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September 25, 2013 - Image 12

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2013-09-25

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In February 2006, Domino's Pizza CEO
Dave Brandon thought, "Wouldn't it
be cool if we could rent out Ford Field
the week of the Super Bowl?" So he did. He
threw a company party at the Lions' stadium
days before Super Bowl XL came to Detroit.
The company would celebrate each time
Domino's stock hit a new high, and one time
he ordered kegs of beer and brought them
into the office.
Years prior - when Brandon was CEO of
Valassis Communications, Inc., a promotions
company - there was an old, vacant airline
hangar at Willow Run Airport in Ann Arbor.
With Brandon leading, it was turned into the
site of a party. Employees dressed as pilots
and flight attendants, there was ambient
lighting and a B-52 aircraft gave rides to
pleased workers.
"He always does everything with
panache," said Domino's Executive
Vice President Lynn Liddle. "Big
into celebrating wins and throw-
ing parties. Fireworks, there's
always fireworks. Wherever
there can be fireworks, there
are fireworks."
Fans in Michigan Stadium
the evening of Sept. 7 might
say that Brandon has brought
a similar approach to his job
as athletic director at the
University. The second night
game against Notre Dame,
Under The Lights II, brought
the fireworks. It brought
Beyonce to the video board,
a light show at halftime and
flyovers - plural, a handful of
flyovers. The celebrities of the
Michigan athletics world turned
out for the event, too.
Those football fans may also
recall a man flying out of Michigan
Stadium at halftime via jetpack during
the Central Michigan University game.
They'll recall the Big Chill - an outdoor
hockey game, played under the lights, at the
Big House on Dec. 11, 2010.
As Brandon begins his fourth academic
year at the helm of Michigan sports, his
administration can be characterized as one
of "more."
More staff members: After an initial
reduction of staff from 275 to 190 upon
replacing Bill Martin, the former athletic
director, the number of department employ-
ees has expanded to 308.
More money: Compared to $96 million in
revenue in 2008-09, the last full year before
he took over, Brandon projects $146.4 mil-
lion in revenue for the upcoming year.
More facilities: Though renovations to

By Neal Rothschild
Crisler Center and Yost Ice Arena stemmed rience in the rat race of college sports in its
from plans during Martin's tenure, a pro- earliest stages: playingunder Bo from 1971-73.
posal for a redeveloped athletic campus Eaton and Brandon, both playing defen-
was approved a year ago. The plans, which sive end, were grilled. They were quizzed
include a tree-lined "Walk of Champions," on assignments and flawless preparation
are expected to exceed $250 million. was demanded. They didn't play perfectly,
More teams: Men's and women's lacrosse but their supreme dedication would lift the
were added to the Michigan sports buffet as Wolverines above the also-rans. That was
of the 2012-13 school year. Bo's belief.
But Brandon's This was in the
entry into cut- heat of the

tions on Twitter.
"They just established such a work ethic
and such a perfectionist attitude," Eaton
said. "Everything was discipline and work
hard: Do every little thing correctly."
Brandon and Eaton were schooled early on
that Michigan held a special place in college
athletics. They learned that the University
was not subject to the same standards as all
the others - Michigan deserved more, Eaton
and Brandon said in former interviews. It
deserved the fireworks.
His hire in 2010 as athletic director may
have been his first foray into athletic admin-
istration, but Brandon was in the University's
power circle dating back to 1998 when he was
elected to the University's Board of Regents
by a statewide vote, a position he held until
2006. As a regent, he played a significant
role in bringing in University Presi-
dent Mary Sue Coleman in 2002, who
in turn hired Brandon as athletic
Compared to Bo's era, Bran-
don's present world is differ-
ent, but the need to retain the
edge remains constant. Just as
competitive as Schembechler,
Brandon refuses to fall behind
in the race of college sports.
Fan happiness and the
traditional, simple joys of
Michigan sports are fine, but
the modern Athletics Depart-
ment is out for something
else. It needs the most money
to build the best facilities.
It needs the best facilities to
land the best recruits. The best
recruits to win the most games.
Win the most games to build the
best brand, so the cycle restarts -
over and over.
Brandon has played the role of car-
nival barker, calling out for all to come
see the big-tent circus in Ann Arbor. A
smartphone app was introduced to promote
steadfast loyalty from Michigan students to
the athletic teams. As the department admit-
ted last week, skywriters were hired to draw
Michigan-positive phrases in the air on
game days. Games have been marketed with
tag lines, new jerseys have been introduced
and the Michigan Legends uniform number
system was implemented, in which current
players deemed deserving are given the jer-
sey of a Wolverine great from yesteryear.
Branding hasn't been the only thing cur-
poratized about Michigan athletics. Michi-
gan is remarkably vigilant in controlling its
message. Media access is limited, and play-
ers are coached to be tight-lipped. You won't
find Michigan coaches or players straying

