Column: Take Nothing for Granted

Dave Brandon, former third-stringer, learned lessons from Bo
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

On Tuesday, the University of Michigan announced that Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon would succeed Bill Martin as the athletic director. It marked a personal high point of a great career – one you wouldn’t have predicted when Brandon played for Michigan as a third-string defensive back.

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a big feature on Bo Schembechler for the Detroit News. Bo liked the story and, out of nowhere, gave me his papers. When I tried to interest him in writing a book, he told me to ask him later – much later, it turned out. About nine years later. So, in the summer of 2000, I started without him.

The first person I sought out was Dave Brandon, who was in his second year as the CEO of Ann Arbor-based Domino’s Pizza. He probably didn’t know me from Adam, but he gave me an hour of his time anyway. And he didn’t spend it gushing about his greatest day, either, but confessing his worst one.

Brandon had been an All-State quarterback at South Lyon High School, and Schembechler offered him a full ride to come to Michigan in 1970.

Problem was, Michigan already had three quarterbacks who would play that position – Tom Slade, Larry Cipa and Dennis Franklin – so Brandon switched to defensive back. But that only made his situation worse, because the Wolverines were stocked with four future All-Americans at that spot. Brandon could have been the fifth-best defensive back in the country and not gotten any playing time on that team – they were that good. So, after a couple years of hard work, he was still languishing on the depth chart, and getting frustrated.

At a Monday practice in the middle of the 1972 season, Brandon’s junior year, Schembechler decided to work with the guys who hadn’t played that Saturday by making up a scrimmage they called the Toilet Bowl. Well, Brandon apparently responded with something less than complete enthusiasm. He just muttered a few words under his breath, across the field from the old general, but somehow Schembechler was in his face in about eight nanoseconds. Creating the illusion that his eyes and ears were everywhere was part of his genius.

“Brandon! I hear you’d rather not partake in our little scrimmage,” he barked. “Well, I can solve your problem, son. You’re going straight into that locker room, and cleaning your locker out. You’re done playing football for the University of Michigan.”

Brandon sat in his empty stall, dazed and despondent, wondering what he would tell his father, who loved Bo, his teammates, his girlfriend, and, one day, years from then, his kids.

Needless to say, Brandon didn’t sleep a wink that night. The next morning, he put on a dress shirt and went straight to Bo’s office, scared, nervous, and worn out. He apologized – as Bo knew he would – and Bo took him back. But he never heard Dave Brandon complain about any scrimmages after that.

Fast forward to 1989, the first reunion for all of Bo’s players. Brandon is already an All-American businessman by now, and a millionaire – but that incident still bothered him. Brandon figured it was time to confess his sins, so he told his teammates at his table about it – and everybody started laughing.

Brandon was stunned. What are you guys laughing about? I’m spilling my guts! One by one, they confessed, at one time or another Bo had kicked all of them off the team.

Brandon had a good laugh, too – but the lesson stayed with him: Don’t take what you’ve been given for granted, or you’ll lose it.

And that’s one reason why the guy who’d been kicked off the team is now not only responsible for Michigan’s football team, but for all Michigan’s teams.

Bo would be proud – and I’m sure he would agree: That’s a hell of a story.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.