I never thought I’d feel this way. I never thought I’d feel ashamed of my Michigan Wolverines.
I’m a Michigander through and through, born in Flint and transplanted in my teens to Ann Arbor. My senior year in high school was Bo Schembechler’s first as coach of the Michigan football team, the year of that spectacularly unlikely win over Ohio State and Woody Hayes. I spent seven years at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and a law student, with student season tickets every year. Working my way from deep in the end zone around the corner toward the 20-yard line. Each year brought heartbreak as we lost the last game of the season — either to Ohio State or to some Pac-8 team in the Rose Bowl.
Through it all, I’ve always been proud to identify myself as a Wolverine. Sure, we liked winning more than we liked losing. And sure, we complained bitterly when we lost the big ones. But we loyally suffered through it all — even the Rich Rodriguez era, which seemed so completely out of step with the long, storied traditions of the great U of M. We wore our navy blue sweaters with the maize block M. We branded our cars with bumper stickers. We flew the Michigan flag in our yards every year on the day of the Ohio State game. We thrust our fists in the air when we sang “Hail to the Victors.” Win or lose, we stood firm with our school. We were proud when we said “Go Blue.”
Last Saturday the seemingly impossible happened. Michigan lost to Minnesota, giving us the third loss in September — something we hadn’t seen in 135 years of Michigan football. But that wasn’t the impossible part. What could not have happened, but did, was the decision to leave our quarterback, Shane Morris, in the game after a brutal shot to the head from a defender that left him clearly woozy and shaken. Anyone with any sense could see that he most likely had a concussion (which medical tests later confirmed). But the Michigan coaching staff left him in to play another down — and then later put him back in the game for another play, after which he was taken from the stadium in a golf cart.
Head coach Brady Hoke first said it was his decision to leave Morris in the game. Then he changed his story to say it was his medical staff on the sidelines. He insisted that Morris hadn’t really been injured. Then he said he didn’t even realize that his quarterback had been hit. The athletic director, Dave Brandon, issued a statement early Tuesday that said there had been a “serious lack of communication” on the sidelines and admitted that Morris had a “probable concussion.” Now, some are saying the real problem was that Hoke doesn’t wear headphones on the sideline, so no one could tell him that his quarterback was in no shape to keep playing.
What we have here goes way beyond a failure to communicate. Even if Hoke wasn’t watching, even if he had no one to tell him something was horribly wrong, even if he hadn’t been in the stadium, the Michigan football program I thought I knew and had rooted for loyally for all these years would have known on its own what to do. This is, after all, a university. This is where parents send their children for learning, for growing and, yes, for athletics. One would have thought that everyone would know from Day One that there’s one priority that ranks above all others: keeping the kids safe. Not winning a game; not filling the seats; not getting the most out of television-rights contracts. First and foremost, don’t hurt the students.
If Hoke and Brandon and, for that matter, university president Mark Schlissel haven’t ingrained this simple principle in the minds of every single person who works at the school — much less on the football coaching staff — then we’ve got something much worse than a breakdown in communications. We’ve got a breakdown in values.
I know college football leaves much to be cynical about. I know there are immensely successful programs that put football success above all else — above educating the students, above keeping them safe, above making sure they behave themselves in their off time. But we Michigan fans thought our university was different. That belief has made me a loyal alumnus and fan of the University of Michigan. For the first time in my life, I’m having to question whether Michigan truly is different from all those other large state universities that let their hugely profitable football programs do pretty much what they want.
I haven’t been asked for my advice on what the university should do now, and I don’t know what went on behind the scenes. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: the leaders of the University of Michigan have to take decisive, unambiguous action to reassure all of us that they understand what matters most to them, to their students, to their students’ parents and to all of their fans. The reputation, the brand, the pride we Wolverines used to have — all of it hangs in the balance.
Westin, principal in Witherbee Holdings LLC, is the former president of ABC News and author of Exit Interview. The views expressed are solely his own.