Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Hackett & Harbaugh
Topics: Athletics

“For God and country”

By John U. Bacon
.

 The following is an excerpt from Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football (St. Martin’s Press, 2015) by John U. Bacon, BA ’86/MA ’94. The book was released Sept. 1.
 

“…Jimmy Hackett kept us together”

On Wednesday night, Oct. 29, 2014, U-M Athletic Director Dave Brandon called President Mark Schlissel to offer his resignation. President Schlissel accepted it.

President Schlissel then called Jim Hackett–which raises the question: Who is Jim Hackett?

With any former Michigan football player, all you have to do is ask his teammates.

The young wolverine. (Image MGoBlue.com)

The young wolverine. (Image: MGoBlue.com.)

One of them was John Wangler, the star quarterback who threw the famous pass in 1979 to Anthony Carter to beat Indiana on the last play of the game. But in the fall of 1977, Wangler was just a freshman quarterback playing on the demonstration team, and Hackett was a fifth-year center playing on the same unit. It was their job to imitate the offense of Michigan’s next opponent, giving them a good look at what they’d see that Saturday.

That meant, every day, they were going against Michigan’s top defense, which might have been the best in the country that year, the key to Michigan being ranked No. 1 four weeks during that season.

“They had Calvin O’Neal, John Anderson, Dwight Hicks, Jerry Meter, Ron Simpkins,” Wangler recalls, easily rattling off five defenders still in the record books. “Are you kidding me? It was wild, getting our tails whipped every day.

“And there were no red jerseys back then for the quarterbacks. I got pounded every day. Tuesday and Wednesday—full-hit practices—those were wars back then. Wednesday night was the best night, because you knew you’d gotten through the week alive.

“But Jimmy Hackett kept us together,” Wangler continues. “He’d been taking all that for how many years? And he wasn’t afraid of any of those guys.

“He’d always tell us, ‘C’mon guys, let’s go! We gotta give them a good look so they’ll be ready Saturday.’ That’s how the process worked. We were making those other guys better!

“He was one of those guys in that senior class with [Rob] Lytle and the rest—a great class—that formed my image of what a Michigan Man really is. They had a quiet confidence.

“You just knew Jimmy was going to be a success.”

A quiet confidence

Endzone book coverSure enough, at age 39, Hackett became one of the nation’s youngest Fortune 500 CEOs when he assumed control of Steelcase furniture in Grand Rapids, Mich. He held the job for 20 years, and retired in February 2014.

President Schlissel first connected with Hackett by phone, shortly after the Shane Morris drama in the Minnesota game in late September, and well before Brandon resigned.

“The context was simple,” President Schlissel told me, about their first phone call at the end of September. “Throughout the fall I realized I was going to have to accelerate my learning about athletics around here, given the events that unfolded. One way I did that was to reach out to University leaders—people who knew the University, cared about it deeply, and had insights on how it worked, at its best.

“In athletics, what we saw was a program drifting away from its core constituencies: the students, the alumni, the fans.

“I then assembled a lengthy list of people who might be willing to help. Jim was on that list. He has advised multiple Michigan presidents, and been an adviser to deans and other University leaders. He’s been generous with his time, on the advisory board of the Ford School, and on the board of the Life Sciences Institute, almost since its founding in 1999. He’s a wise, experienced alumnus—and that was pointed out to me by many others.

“I was not calling in the context of scouting candidates for athletic director. We thought we were far from that at the time.”

Instead, Schlissel wanted to get Hackett’s general sense of what athletics mean at the University of Michigan, “and how things have evolved through time. We had a long and wonderful conversation.”

Hackett remembers their first conversation the same way. Schlissel asked him, “Have you been following this story?”

“I was honest and said, ‘Not that much.’ I’m in the Bo–Lloyd camp. I didn’t think a concussion, and that reaction, made sense to me.

“Then Mark says—and I’ve still not met him in person yet—‘If you thought someone needed to help me get control of this, do you have any recommendations?’

“I said, ‘Wow. I would go back and see if we can fix the Dave thing first, because I know him to be a really capable guy.’

“He said, ‘I’m working on that. But I’m also asking, who else can help?’”

“That’s what I needed to hear”

Hockey Coach Red Berenson. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

Hackett and Head Hockey Coach Red Berenson. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

A couple weeks later, Schlissel recalls, “I had to ask myself the question: What would I do if we needed to make a change? It occurred to me Jim might be somebody who would be wonderful on an interim basis, if we needed him, and if we did, I hoped he would agree.”

After President Schlissel accepted Brandon’s resignation that Wednesday in October, he picked up the phone to start the second conversation between himself and Hackett.

“I was retired,” Hackett recalls, “sitting at our home on Spring Lake, convalescing from my hip replacement on my right side. Already had the left one done. And the idleness hit me—and I realized something that I didn’t realize before: I don’t like to be idle. I’m wired to be busy. Serving on boards is good, but they only meet once a quarter. I have a lot of energy, and particularly like solving problems,” a central part of the CEO mindset.

Schlissel refrained from telling Hackett that Brandon had just resigned. Instead, Hackett recalls Schlissel saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I just need to know if you’re interested. And I need to know tonight.”

