When Michigan set out to hire a new athletic director in 2009, it considered three Division I athletic directors who all had close ties to Michigan. But there was a fourth candidate who seemed to have the inside track.
If there was one thing Domino’s Pizza CEO Dave Brandon could handle, it was public relations. And if there was one thing Michigan needed, that was it. Brandon immediately impressed everyone, including me, with his performance in high-pressure press conferences.
When he hired Brady Hoke to lead the football team, many fans howled. But the lovable Hoke won them over at his first press conference, then won eleven games in his first season. The honeymoon was glorious.
But after Hoke finished 8-5 in 2012, and 7-6 last year, the grumbling grew to a dull roar. Throw in historically high ticket prices and a historically bad home schedule, and Michigan’s celebrated streak of 100,000-plus crowds, running back to 1975, was in jeopardy.
The attendance streak has survived almost four decades, a few recessions, and a few disappointing years – not to mention blazing heat, freezing rain and blinding snowstorms. Even after the team went 3-9 in 2008, with the economy at its lowest point since the Great Depression, Michigan’s resilient fans bought up all the season tickets months, and left a robust wait list.
Not today. The wait list is gone, the season tickets didn’t sell out, and the students cut their ticket orders by some 6,000 seats, or a solid third. With it, the Big House lost the engine that keeps the stadium humming, and the fans who are supposed to keep the tradition alive for the next generation.
The department has resorted to desperate measures to keep the streak going, selling deeply discounted tickets on social media, and dumping thousands of free tickets on schools, churches, camps, the ushers, Michigan golf club members and the student-athletes – and yes, through Coca-Cola giveaways -- urging everyone to come to the games.
So far, the department has been blessed with gorgeous weather for all three home tailgates, and managed to draw enough fans to claim with a straight face that the streak is still alive. Sure, they’re covering the cracks with wallpaper – but that’s load-bearing wallpaper. Best not to pull it down.
Season ticket holders have skin in the game, lots of it, and they traditionally show up rain or shine. But anyone receiving a free ticket is, truly, a fair weather fan. The department is just one cold, rainy day from having to admit, once and for all, that the hallowed streak is over.
It hasn’t helped that the Wolverines have lost eight of their last 12 games. But a win this weekend might be enough to get Hoke’s team on a roll, giving people good reason to hope for more in 2015, and justify keeping him.
But even if the Wolverines win as expected, something is different this time. I’ve often joked that many Michigan fans aren’t happy unless they’re not happy. But many are now upset that they’re not that upset. They are alarmed by their lack of alarm. They are afflicted by something I’ve never seen before: indifference.
The department has committed gaffe after gaffe – from skywriting to seat cushions to giant noodles to Coca-Cola giveways -- inevitably followed by absurd explanations, which always place the blame elsewhere. “Inaccuracies were driven by social media,” they say, even when the social media is their own website. The department has all the credibility of Pravda.
These problems were easy to predict – and easy to avoid. When faced with a decision, the current regime favors style over substance – the exact opposite approach that made Michigan football great.
Early in his tenure, Dave Brandon said, “I don’t talk about the past. I create the future.”
It’s hard to believe this was the future he had in mind.