Bill Martin's legacy

In mid-October, Bill Martin announced he would step down as Michigan’s athletic director, effective before next fall’s first football game in the newly renovated Michigan Stadium. The announcement was only a bit surprising. Martin has already put in a decade as the Wolverines’ athletic director, which is a good run by contemporary standards. And, despite no shortage of controversies and critics, he’s accomplished more during that time than anyone could have reasonably expected—perhaps including himself.

Bill Martin will retire as U-M's athletic director next fall. In a line of legendary A.D.s including Fielding Yost and Don Canham, Martin stands as one of the most influential figures in Wolverine athletic history. (Photo: Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.)

Bill Martin will retire as U-M’s athletic director next fall. In a line of legendary A.D.s including Fielding Yost and Don Canham, Martin stands as one of the most influential figures in Wolverine athletic history. (Photo: Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.)

The big surprises happened years ago.

The Accidental A.D.

The first occurred when then-President Lee Bollinger tapped his old friend to fill in for a few months while the school searched for a full-time athletic director. Martin did the job so well that Michigan’s coaches asked Bollinger to keep him. And it was perhaps a bigger surprise that Martin, who had already made millions in business, took the job—for a dollar a year. He had no idea what he was getting into. For almost a century, Michigan had arguably the most innovative, successful and stable athletic department in the country. Michigan needed only five directors to run the athletic department for its first 90 years—and four more just to get through the decade after Don Canham stepped down in 1988. When Martin took over in 2000, the department labored under a $3.9 million dollar deficit and the specter of an investigation by both the NCAA and the FBI into illegal payments made to basketball players—which proved to be true. Martin should have asked for more than a buck. In just two years Martin had turned the department’s finances around to show a $5.5 million surplus. That same year, 2002, Martin added the position of President of the United States Olympic Committee to his duties. That beleaguered outfit had all the problems Michigan had, plus steroids. Today both institutions are thriving. Martin was an unlikely candidate to lead those resurrections—or to do almost anything else he’s accomplished. He is the founder of First Martin Corporation, the largest property owner in Ann Arbor, whose high school teacher once told him, “You’ll never amount to anything”; a world-renowned sailor who tipped over his first boat when he was eight; an acclaimed athletic director who never earned a varsity letter in high school or college; and the esteemed president of the USOC, who had never previously attended an Olympics.

Budgets and bricks

At Michigan, the first order of business was to clear Michigan’s name after the basketball scandal. Martin did that by cooperating with the NCAA—even though the enforcers there almost always make you regret it. Martin then turned the red ink to black—the current surplus stands at a robust $9 million—then started revamping the school’s aging athletic campus. The long list includes new venues for baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, and women’s gymnastics, plus practice facilities for the football and basketball teams—not to mention the biggest of them all, the $226 million addition to Michigan Stadium, which will be completed by the time Martin’s retirement takes effect. When Martin introduced the idea, the luxury boxes faced strong opposition—which was probably unavoidable. But then U-M faced a lawsuit when disabled veterans complained that the stadium renovations did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act—a conflict that should have been easily avoidable. No one since Fielding H. Yost himself, who served as Michigan’s athletic director from 1921 to 1941, did more to transform Michigan’s athletic campus. “I showed him my idea of putting a balcony in Yost (Ice Arena), and he said, ‘It’s a no-brainer, we have to do it,'” Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson told The Michigan Daily. “I’d been talking about that for five years and nobody listened. But Bill Martin could see, ‘Look, this will pay itself off in three years and it’ll make the building that much more hospitable and add so much to the building.’ He’s been very supportive of anything we’ve needed in the hockey program.””If you read between the lines, after the (Michigan) Stadium renovations, he had one more project that he wanted to do—the basketball facilities that he got off the ground,” said Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej. “Once that was set, I knew he had accomplished what he wanted to.”

The personnel touch

Martin also hired 13 of Michigan’s 25 current head coaches, including baseball’s Rich Maloney, whose teams have won three Big Ten titles, and Andrew Sapp, who led a formerly moribund men’s golf team deep into the NCAA tournament this spring. All told, during Martin’s tenure, the Wolverines have won 57 conference titles—far ahead of their peers. A few of his hires failed, most notably basketball coaches Cheryl Burnett and Tommy Amaker. But at the time he hired them, there was good reason to believe both would succeed. When they didn’t, Martin replaced them with Kevin Borseth and John Beilein, respectively, both of whom are off to much more promising starts. Martin’s search for a new football coach, however, was undoubtedly the low point of his tenure. Lloyd Carr had already told Martin he would not be coaching much longer, but Martin seemed to be caught off-guard by Carr’s retirement after the 2007 Ohio State game.A few weeks into a surprisingly unfocused search, Martin had to scramble. He got lucky when Rich Rodriguez became interested only after his second-ranked West Virginia team got knocked out of the national title chase in the last game of the regular season by losing to lowly Pitt. Rodriguez’s teams at his four previous stops have all stumbled before taking off, and most pundits predict the pattern will hold in Ann Arbor. Whomever Michigan picks to replace Martin, the next A.D. will no doubt make some mistakes and enemies. Martin did both. But the next A.D. will be filling the shoes of one of the three most effective athletic directors in Michigan history, behind only Yost and Don Canham. U-M will be lucky if its next athletic director improves the department as much as Bill Martin did.


  1. Bob Winchester

    Bill Martin cost me my season tickets by implementing extortion. I will never forgive him for this.


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