There is a noticeable change in the atmosphere in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I attended the fourth annual Michigan Sport Business Conference. Last year at the event, I conducted a sit-down interview with the embattled Dave Brandon. It turned out to be his last public appearance as Michigan’s athletic director before he resigned days later. One could sense the angst among students and alumni, and there was a palpable tension in the air that evening. Brandon had many detractors, and he didn’t survive at the Big House.
The school turned to Jim Hackett, a former Michigan football player under coach Bo Schembechler and a western Michigan business executive, to lead the Wolverines as interim AD. And in just over a year on the job, the vibe has clearly changed on campus. Hackett’s year has been marked by two big moves — landing Jim Harbaugh and signing a massive 15-year deal with Nike, valued to be among the most lucrative in the nation. But his biggest accomplishment may be returning trust and positive energy to campus.
Hackett comes across as the likable, aw shucks grandfather, a stark contrast to the business-focused Brandon, who was criticized for being aloof. During a discussion with CBS’s Dana Jacobson, Hackett talked about “servant leadership” and told an anecdote about driving through campus at 1 a.m. after having had a bad day. “I found it so inspiring and wonderful. There is no place like this in the world,” he said.
With the team’s punter, Blake O’Neill, in the audience, Hackett was asked about the memo he sent out on Sunday, Oct. 18, a day after O’Neill’s fumbled snap led to Michigan State’s improbable win. He said that he and his wife were shocked at the ugly vitriol aimed at O’Neill. That led to his well-received open letter stating, “I’m asking that our community not lose this game twice by condoning thoughtless comments.” He elaborated, saying it was an attempt to “shake everyone” after he read some of the ugly missives toward O’Neill. “It makes me sick the way people will trivialize things. I was frankly pissed off.”
He said he told Harbaugh that this was a special instance and he didn’t expect this type of statement to come from the coach. “The athletic department should be in the background, but if things ever cross the line, we have your back.” At the end, Hackett had the room standing as he led the team’s “Go Blue” cheer. Whether he stays long-term, Hackett’s done is job — successfully turning around the atmosphere and energy in Ann Arbor.
> CAREER ADVICE: It was my second trip to the Michigan campus and came on a beautiful fall day with peak colors. The event, organized and produced by students, is supported by the large number of sports business alumni, who are actively engaged on the programming and return to attend and speak. ESPN’s Mike Tirico conducted a smart one-on-one with Bob Bowman, MLB president of business and media, who dropped a few interesting nuggets before 500 attendees at the Ross School of Business, named after Dolphins owner and Michigan alum Stephen Ross. His advice for job seekers: “Find someone you really admire and work hard for them. I have always tried to work hard for really good people. They will be a mentor and ally for your entire career.” On his days in politics working for President Jimmy Carter: “Politics was a contact sport, but it was over by 5 p.m. It was partisan but not personal, like it is now.”
> CURIOSITY IS NO. 1: On the road recently, I clipped this quote out of USA Today from Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison, who was asked the most important skill sets that people need to have and what’s attractive to potential employers. I liked his answer, and wanted to share it:
“There’s one that rises above anything else. And in layman’s terms, it’s curiosity,” he said. “In scientific terms, it’s learning agility. So this insatiable appetite to be nimble, to grow, to learn, to want to read, to want to listen to all sorts of music. We have actually proven that the No. 1 predictor of success for an individual is learning agility. People agility. Mental agility. Strategic agility. It’s an ability to have an interest in life. In simple terms, it’s curiosity.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.
Published by the Sports Business Journal on November 2, 2015, Page 24