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.
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
Sure 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”
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.
“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.)