ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Even if Michigan hires a football coach with Michigan ties, don't expect him to be introduced as a Michigan Man.
"I want to get rid of the word 'Michigan Man' — maybe today you could write about that," interim athletic director Jim Hackett said.
Hackett was wrapping up his news conference to announce Brady Hoke's firing Tuesday when he made it clear he found the term "Michigan Man" a bit grating. His comment may have seemed symbolic, but with one of college football's most storied programs at another crossroads, Hackett's attitude provided a hint of how he might approach this important coaching search.
The Wolverines are coming off seven seasons of almost constant mediocrity. Rich Rodriguez went to a bowl only once in his three seasons in charge, and although Hoke went 11-2 in his first season at the helm, Michigan has been in a steady decline since. It's been a humbling stretch for the Wolverines, who have not won a Big Ten title since 2004.
The longer the Wolverines go without a turnaround, the more ordinary the program looks, despite a massive stadium, iconic helmets and among the nation's most recognizable fight song. The challenge for Hackett is to find the right person for Michigan at a time when the competition for top coaches is fierce — and no amount of tradition and brand awareness can guarantee a successful season.
"No program goes forever and doesn't have a couple tough spots," said Bill Dufek, who played at Michigan in the 1970s. "That's what makes you stronger."
Dufek was pleased with Hackett's rebuttal of the "Michigan Man" theme. The term has been a source of pride for the school, especially when Bo Schembechler, in a memorable rally-the-troops moment in 1989, announced that "a Michigan man will coach Michigan" in that year's NCAA basketball tournament. That meant Steve Fisher would be taking over for Bill Frieder, who had announced that he was going to Arizona State after the season. Fisher led the Wolverines to the national title.
A quarter-century later, even some Wolverines fans cringe when they hear about a "Michigan Man" — the term has become all too easy for rivals to mock as an example of misplaced haughtiness.
Hoke's Michigan credentials were certainly impressive. He'd been an assistant coach at the school and had a clear sense of the program's culture. He was in many ways the opposite of Rodriguez, who arrived from West Virginia with a snazzy spread offense that was unlike anything the Wolverines had run previously.
Rodriguez went 15-22 as Michigan's coach before being fired. He was later hired by Arizona, and he'll coach this weekend in the Pac-12 championship game.
"I'm a guy that thought then, and still do think, we had one of the best coaches in the country here, and they ran him out of town," Dufek said.
The blame game from Rodriguez's tenure still persists, which makes the next hire all the more important. Which candidate can come to Ann Arbor, re-energize a somewhat fractured fan base and put Michigan in contention for championships again?
The most obvious name to consider is San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback who has succeeded as a coach at the game's highest level. But prying him loose from the NFL may be difficult.
LSU coach Les Miles is another former Michigan player, but Hackett's comments Tuesday may signal that the Wolverines are prepared to consider candidates without strong connections to Ann Arbor.
Hackett, a former Michigan football player, took over as interim AD when Dave Brandon resigned at the end of October. He asked for patience with the coaching search.
"We're building what we call swim-lane charts that show candidates' time frames for their availability. They may be in bowl games. They may be, you know, wherever they are in their status," Hackett said. "We compare that against our swim lane. Where are we in trying to get our recruiting, to get our practice schedule started?"
What Michigan faces is a college football landscape much different from when Schembechler coached the Wolverines. Although traditional powers like Michigan, Notre Dame and Alabama may always be relevant, there are plenty of other places where top coaches can make a lot of money and win. Oregon has emerged recently among the elite, and this year's four-team playoff could include Texas Christian or Baylor.
What still sets Michigan apart is its history.
"You've got to remember that every coach wants to win the national championship," said former Big Eight and Big 12 Commissioner Chuck Neinas, who has spent years helping coaches and administrators find jobs.
Neinas said some coaches say it's easier to win a national title at a place that's already won one.
Michigan still fits that mold.
"The competitive spirit in my lifetime and with others you see around here that played, we knew that we had to work really hard. It wasn't arrogance. It was about being competitive," Hackett said. "We've got to continue the legacy of what's been great from a values standpoint — that this place does not need to cut corners to win, and you've got a lot of pride in the fact that you come here, you know you're signing up to be the best in the world, without any kind of shenanigans going on."