Book Review: Endzone

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

St. Martin’s Press, September 2015
Hardcover $27.99, E-read, $12.99

Endzone

In a Nutshell – The business philosophy of profit and growth runs head first into tradition and longstanding customer expectations.

Who’s it for? – Anyone associated with the University of Michigan. Although this is a sports-related book, there are also lessons that anyone involved in business could learn from.

Quote from author – “The tide had officially turned against Brandon – but it was not clear if he recognized the sea change.” John U. Bacon

Although the University of Michigan is one of the country’s preeminent public universities, it’s likely more recognized for its football program. Michigan’s athletic department is big business with an annual budget that exceeds $150 million. A recent Anderson Group study estimated that the annual local economic impact of Michigan football to be more than $177 million. Although U of M has the most victories in college football history, it has recently struggled both on and off the field.

U of M graduate, insider, and author John U. Bacon explains the downfall and apparent resurgence in his recently released book “Endzone.” Bacon has become an expert on Michigan’s athletic history, writing several books including “Three and Out,” which chronicled the tenure of former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriquez.

“Endzone” begins with Bacon detailing Michigan’s rich football coaching tradition from the dominant era of Fielding Yost of the early 1900s to the legendary Bo Schembechler. Michigan’s football success carried over to its Athletic Department, which for years was the gold standard for attendance, fan support and financial solvency.

“Endzone” then fast forwards to 2012 when a former Schembechler player, David Brandon becomes the school’s athletic director. Brandon comes to U of M highly recommended, previously rising to CEO of Domino’s Pizza. At his new position at Michigan, Brandon managed 28 sports programs and multiple facilities.

Author Bacon plays Brandon as the fall guy. He makes the case that Brandon’s legacy is more important to Brandon than the Athletic Department itself. His hard charging, “If it ain’t broke, break it,” philosophy brought from his Domino’s tenure leaves plenty of carnage in its wake.

Under Brandon’s supervision the Athletic Department increases prices of everything from tickets to hot dogs to the rental of department facilities to student groups. The public grumbling begins and escalates quickly when the football team under Coach Brady Hoke fails to win.

Brandon continues to lose his customer base by terminating games with long-term rival Notre Dame and responding poorly to an on-field incident involving a concussion. His biggest mistake is replacing employees that have long-term relationships with influential alums and former players with less experienced outsiders that are paid significantly more than their predecessors.

Bacon, however, does make an effort to detail the positive side of Brandon’s good treatment of his student athletes. Regardless, in the fall of 2014 Brandon and Hoke are both fired and Michigan is looking for a new football coach and an athletic director.

“Endzone” concludes with the detailed recruitment of the much ballyhooed football coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, a successful college and professional coach, played for Michigan in the 1980s under Schembechler. With Brandon gone, former players, alumni, and others orchestrate a grassroots effort to bring home their savior Harbaugh to coach Michigan. In the end, tradition wins out.

Readers with connections to the University will be riveted to this book and it’s worth noting that several back stories within “Endzone” have northern Michigan ties. Bacon continues his dissertation from his previous books, revisiting the definition of what is a “Michigan Man”, carrying it forward in this book with the related concept of “This is Michigan”. At times, Bacon may be looking at the world through “blue-colored” glasses, but his allegiance provides incredible insight and access that few other books can offer.

Chris Wendel is a consultant and commercial lender with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette. Wendel resides and works in Traverse City. He can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

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