The following in an excerpt from the book "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football" by New York Times best-selling author John U. Bacon. The book focuses on the dysfunction in Michigan's athletic department during the past decade and the grassroots effort to set it back on course. In this passage, we return to 2010 when Michigan courted new coach Jim Harbaugh to lead its program for the first time, with far less success.
Two questions resurfaced four years later: Did Jim Harbaugh really want the Michigan job in 2011, and did then-athletic director Dave Brandon really want Harbaugh?
These answers are complicated—because both changed.
According to Harbaugh's friend, Todd Anson -- a Michigan law school graduate who has occasionally given Harbaugh negotiating advice over the past decade -- "Coaching Michigan is all Jim's ever dreamed about. He talks about it all the time."
Brandon was certainly aware of Harbaugh's interest in the position. When Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan ran into Brandon that December, he told Brandon that he had learned from another Harbaugh confidante that, "If offered, Jim would come back to Michigan."
Brandon replied, "Of course he would!"
Did Brandon want Harbaugh?
Brandon's boss, President Coleman, was not a Harbaugh supporter, thanks mainly to Harbaugh's comments back in 2007 about how Michigan athletics could do better academically. But insiders say President Coleman would not have denied Brandon his wish, if that's what he wanted.
Second only to President Coleman, Brandon owed his job to former coach Lloyd Carr, who had decided not to hire Harbaugh as his quarterback coach in 2002, and responded strongly to Harbaugh's comments in 2007. While Carr might have softened on Harbaugh since, his former assistant coach, Brady Hoke, was clearly his guy.
Despite these obstacles, several people close to the search believe Brandon wanted Harbaugh. Brandon later told former athletic director Bill Martin, U-M Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, and others that he thought he had Harbaugh lined up, and it was just a question of when to announce the hire.
"I do believe Dave wanted Harbaugh," a member of Brandon's leadership team told me, "but he wanted Jim on his terms." What were Brandon's terms?
Many believe Brandon did not want to hire someone whom he could not control, or outshine, and there is little question that Harbaugh would draw more attention and be more strong-willed than a lesser-known candidate like Hoke.
Brandon, intentionally or not, sent this conditional message to Harbaugh when he did not make a decision on coach Rich Rodriguez sooner, rarely contacted Harbaugh, and declined to visit Harbaugh in person --sending not Michigan's highly paid search consultant Jed Hughes, either, but Hughes's subordinate, a young man named Philip Murphy, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1999 and the Wharton School of Business in 2006.
All this told Harbaugh that Brandon was not dying to bring him back. Coupled with the backlash Harbaugh experienced from his 2007 comments, a fence which only Bill Martin had worked to mend, Harbaugh decided trying to return to Ann Arbor in 2011 was not his best move.
After Harbaugh signed with the 49ers in early 2011, Todd Anson asked Harbaugh if he really had been interested in the Michigan job.
Harbaugh paused, then replied, "I just wasn't feelin' the love."
And that's what it came down to. Not money. Not power. Not fame -- but love. And Michigan, under Brandon, wasn't offering it to Harbaugh.
"I will never know what Brandon's motivations were," Anson told me, "but it seems clear to me that Dave was so insecure that he needed to be the big deal and could not countenance a strong personality as Michigan's head football coach.
"The 49ers swooped in and grabbed Jim, while Michigan stood on the sidelines. In my mind, Michigan should have had Jim locked down a month before that, and could have. I can only conclude that Dave Brandon is the sole reason Jim did not become our football coach in 2010."
Privately, Brandon seemed genuinely surprised when Harbaugh didn't come back.
"When it was apparent that Dave wasn't going to get Harbaugh," former department CFO Jason Winters recalls, "he was very self-critical. He'd told me, 'I'd criticized Bill [Martin] for not having the next person in line. And here I don't have the next person in line when I'm ready to pull the trigger.'
"It was one of the few occasions I saw Dave express humility. He thought he had Harbaugh and recognized it wasn't as easy as he thought it was. If that was insincere, he's one hell of an actor. I honestly believe he thought he was getting Harbaugh."
Anson concludes, "I used to think Dave was deceitful. My take now is that he was inept."
Poorly handled or not, ultimately Brandon might have gotten exactly what he wanted. While many Brandon miscues were the product of inexperience or hubris, one constant shines through, and that was Brandon's burning desire to be recognized by the Michigan family and his former teammates as an "All-American athletic director," just as he had proudly told them at Bo Schembechler's first reunion in 1989 that he was an "All-American in business." To achieve that, he needed control, from the expanding budget to the expanding staff, right down to the quality of the crease in his employees' khakis. If it wasn't sharp enough, he would send them home.
Consciously or not, Brandon had to sense helping Jim Harbaugh make a triumphant return to Ann Arbor would only get Brandon a life sentence in Harbaugh's shadow. And that was something that probably didn't appeal to the nation's most visible athletic director.