Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lessons in Leadership: Michigan Football

Posted By: George Deeb - 11/29/2011


& Comment

Michigan Football is the winningest team in college football history, built on deep traditions dating back 132 years and great coaches like Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler and Bo Schembechler.  This program has generated 11 national championships, 42 Big Ten championships, 77 All-Americans, 3 Heisman Trophy winners and has attracted over 100,000 fans for every game at Michigan Stadium over the last 42 years.  Michigan Football is an institution, generating millions of dollars in revenue each year, and the expectations are high, year-in and year-out.

Between 1969 to 2006, Michigan Football was most personified by one man, Bo Schembechler, the great U-M coach between 1969-1989 most known for his 10 year war with Woody Hayes, Bo's mentor and head coach at arch enemy Ohio State.  In his first season, Bo turned around a struggling program, knocking off #1 ranked OSU in his first try.  He could do no wrong from there in the eyes of the Michigan faithful.  Bo went on to win 13 conference titles in his 21 years as head coach.  So, it is safe to say, whatever Bo thought, ruled decision making in Michigan Football, for as long as he was around the program (even for the 17 years he lived after coaching).

When Bo became Athletic Director after coaching, he quickly fired Bill Frieder as head baskball coach after it leaked he would become the next coach at Arizona State after the end of the season.  Bo got up to the podium and said "only a Michigan Man will coach a Michigan team", naming assistant coach Steve Fisher the new head coach the day before the NCAA tournament started.  Fisher ended up winning his first six games as head coach, and the National Championship in the process, making Bo that much more "god-like" in Ann Arbor. 

But, that "Michigan Man" quote became a mantra for all future coaching hires within the program.  Bo handed off the coaching reins to his assistant, Gary Moeller, who then was replaced by another Bo assistant, Lloyd Carr, both Michigan Men and direct descendents from Bo.  So, when Lloyd Carr announced his retirement after the 2007 season, the search for the next coach began and most assumed another Michigan Man would be hired.  Then Athletic Director, Bill Martin, after a series of public missteps and a mismanaged recruitment process, announced that Rich Rodriguez, the head coach of a wildly successful West Virginia program, would be the next coach at  Michigan.  Rodriguez was not a Michigan Man, and the first one hired since Bo died in 2006.

Now starts the key lessons that may be relevant to your businesses, which are much better detailed and documented in the new, nicely-written book "Three and Out" by John Bacon, the story of Rich Rodriguez and his failed tunure at Michigan between 2008-2010.  But, I thought it was important you had the above background, to put the below in perspective.

Reaction to Hiring.  Most U-M fans were hoping the hugely successful U-M alum, Les Miles of LSU, was going to get the job, especially since that was erroneously reported by ESPN early in the recruiting process.  After rumors of Les Miles, Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), and Greg Schiano (Rutgers) came and went, Rich Rodriguez felt like a distant fourth choice.  And, to make matters worse, he wasn't a Michigan Man.  Lloyd Carr had preferred his replacement had been one of his assistant coaches, from within the program.  And, when it wasn't, Carr did not make it easy on Rodriguez, as he helped many of his current star players transfer out of the program.  And, many of the Michigan football player alums, publicly voiced their criticism of the hire and did not offer their typical support of the new coach.

Egos and the memories of what Bo would do got in the way, and overshone the repeated successes of Rodriguez throughout his career, who on paper was a very good choice by Bill Martin.  And, the Michigan faithful didn't seem to remember, when Bo was hired (he was an outsider from Miami, Ohio) and when Fielding Yost was hired (he was an outsider, also from West Virginia).  But, for whatever reason, Rodriguez was doomed from day one without internal support for his hiring.

Reaction to First Days on Job.  To make matters worse, Rodriguez had no sense to the numerous deep-seeded traditions of Michigan Football (importance of #1 jersey to best wide receiver, importance of beating OSU, importance of getting to Rose Bowl), making him look even more like an outsider, because he never asked, and was never taught, things that mattered to the program.  And, his style was very much a "do it yourself" style, burying himself in the football building, and not reaching out and networking with the athletic department, university officials, football alumni and the fans themselves.  A style which only works if you are winning, since it is hard to fire the guy you know and like, but easy to fire the guy you never see and know nothing about.