from the company line.
"It's no secret that Dave is creating a cul-
ture with the Athletic Department that is
very defined and is important to his suc-
cess," Basketball Coach John Beilein said.
His polarizing nature
But recently, Brandon the businessman
has made some decisions to alienate seg-
ments of the student body, some of which
have led to backlash against Brandon per-
First, there was the unilateral decision
to change the football student seating to a
general admission format. That came along
with a price hike. There was outrage against
the new policy and outrage that the depart-
ment hadn't bothered to consult the students
about the dramatic policy change.
Most recent was the change in the basket-
ball student ticketing policy. Season tickets
were oversold, and a new policy for claim-
ing games was instituted just over a month
before the season began. Students were no
longer guaranteed all the games they paid
for. Their only recourse: geta refund. There
was considerable pushback from stu-
dents, but ultimately, the department
found a way to get more seats filled for
more games.
Despite his successes, there's
some resentment from students
towards Brandon, stemming
from the "money-grubbing
athletic director" perception
they've developed in response
to recent changes.
But the flipside of that coin
is a magnanimous leader, one
in touch with the world out-
side Michigan athletics and
intent on making someone's
There's the gesture of invit-
ing Grant Reed, a 12-year-old
cancer survivor that named his
tumor "Michigan," to be Brady
Hoke's guest for "The Game"
against Ohio State in November.
Then, there was Cooper Barton,
the five-year old Oklahoman who
was forced to turn his Michigan shirt
inside out at school. So Brandon invit-
ed him to Michigan Stadium to be intro-
duced at halftime last year.
Of course, there's the cynical view that
Brandon knows a good publicity opportunity
when he sees one. But it's hardly all a front.
One thing Brandon can't be accused of is act-
ing out of character.
Just a couple weeks ago, an employee at
Domino's suffered the loss of their toddler. It
was a difficult week for the entire company,
where Brandon serves as chairman. Though
Brandon was busy preparing for Under the
Lights II, he found the time to attend the
funeral and put a sympathetic arm around
the pained parent.
Domino's also suffered a rough period
earlier in the decade. Sales were up, but the
company wasn't meeting its profit targets.
That meant no bonuses.

Brandon went to the company's board
and explained how morale was down. The
employees needed a win - something to feel
good about. Brandon was able to convince
the board members to get everyone an extra
"People were in the lobby crying because
Dave got us an extra paycheck," recalled
Liddle, his Domino's co-worker dating back
to the 1990s. "I think he really does care a lot
about people and he wants to help them cel-
ebrate when they win and he wants to shore
them up when they're not winning."
Just Dave
When Liddle came to Domino's for an
interview, she mistook the lobby for a phys-
ical therapy clinic. It looked
nothing like the pala-
tial corporate

rise, Frank Lloyd Wright-style complex.
"That lobby has the stamp of Dave Bran-
don all over it," Liddle said. "He actually
worked with designers and got all of us
involved and jackhammered the whole cen-
ter of the building."
The remodeled lobby moved the CEO suite
from the outskirts of the complex to the floor
above the lobby. Front and center, where he
could be visible to everyone. He wanted to be
an accessible CEO.
He'd come into the company and made his
presence felt. The differences were tangible
and often hard to ignore.
When he came in as CEO in 1999, he
changed the conservative culture. It was
no longer suits for the men and skirts for
the women. He wanted everyone comfort-
able and happy when they
came to work. When
addressed as

