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UM - MSU football game could be about more than football

Oct 24, 2014

President Schlissel might be paying more attention to football this week than usual.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Eighth-ranked Michigan State is favored to beat the struggling Wolverines by more than two touchdowns.

A victory would mark the Spartans’ sixth win over the Wolverines in their last seven games, establishing unquestioned dominance over the state for the first time in 50 years.

Calling your little brother “Little Brother” gets a bit awkward when he keeps kicking your butt. A win would also preserve the Spartans’ hopes of a national title – something no other Big Ten team can realistically claim.

Michigan’s dreams are more modest, but more urgent.

The Wolverines have lost ten of their last 15 games – and they haven’t looked very good doing it. The game has changed a lot over the past few decades, but blocking hasn’t, and the Wolverines aren’t very good at it.

They look poorly coached – especially when the coaches put only ten players on the field, when they’re allowed eleven. They’ve done that three times this season – probably more than your local high school team.

If they somehow manage to upset the Spartans this weekend, it could go a long way toward saving head coach Brady Hoke's job.

But, to the players’ credit, instead of giving up on their coaches and each other, they’ve played their hearts out the last two weeks. If they somehow manage to upset the Spartans this weekend, it could go a long way toward saving head coach Brady Hoke’s job.

If not, Michigan will likely be searching for a new coach for the third time in seven years. But who will do the searching?

Just four years ago, most Michigan fans considered athletic director Dave Brandon the school’s savior. But this fall, the students made their discontent plain by starting a petition to get him fired, launching a campus rally for the same purpose, and starting a chant, “Fi-re Bran-don!” at football and hockey games.

But the students don’t get to vote on Brandon’s fate. Nor do the deans or even the regents. Only one person gets to make that decision: Michigan’s newly minted president, Mark Schlissel.

If there’s one problem President Schlissel does not to deal with his first year, this is it.

If he decides to fire Brandon, he’ll have to negotiate Brandon’s exit, form a search committee, select a new A.D., and oversee the hiring of a new football coach – when he’d rather be tending to teaching and research. 

But doing nothing might be worse, resulting in falling ticket sales, dwindling donations and slipping school spirit...

But doing nothing might be worse, resulting in falling ticket sales, dwindling donations and slipping school spirit, not to mention growing deficits, distractions, and dissension. President Schlissel’s dilemma could deepen after the November 4 election. If the Board of Regents becomes split, 4-4, on whether Brandon should stay or go, Schlissel might pine for the problems he has today.

But the most important issue is not wins and losses, ticket prices or revenues, but the timeless values upon which the University of Michigan was built: cooperation and compromise, transparency and truthfulness.

The department has been notably lacking all four virtues. After each error in judgment, usually borne of arrogance, the department first denies, then dissembles, then invariably blames the “misunderstanding” on someone else’s “miscommunication.” It sounds less like a university department, and more like an embattled corporation.

It’s this tension between what the university stands for, and how the current athletic department acts, that will persist until someone deals with it directly. 

And that someone can only be President Schlissel.