“Gee, I’ve got to ask Kathy,” Hackett said. “So I hung up, and talked it over with her. It was really difficult because she had already lived through the CEO life for two decades, and we had this promise of leisure time with the grandkids. But she knew I wanted to do this, she knew what Michigan meant to me, so she supported the decision, if that’s what I wanted to do.”

And that was the next question: Did Hackett want to do this? Before committing to such a position, he needed to be sure.

Hackett congratulates a graduating athlete. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

Hackett congratulates a graduating athlete. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

“I called one more guy before I called Mark back,” he recalls. “Dale Jones. He works for Heidrick & Struggles, one of the top CEO recruiting firms. He helped President Obama recruit his cabinet, which often entails convincing very rich and powerful people to take a gigantic cut in pay to work incredible hours, under immense pressure and scrutiny. He can recruit! He often overcame their objections by simply saying, ‘Some jobs are for God and country.’ It usually worked.

“Over the years, he’s been a muse for me. So I said, ‘Dale, I’ve got this interesting thing that just came up, but you can’t talk about it.’ As a headhunter, he’s used to this, and I trusted him. I asked him, ‘What happens to people in my situation, after being CEO? Do they go into the abyss? Do they take another position? Is taking a new position a bad idea?’”

Jones replied with the obvious: It all depends on what the next position is. After Hackett told him about President Schlissel’s offer, and what the University of Michigan meant to him, Jones had his answer.

“Jim,” he said, “some jobs are for God and country. For you, this is it.”

“That’s what I needed to hear,” Hackett said.

Jim Hackett hung up the phone, and sent President Schlissel a text: “I’m in.”

(Top image: Jim Hackett and Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh greet fans at Crisler Arena. Image credit: Michigan Photography.)

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

JOHN U. BACON is a sports columnist, radio commentator, author, and Michigan alumnus. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football is set for release on Sept. 1, 2015. Bacon's other titles include Fourth and Long and Bo's Lasting Lessons, co-authored with the late Coach Schembechler. He can be heard weekly on Michigan Radio and at johnubacon.com.

COMMENTS

  • Brock Nigg - 1989

    Inspirational to get understanding of Jim Hackett’s background, mindset, humility and his process in accepting the interim AD position. Likewise, enjoyed learning more about Mark Schlissel’s process of managing through those difficult events and making productive change occur. Great story in leadership and the best manner to move forward. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Reply

  • John Korstad - 1980 (PhD)

    I enjoyed reading this article. Interesting behind-the-scenes story of something that I, as an appreciative alumnus, knew nothing about.

    Reply

  • Todd Schultz - 1996

    “For God and country.” Thanks Jim

    Reply

  • David Rhee - N/A

    I wish he considered to be a permanent AD for Michigan… An AD I would have full confidence in running Michigan to respectability, relevance, and integrity…

    Reply

    • Jim Hallett - 1972

      He DID accept the full-time AD position, and I think he will be excellent, something we have not had since the late great Don Canham. It was the mishandling of Carr’s retirement by AD Bill Martin that led to the demise of UM football for most of the past 7 years. We are on the right track now, and this article clip was very enjoyable, and I wish Jim Hackett all the best!

      Reply

  • Jim White - 1967

    I just retired at 70. “Wired to be busy” just struck a cord. I’ve been looking for my next project and this explains why. Thanks!

    Reply

  • Bob Wilkinson - 1971

    The way it should be!

    Reply

  • Julian Vasquez Heilig - 1997 1999

    Hackett is the right leader for the right time.

    Reply

  • Jim Greiner - 1967 AB, 1969 MBA

    Many thanks to John U Bacon for documenting how Jim Hackett came to the AD position. Sounds like the way many things should be handled at Michigan — get advice from people who know what they are doing, and then do it. Committees aren’t always best. And, above all, thanks to Jim for following his heart. Great story!

    Reply

  • Seung-il Suh - 1994

    A good article. It’s interesting that Mr. Jones uses the phrase, “For God and country” – the motto of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. Pro Deo et Patria

    Reply

  • Christopher Robbins - 1991

    We are damn fortunate that Jim Hackett agreed to come on board. JIm Hackett exemplifies the meaning of the Michigan Man. Kudos to Dr. Schlissel for having the wisdom to bring Jim into the fold. Looking forward to coming Michigan autumns with even greater interest. Go Blue!

    Reply

  • Ron J Stefanski - 1982

    Jim Hackett has been a blessing. He reminds us that a winning tradition at Michigan is more than a series of game day victories and bowl game appearances or titles. Rather it is in acting with high integrity, setting ambitious goals and then slavishly executing. Those who remain will be champions. Go Blue!

    Reply

  • Bob Heuer - 1974

    Great story by Bacon, as his always are. One correction: Rob Lytle, The great Michigan running back, was no longer on the team in 1977. He played from the 1973 to 1976 seasons, and was with the NFL’s Denver Broncos in 1977.

    Reply

  • Dave Lathers - 1992

    Bob Heuer, your comment regarding Rob Lytle is correct, but that doesn’t change the fact that Lytle & Hackett were part of the same senior class. It just so happens Hackett stayed for his 5th year. Go Blue!

    Reply

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