His decision-making was just as precise.
"There must always be avision and a strat-
egy and a way to measure and know how
you're doing so you can benchmark against
yourself," Liddle said. "He's got somewhat
of a formula that he uses that is consistently
results producing."
Perhaps the most scrutinized choice
Brandon made was Domino's self-critical ad
As the Brandon administration wound
down to give way to new CEO Patrick Doyle
in late 2009, the company launched a mar-
keting crusade against its very own product.
Commercials showed consumers complain-
ing about the quality of the pizza. A new
recipe would be introduced. Domino's was
admitting that the product it had cooked all
these years was deficient.
The employees in charge of the menu
would come to Brandon with improvements,
and they'd be sent back. He'd tell them to go
back to the drawing board. Domino's needed
a distinctive change, and he wouldn't accep
the new recipe until there was a true, notice-
able difference.
It wasn't the safe move for Brandon, as
the campaign would affect his legacy
as CEO. But the company knew the
pizza could be better. What began
with tweaking the recipe, ended up
changing the crust, changing the
sauce and changing the cheese.
The commercials showed that
Brandon had no qualms about
making the big move. He was
going to do what he wanted.
As Liddle explained, Amef&
ica was at a point where
the banks were folding and
nobody trusted corporate
America. People were losing
their houses. It was a nasty
time, and nobody was just
saying it like it is.
"He will look at a prob-
lem unemotionally," Liddle
explains. "He will say, what's
the right thing to do? He'll think
through how will this affect
my organization, how will this
affect the competition, how will
this affect the industry, what are the
financial implications? And then he
always tries to put a creative spin on it."
Fighting the three-front battle
It's said that athletics is the only business
with two bottom lines. At a place like Michi-
gan, there may as well be a third.
There's the winning and the money-mak-
ing, but then there's the demands of being at
a public research university with a rabid faan
base that treasures the idea of Michigan ath-
letics just as much as it treasures the teams
There are those who see a problem in
turning the enterprise of amateur athletics
into big business.
As John Bacon, a prominent University
sports historian, points out in his recent
Continued on Page 6B

throat college 10-year war
athletics - and Univer- between Schembechler
sity athletics, specifically - pre- and Ohio State coach Woody
date his arrival as athletic director in 2010. Hayes. Paranoia was high between the two
legends, the fear that the other team would
Brandon s roots wth Bo win the slightest advantage. Any edge one
coach could deploy was considered crucial.
Don Eaton remembers the football posi- Though he saw game action just once in
tional meetings as part of Bo Schembechler's his career, Brandon was brought up in this
teams in the early 1970s. Before becoming an crucible - before big money was involved
athletic director, Brandon had first-hand expe- and before commits signaled their inten-

playground it Mr. Brandon, he
resembles today. would correct, "just
Now, it's an open space with Dave."
glass walls and low, round glass tables He was never one for corporate speak.
with ergonomic white leather reclin- He prefers his messages in plain English,
ing chairs. Strategically placed Domino's so everyone can understand. He's a pro-
logos prohibit you from forgetting where ponent of the catchphrase: "Change isn't a
you are. There are LED displays and a criticism of the past. It simply means the
rotunda in the middle of the lobby. Look future is going to be different." "If it ain't
down the rotunda and you see a training broke, break it." "Don't talk the past, cre-
kitchen, visible from all floors of the low- ate the future."

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