Leadership Lessons from College Football

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by John U. Bacon on his most recent book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football. Those of you who know I completed my Ph.D. at Michigan State may be wondering why I attended a lecture on the history of Michigan football. My husband has been a Michigan football fan his entire life. I went to keep him company, but it was enlightening to listen to Bacon as he described the downfall of Michigan football between 2010-2014 as resulting from a failure of leadership in the athletic department.

Bacon did not specifically speak to leadership principles during his lecture. As he described the events that eventually led to the firing of athletic director David Brandon and head football coach Brady Hoke, however, it became clear to me that a number of core leadership principles had been neglected.

  1. The values that defined the University of Michigan Athletic Department throughout its storied history were abandoned in favor of personal pride.
  2. Relationships with important constituent groups were allowed to deteriorate.
  3. There was a lack of appreciation for the meaning associated with the experience of Michigan football.

Values: Bacon identified several core values that have been a part of Michigan football history that seemed to be abandoned under Brandon's leadership. According to Bacon, one of the pillars of Michigan football has always been the way in which the athletic department has honored the alumni, students, faculty, and staff. Under Brandon's leadership, Michigan Lettermen were no longer able to get tickets on game day, which had been a long tradition. The collegial relationships that had been established between the athletic department and students, faculty, and staff were neglected in favor of charging huge sums of money to use athletic facilities for university events. The open communication that characterized Michigan's relationship with the media was abandoned with the firing of a key PR staff member. This abandonment of key values led to frustration, anger, hostility, and misinformation on the part of key Michigan football constituents.

Relationships: Brandon and his staff made changes to the seating arrangements in the stadium that demonstrated a lack of respect for the deep relationships that form around Michigan football. Bacon described the Big House as consisting of 200 neighborhoods, in which neighbors wonder where people are when they don't show up for a game and to whom invitations to graduations, weddings, and funerals are sent. The athletic department's restructuring of the season ticket system as well as the seating chart did not just affect the game day atmosphere. It broke up families. This affected not only season ticket holders and alumni but also students.  Switching to a "first-come, first-serve" strategy for student seating rather than continuing to utilize the class-based seating system meant that students who had been able to sit with their classmates and friends no longer had any guarantee of such.  In addition to game-day related changes, Brandon fired almost half of the staff who had been with the athletic department for years, thereby negating the institutional memory which may have helped to prevent some of his mistakes.

Meaning: According to Bacon, college football is religion. Whether or not you agree exactly with that sentiment, the generational loyalty that accompanies college football is something that cannot be denied. Like religion, college football has rituals and traditions associated with it that, when threatened, ignite anger among its loyal followers. Like religious experiences, our brains release endorphins at sporting events when we have the common experience of cheering and singing the fight song..."Hail to the victors valiant, hail to the conquering heroes!"

So, what can be learned from the mistakes of the University of Michigan athletic department? Changes in leadership cannot be avoided. People retire, step down, and take other positions every day. If you find yourself being "the replacement" in one of these situations, I hope the mistakes of David Brandon provide fair warning that making sweeping changes while abandoning the values, relationships, and meaning that have made the organization successful in the past will likely result in your own failure of leadership.

Jaime GoffComment