Former Third-Stringer Named Leader of Michigan's Athletic Department

January 8, 2010

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On Tuesday, the University of Michigan announced Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon would succeed Bill Martin as the athletic director.  It marked a personal high point of a great career – one you wouldn’t have predicted when Brandon played for Michigan as a third-string defensive back.  

14 years ago, I wrote a big feature on Bo Schembechler for the Detroit News.  Bo liked the story and, out of nowhere, gave me his papers.  When I tried to interest him in writing a book, he told me to ask him later – much later, it turned out.  About nine years later. So, in the summer of 2000, I started without him.   

The first person I sought out was Dave Brandon, who was in his second year as the CEO of Domino’s Pizza.  He probably didn’t know me from Adam, but he gave me an hour of his time anyway.  And he didn’t spend it gushing about his greatest day, either, but confessing his worst one.     

Brandon had been an All-State quarterback at South Lyon High School, and Schembechler offered him a full ride to come to Michigan in 1970.   

Problem was, Michigan already had three quarterbacks who would play that position – Tom Slade, Larry Cipa and Dennis Franklin -- so Brandon switched to defensive back.  But that only made his situation worse, because the Wolverines were stocked with four future All-Americans at that spot.  Brandon could have been the fifth-best defensive back in the country and not gotten any playing time on that team – they were that good.  So, after a couple years of hard work, he was still languishing on the depth chart, and getting frustrated.  

At a Monday practice in the middle of the 1972 season, Brandon’s junior year, Schembechler decided to work with the guys who hadn’t played that Saturday by making up a scrimmage they called the Toilet Bowl. Well, Brandon apparently responded with something less than complete enthusiasm.  He just muttered a few words under his breath, across the field from the old general, but somehow Schembechler was in his face in about eight nanoseconds.  Creating the illusion that his eyes and ears were everywhere was part of his genius.   

“Brandon!  I hear you’d rather not partake in our little scrimmage,” he barked.  “Well, I can solve your problem, son.  You’re going straight into that locker room, and cleaning your locker out. You’re done playing football for the University of Michigan.” 

Brandon sat in his empty stall, dazed and despondent, wondering what he would tell his father, who loved Bo, his teammates, his girlfriend, and, one day, years from then, his kids.   

Needless to say, Brandon didn’t sleep a wink that night.  The next morning, he put on a dress shirt and went straight to Bo’s office, scared, nervous, and worn out. He apologized – as Bo knew he would -- and Bo took him back.  But he never heard Dave Brandon complain about any scrimmages after that.  

Fast forward to 1989, the first reunion for all of Bo’s players.  Brandon is already an All-American businessman by now, and a millionaire – but that incident still bothered him.  Brandon figured it was time to confess his sins, so he told his teammates at his table about it – and everybody started laughing.   

Brandon was stunned. What are you guys laughing about?  I’m spilling my guts!  One by one, they confessed, at one time or another Bo had kicked all of them off the team. 

Brandon had a good laugh, too -- but the lesson stayed with him: Don’t take what you’ve been given for granted, or you’ll lose it.   

And that’s one reason why the guy who’d been kicked off the team is now not only responsible for Michigan’s football team, but for all Michigan’s teams.   

Bo would be proud – and I’m sure he would agree: That’s a hell of a story.  

Copyright © 2010, Michigan Radio

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  • 1/8/2010 11:55 AM Geoff Larcom wrote:
    Nice, concise piece, John. So very instructive.
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  • 1/8/2010 12:07 PM John U. Bacon wrote:
    Thanks, Geoff (former Detroit News sports writer, Ann Arbor News sports editor and columnist, and now communications director for EMU). Though you shouldn't give me any points for being concise. They give me 3.5 minutes each week -- that's it. They're ALL concise -- by edict!
    Reply to this
  • 1/8/2010 5:49 PM Chris wrote:
    I've seen comments from Geoff before and wondered it was the same guy... I was cleaning out my file cabinet and came across a "I Leveled Larcom" bumper sticker. Ha!

    Over on Michigan Radio's blog, they were slamming Brandon hard because of his politics. What that directly has to do with Brandon's new role is beyond me. His politics certainly hasn't hurt any company he has ever led. At any rate, if MSC can put aside her opinions for what is best for the University, maybe everyone else can too and give the guy a chance.

    Brandon already said one of his first tasks is bringing the Michigan family back together. On that point alone, and when compared to the current AD, I'm very encouraged by this hire.

    Thanks for another great story.

    Go Blue!
    Reply to this
  • 1/9/2010 2:48 PM Brian LaFrence wrote:
    Excellent story Prof. Bacon. Sounds like we are getting a very good replacement for Martin.

    Will you by chance be writing a comparison between Martin and what we can potentially expect from Brandon? When Martin came to class, I got the feeling that the bottom line in his decisions was usually money. Do you expect Brandon to take a similar approach? I understand from the financial side why we do a lot of the things the way we do (8 home games every other year, scheduling Delaware St., etc.), but from a fans perspective I hope that Brandon is a little more lenient. Specifically, I would love to see us schedule a big time home-and-home, once the team gets back on track, and maybe even look into a night game. A maize out night game against MSU at the big house could be fantastic.

    I hope all is well, and hopefully you'll be back on campus teaching next fall! I'm going to be around and would love to sit in on a few guest lectures.

    Go Blue!
    Reply to this
  • 1/9/2010 4:26 PM Bill Beagan wrote:
    One of those amazing ironies that give confidence, motivation, and commitment, to dreamers all. Nice piece JB.
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  • 1/9/2010 10:14 PM John U. Bacon wrote:
    Thanks for the kind comments -- and thanks to Brian Cook for sending some MGoBlog folks this way for the Brandon piece.

    Brian LaFrence, to answer your question, I'm sure Brandon will be just as much a stickler for the bottom line as Martin has been, which is how he turned a big deficit into an even bigger surplus. But I imagine that Brandon, because he played in the seventies when they never scheduled any MAC teams, let alone Division I-AA schools, will be interested in beefing up the schedule, when the team can handle it. He also has more experience dealing with the President's office, the Regents, the alums and the press than Martin did when he took over ten years ago, all of which will help Rodriguez reduce the distractions he's faced the first two years.

    But of course it's also true that Brandon did not hire Rodriguez, so might not be quite as patient as Martin would be.

    Naturally, only time will tell, but there is no substitute for winning. I still believe Rodriguez, given a fair opportunity to succeed, will do just that.

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