Layer on top of that the fact that U-M promised to pay $2.5MM of Rodriguez's severance payment due to West Virginia at the time he was hired, but the university wouldn't let Rodriguez communicate such agreement publicly.  Which made it look like U-M was "bailing out" Rodriguez from his personal commitments with U-M cash, which was not the case.

Reaction to Performance.  Rodriguez went 3-9 in his first year, marking U-M's first losing season in 40 years and breaking U-M's national leading string of 33 consecutive bowl game appearances.  It didn't matter the team was light on talent for Rodriguez's system and based on early departures (assisted by Lloyd Carr).  And, it didn't matter Rodriguez told his boss it would take 3-4 years to get the program working right.  All that mattered was the U-M faithful, who were leery of his hiring to start, were out for blood. 

To make matters worse, Michigan was investigated by the NCAA for the first time in history, while on Rodriguez's watch.  Michigan was penalized for five major NCAA violations, largely around practicing 6% more time than was allowed by the NCAA (largely during the off season).  Are you kidding?  A disgruntled former player was a whistle-blower on a team that was trying to recover from a 3-9 season.  But, the noose around Rodriguez's neck was getting tighter and tighter.

Although improved, Rodriguez's second year was another losing season at 5-7 (gasp! back to back losing seasons and no bowl game).  And, his third year ended up at 7-6, including three straight losses to archrivals Michigan State and Ohio State, a record breaking worst defense in U-M history and an embarrassing 52-14 Gator Bowl loss to Mississippi.  That was about all that Dave Brandon, the current U-M athletic director, needed to see, before deciding he needed to make a change.  Despite the facts each season was better than the year before, the offense put on record smashing statistics and Rodriguez was convinced 2011 was going to be the breakout year when his system would be running at full steam with his recruited, healthy upper-classmen (which ultimately happened, albeit under a different coach).

Enter Brady Hoke.  Once again the U-M fans were hoping a big name, U-M alum coach like Jim Harbaugh (Stanford) or Les Miles (LSU) would get the job.  But, Brandon felt otherwise, deciding to hire a relatively unknown Brady Hoke from San Diego State, who was a defensive-minded assistant at U-M from 1995-2003 that was intimately familiar with the Michigan ways of doing business, and was clearly a Michigan Man.  Hoke trained under Moeller and Carr, who trained under Bo.  Hoke was raised in Ohio, and knew the importance of beating OSU.  Hoke was enthusiastically embraced by his former players like NFL all-stars Tom Brady, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson.  Hoke knew the Michigan traditions inside and out, and smartly emphasized them in all his discussions with the media.  And, Brady Hoke knew how to win, as evidenced by his unexpected 10-2 first year results as head coach with players he didn't even recruit for his system.  U-M's defense improved from giving up 35 points a game in 2010 (under Rodriguez) to only 15 points a game in 2011 (top 5 in the country), with largely the same players.  And, Brady Hoke's future is clearly bright in Ann Arbor, bringing in the #1 recruiting class in the country for 2012.  The Michigan faithful are resting easy again.

Key Lessons.  So, the key lessons from this sequence of events: (i) make sure you understand the expectations, traditions and culture of any place before accepting a position; (ii) make sure you embrace your peers and audience, to assist you in acheiving success for yourself; (iii) make sure you manage communications so your desired message is best heard; (iv) make sure you do your homework on the business, to make sure the actual position is what you perceive it to be (e.g., Michigan spent less on football than West Virginia did, despite reputation, and had an "empty nest" of recruits day one); (v) a strong leader never publicly comes across as defeated or disappointed, regardless of the reality (e.g., never sing Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" at your annual football bust); (vi) make sure you know your employees' strengths, which can make or break your own success (e.g., defensive coordinator's struggles outweighed head coach's offensive success and ultimately led to his downfall); (vii) make sure your skillsets and styles truly fit the business needs (e.g., don't recruit small Big East players in the monster-size Big Ten); and (viii) most importantly, win early, win big and win repeatedly for continued support from your team and fans.

I feel really bad for Rich Rodriguez .  He is a good coach and a good person that most likely would have done well at Michigan over the long run.  But, without support or patience of the Michigan alumni and athletic department, and due to his early failures detailed above, we'll never know.  The king (Bo) is dead; long live the king (Hoke).

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