure Michigan selects the most qualified candidate who fits within the culture he wants to permeate Michigan athletics, how much time does a life-long member of academia that's never made a major hire in the area of athletics expect that will entail? Weeks? Months? Although I didn't believe Schlissel for a second when he said that he has "no idea" who some of the people listed as candidates are, I worry that he has yet to begin a formal search and expects the process to take months, not weeks.

And that's the problem. In a few weeks in early December, once the regular season has ended, Schlissel will find himself facing a fork in the road. The path to the left will require him to hire a permanent athletic director to be Brandon's successor by no later than there and then. The path to the right will allow him to let the process play out and wait until after the holidays to hire a permanent athletic director.

Why will Schlissel face the fork in early December? That's when Hoke will have his performance evaluation, and Michigan cannot afford not to have a permanent athletic director in place by then. If Hackett is still the interim athletic director at that time, there are two realistic outcomes. The most likely is that Hackett retains Hoke for the 2015 season, which will frustrate the fan base and likely see a steep decline in season ticket renewals given this season's cheap secondary market. And, by the time the permanent athletic director is subsequently hired, it'd be too late for him or her to can Hoke. Not only would the best potential coaching replacements have made their decisions by then, the timing of such a termination could cause mass roster attrition. The less likely outcome is that Hackett has the guts to fire Hoke, a power Schlissel has given him. But how many established coaches would have no problem leaving their cushy jobs for Michigan without knowing who the permanent athletic director would be? Any?

This is why the path to the right is a hazardous trail, and Schlissel must follow the path to the left. He needs to hire a permanent athletic director by no later than early December. This would give the new athletic director sufficient time to evaluate whether Hoke should be retained or fired and, if necessary, organize a coaching search that keeps the best potential replacements -- Hello, Jim Harbaugh -- in play. Plus, the earlier a coaching switch is made, the better opportunity Michigan has to prevent a mass exodus of transfers, salvage the 2015 recruiting class before National Signing Day during the first week of February, and return to its winning ways on the gridiron as soon as next season.

Early December, the deadline for when Schlissel must choose his path at the fork in the road, is three, maybe four, weeks away. This is still plenty of time for Schlissel, even if he has yet to initiate one, to complete a formal search to find the most qualified candidate to be Michigan's next permanent athletic director. This would prove that Schlissel, who would rather devote his time and resources to running the university, understands the situation and just how important Michigan football is to the school and community.

But, if Schlissel bides his time and waits too long, the damage will be done, and it'd force Michigan supporters to wonder, "When'll Michigan football be Michigan football again?"