November 19, 2013

Borton's Blog: Brandon weighs in

David Brandon is a bottom-line guy. He has to be. He's the athletic director overseeing a roughly $150-million budget and a multitude of sports, mostly paid for by one.

He can't let Michigan football slip, beyond the plunge it took from 2008-2010. He ended that 15-22 spiral into the abyss by firing Rich Rodriguez, and handpicked Brady Hoke to step into the big office.

The Michigan football world seemed stunned, grateful and relieved when Hoke took veteran performers held over from the previous regime, mixed in a defense and went 11-2, with wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State and Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

Hoke lost his quarterback in 2012, likely blocking a more serious run at a conference championship. This year, the Wolverines ran into all sorts of problems on offense, hitting a recruiting bubble, especially on the offensive line.

Brandon watches it all, very closely. He doesn't equivocate in his judgment about the immediate future.

The Michigan athletics CEO went on with U-M sideline reporter Doug Karsch, during the Michigan Radio Network's sideline show prior to the Northwestern game. When the topic of coaching came up, Brandon stood firm.

"I feel very confident," Brandon said. "Brady is the right guy to lead this Michigan football program. There is no question in my mind about that. The recruiting pipeline is filled with a lot of talent.

"Listen, the way I look at it, we're not as improved as we hoped we'd be at this point in the season - that's a given. We've had three losses, and two of those losses are of the nature that, if you go back and we make a kick we're usually going to make, it's a win, or if we get a stop on fourth-and-two, it's a win.

"And then we're 8-1 [now 9-1], and even though we're disappointed we didn't play well up in East Lansing, that's a pretty good season. We're probably in the top 20 in the nation at that point.

"The reality is, we're 6-3 [now 7-3], we're behind where we want to be, and we've all got to hang together. Brady Hoke was named Coach of the Year his first year here. We've got good things going on with the program."

Brandon took it a step further. He likened the football disappointment this season to that involving the third campaign at Crisler Center under John Beilein. That year featured a thud of a 15-17 campaign, after a breakthrough NCAA Tournament appearance.

Brandon received all sorts of unsolicited coaching advice in the days following that dropoff.

"The last time I had a coach in his third year, and I was getting all kinds of advice from self-proclaimed experts about their ability to coach, it was a guy named Beilein," Brandon recalled.

"He had a disappointing year in his third year. We underperformed, compared to what expectations were. We didn't make as much progress during the year as we'd hoped to make and there were a lot of people that were telling me that he couldn't coach at this level, he couldn't recruit the kind of players [needed], he couldn't recruit NBA players.

"There were all kinds of people out there taking shots at Coach Beilein. I'm kind of glad that Coach Beilein is here. I have the same confidence in Brady Hoke."

Strong talk, and it doesn't mean Brandon ignores the issues. He sees every play of every game, and has far more at stake than anyone in the stands.

Losing at home to Nebraska marked one of the biggest gut-punches. The Wolverines hadn't lost a game at home under Hoke, and fell to a crew of Cornhuskers without its starting quarterback and beset by a number of other issues.

"I saw a defensive team that played very potent football against a team that had been averaging 35 points a game," Brandon noted, starting with the positives. "They'd been averaging over 400 yards of offense. We cut all of that in half. But I saw defensive coaches that were really disappointed, because we had a chance to win that game at the end.

"One stop … and frankly, we had them stopped. We made a couple of really, really unfortunate mental errors with some young kids that put us in a position where we didn't get that stop and it cost us the ball game. But defensively, I thought they played very well.

"Offensively, hey, we all know we're not running the ball, we've got to protect the quarterback better, sometimes the quarterback's got to make better choices. You can go back and look at every play and see we're just a little bit out of sync. It's costing us, and we've got to get that corrected."

The inconsistent play cost Michigan a shot at the Big Ten title, Hoke's own standard for true success. What the Wolverines can't do now is fold up the tents, which they showed they weren't about to do in Evanston.

"A big part of this confidence," Brandon said. "Everybody's out there, naysayers are out being critical, trying to diagnose the problems and figuring out somebody to blame for their disappointments, and some of that translates, or can translate, to the kids.

"If they start losing their confidence in their ability to play, then you've got a whole other problem. What I look for when I go to practice is, is there energy? Are they crisp? Are they working hard? Are they approaching this with a positive mental attitude? Based on what I saw this week, all things considered, they're in a very positive place."

Brandon expects it to continue that way, and improve along with the bottom line as all the young talent Hoke and his coaches brought in becomes not-so-young talent. The athletic director will be watching, but he believes he's seen this movie before.

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