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University of Michigan: The Collapse of a So-Called "Storied" Program

The picture says it all. The University of Michigan's  football coach and AD stand before a news conference. With solemn faces, they announce self-imposed hand slaps on themselves for major football violations around misuse of voluntary practice time and illegal use of support staff as coaches. 

This continues Michigan's run of scandals going back over a decade and admits most NCAA charge against its “storied football program.” It self-imposed limits upon practice time, assistant coaches and proposed 2 year probation in its long response to the NCAA. Nothing too onerous. The AD lives in denial calling it a" bruise" not a "black eye" and the school resolutely defends its football coach against the charge of having encouraged a culture of noncompliance, despite the evidence. It's long response mutters about communication breakdowns and seems to portray a keystone cops approach to compliance at least with regard to football. The AD David Brandon, the ex-Dominos' Pizza president, bristles at calling extra practice time and illegal coaches "cheating." Interesting parsing of words for what clearly is cheating.

 In full disclosure, I taught in the Michigan system and lived in Ann Arbor for a decades and have a deep affection and respect for the university, so I write this with dismay. But  this last set of scandals reflects the disarray of a once proud program and hints at two deep problems with NCAA rules that I will discuss in a later blog.

All the stories, Yahoo, ESPN, AP refer to the “storied football program.” Inevitably the story mentions the program has won more football games than any other—the advantages of longevity. But no one talks about the great or excellent program. The Michigan football and basketball teams in particular  have not been great programs for over a generation. The whole program hangs around the top ten of the director's cup and in the last decade picked up national championships in men's gymnastics, field hockey and softball.

The football program remained a very good program with a very very good coach Lloyd Carr. It won a national championship in 1997 and won 78 percent of its games under him. For exemplary character, his devotion to students, his 1997 national championships and ten Big 10 titles, Carr was unceremoniously retired out of the program largely because his teams could not beat Jim Tressel’s Ohio State teams. The removal was unwarranted and punished an exemplary coach and team to satisfy booster blood lust. It reflected how distorted the college football culture to win and satisfy boosters has become.

The blood lust needed to be sated because except for periodic random championships like softball or field hockey, the basketball team had failed miserably and been mired in scandal for fifteen years and the Michigan football resembled a rich dowager. The sleek really rich brides of Florida, Texas, USC, LSU and a surgically regenerated Ohio State sashayed past Michigan on the way to multiple national championships and glory.

I have made this point a number of times but the Michigan example underscores it. There are no great programs, only great coaches. There are rich programs, not great programs. There are some very rich programs, and they can afford to hire the great coaches. If you hire enough great coaches, you look like a great program.

Michigan did not lack for money, they just lacked judgment in hiring coaches.  With any talent for picking talent a rich program can morph into a great program, witness Florida and Texas. Many college programs, like Cincinnati, are a bit like Kansas City and Pittsburgh in baseball; they hire and nurture young coaches and then have them snatched  away by the rich when they are ready like Florida did to Utah’s Urban Meyer and ND to Cincinnati’s Brian Kelley. 

Michigan stumbled on hiring in basketball for a generation and solved the football program with Carr. Ultimately the stories Michigan boosters told themselves about what Bruce Springsteen would call Glory Days  lead to Carr's retiring. But stories take on their rose or dark hues. Remember the titanic Hayes/Schembechler wars ended 5-4-1, and Michigan only went to the Rose bowl once during the wars. 

What most galled Michigan fans was they could not find a Michigan man to replace Carr. Many expected Les Miles of LSU to jump at the chance, an old Schembechler protege with one national championship under his belt. The choice for Miles was simple: why leave Louisiana where he had no effective academic or legal constraints upon his recruiting and was treated like a king for a much more regulated and academically tougher Michigan with restive boosters who had just deposed a fine coach. After well publicized failures that got several coaches very good raises (we had the same experience at Washington) the school settled for Rich Rodriquez a high powered offensive coach with a somewhat tangled  reputation for bad outside decision making.

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Rodriquez faced immense skepticism and huge pressures to win immediately, all quite unreasonable. But he has done nothing to calm either with two failed seasons and lingering questions from economic dealings in West Virginia. His style alienated players, lead to leaks to the press and now Michigan has admitted systematic violations in not controlling the practice times, having illegal voluntary practice times turn into coach regulated practices. In addition, the five Michigan "quality control coaches' more than anyone else in the Big 10, consistently violate NCAA regulations by acting as real coaches giving Michigan competitive advantages in coaching and tending to players. 

The new Michigan AD David Brandon consistently down played this loss of institutional control over the football team. The sanctions they imposed, besides probation, are remarkably light and depend upon Michigan's denial that the consistent pattern of practice time, abuse of voluntary practice time and turning assistants to assistants into coaches does not constitute serious lack of control of the team. This is doubly interesting when you read the Michigan documents and find that the responsibilities for the coaches will be set by the head coach. I will speak to how these Michigan violations illustrate a widespread NCAA problem, but for the moment, it might help if Michigan got serious about the range and depth of its failures. Rodriquez adds to the quagmire with his petulant response where he blames senior administrators and compliance staff for his own ignorance of basic job descriptions and well known rules after 18 months on the job.  

Brandon's final word is "We've been in business for 130 years. We'll let our brand and our integrity and our merits stand on our history and beliefs."  Would that it were enough.


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