Bill Martin's vision paid off with a strong budget, rebuilt athletic campus
Turmoil besieged the Michigan athletic department in 1999. The athletic director and Board of Regents publicly bickered over a proposed increase in football ticket prices, and a $2.8 million budget deficit brought tough questions.The school’s athletic facilities lingered in disrepair, and its basketball program was on its way to becoming the dirtiest in NCAA history. Nonetheless, athletic director Tom Goss’ forced resignation came as a surprise and disappointment to many people around the campus. “This will set us back a good 10 years,” said Don Canham, who served as in the position from 1968 to 1988. Canham had reason for concern: Goss had been Michigan’s fourth athletic director in 10 years, and continuing the revolving door didn’t seem like a way to stabilize the department. There was no way for him to know at the time that the school’s curious choice to replace Goss, local businessman Bill Martin, would provide the medicine the department desperately needed. Martin, who announced his retirement Wednesday, turned out to be the right guy at the right time, and much more. He accepted the job on an interim basis, stayed for a decade and leaves a legacy that will last for much longer. When his retirement becomes official Sept. 4, 2010, he’ll stand among the best athletic directors in school history. On that day, he’ll watch the Michigan football team play UConn in the first game at a renovated Michigan Stadium, a construction project that ranks as the centerpiece of his building boom around campus and one of his greatest accomplishments. Martin shepherded the renovation project pasts purists who didn’t want the school’s iconic venue touched at any cost, understanding that luxury boxes and premium seating provided the means to remain competitive on the college landscape. In July 2002, he issued a stinging comparison of Michigan’s facilities to Ohio State’s: “They’ve rebuilt their entire athletic campus for the next 100 years, while we’ve ignored ours for the last 20 years.” The truth hurt. Construction cranes followed. Under Martin, the school renovated Michigan Stadium, built a baseball and softball complex, a football fieldhouse, soccer, wrestling and tennis facilities and an academic center. Plans are under way for a basketball practice facility. He funded those facilities without dipping into the university’s general budget for as much as a dime. He did it without crippling the athletic department’s finances. On the contrary, he reversed the deficits of his predecessor and instead turned in surpluses that reached a high of $13.8 million in 2003-04. Michigan is one of just six schools in the nation with an athletic department that has run a surplus for at least five consecutive years. Next year, at a time when most schools are grappling with budget cuts and decimating programs to cope with the economy, Martin’s department projects an $8.8 million surplus and $94.4 million in revenue. On the basketball court, Martin rescued the men’s program from a sewer of NCAA violations, first appointing Tommy Amaker to bring the team toward mediocrity, then John Beilein to lead it back to the tournament. Missteps? Sure, there have been a few. An unwieldy coaching search for Lloyd Carr’s replacement left loyal Michigan alum Les Miles hung out to dry amid public scrutiny. Martin didn’t take a strong enough stand when an investigation revealed how the athletic department’s academic support program moved student athletes through a path of least resistance toward a degree. And it’s too early to tell how Martin’s most high-profile hire, football coach Rich Rodriguez, will affect his hiring record. Ultimately, though, Martin’s successor will be hard-pressed to match his legacy in Weidenbach Hall. Martin possessed a vision for what the school’s athletic leaders and landscape should look like, then made the money to pay for some of the best coaches and venues in the country. Much like Bo Schembechler’s imprint on the Wolverines football team lasted for 20 years past his retirement, Martin’s impact on the Michigan campus will last for decades to come.