In case you missed it, the University of Michigan made a significant change in its athletic department in 2014. In a move few can say they saw coming, a former football player returned to Ann Arbor charged with restoring his alma mater's dignity, something that had taken a bit of a hit under his predecessors. And since his hire, almost overnight, excitement returned. You'd be forgiven for thinking that I'm talking about Jim Harbaugh, for that's just about all anyone in Michigan has been talking about for the past six months. But while Harbaugh's return to the Wolverines is certainly noteworthy, and has attracted more than its share of headlines, he would likely be roaming the sidelines somewhere in the NFL were it not for Jim Hackett, Michigan's interim athletic director, who'd been on the job less than two months himself when he brought Harbaugh home in December. Michigan fans have found it difficult containing their enthusiasm over Harbaugh's return, and after the last decade or so, you can understand why. But as much excitement and hype as Harbaugh's return has created, Hackett's impact on the university may ultimately prove as significant.
Unlike his high-profile hire, there were no campus celebrations in response to Hackett's hiring. No billboards welcoming him to town, no Sports Illustrated covers. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as Hackett's hire was initially met with skepticism. I wrote before that many snickered when, after having a former CEO with virtually no intercollegiate sports experience prior to becoming Michigan's athletic director fail so spectacularly and so publicly, Michigan chose as a replacement a former CEO with virtually no intercollegiate sports experience. And who could blame them? As ill-suited for the role as David Brandon proved to be, the school of thought was that Michigan President Mark Schlissel would hire someone completely different than the man he was replacing. And while it may not have initially seemed that way, that's exactly what Schlissel did.
Brandon's reign as athletic director will be remembered for more than one ill-fated marketing initiative after another, it was also defined by alienating students, fans and just about everyone else who didn't see things his way, often in a manner not befitting someone in his position. In this respect, Hackett is the anti-Brandon. John U. Bacon called Hackett an "inspired choice" who would provide a "calm, agreeable presence" and would "do a great job mending fences" in his interim role, sentiments that were echoed by most who knew Hackett. With Hackett at the helm, at the very least, the embarrassing escapades should end.
But there is more to the role than being a respected figure (although it is certainly a good start and is a welcome change at Michigan). And while Hackett has yet to finish his first year on the job, and has yet to shed the interim label from his title for that matter, there's reason to believe he'll prove, as Bacon put it, to be an inspired choice. Landing Harbaugh certainly got him off to a good start, but that hasn't been his only act since being named interim athletic director.
Another, somewhat under-the-radar personnel decision, also speaks to the kind of environment Hackett is building at Michigan, with the "resignation" of Hunter Lochmann. For those not familiar with Lochmann, he was the prototypical Brandon hire, the university's first chief marketing officer, who's most remembered for the disparaging remarks he made about Denard Robinson, when he was quoted as saying, "At Michigan, it's the block M that has the affinity and power globally, not Denard Robinson. Those are fleeting, four-year relationships." The former may be true, but that doesn't excuse the latter, and using as an example one of the most beloved football players in recent memory didn't sit well with many in the Michigan family. Call it what you want, resignation or otherwise, but Lochmann's departure quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) showed that it didn't sit well with Hackett either.
Less than a year into his tenure, there's no telling whether or not Hackett will ultimately prove successful in his role. But early indications are that he'll certainly bring a level respect back to the university. There's a saying about having "an adult in the room," and Hackett is long-awaited adult in the room for Michigan (the same could be said of Schlissel). With his appointment, interim title or not, it's safe to assume that there will be no more flyovers at opponents' stadiums or changes to make Michigan games feel more like a Super Bowl-like experience - something exactly zero college football fans want. So while there's no guarantee that his high-profile first hire will get Michigan back to the Rose Bowl or into the college football playoff anytime soon, the embarrassments of past years should end. And that should be worth at least one campus celebration or billboard.