SHARP: Manuel a good fit at U-M, if he knows his place

Nobody’s kidding anybody.

Football coach Jim Harbaugh is the de facto Michigan athletic director. He’s the face, the voice and spirit of what Michigan athletics hopes to become. Harbaugh sets the tone and consumes every ounce of attention in Ann Arbor. He’s the boss.

Warde Manuel must understand that from day one, or else the new U-M athletic director’s relationship with his biggest asset could turn prickly quickly. But while it’s important to give Harbaugh room to run the program the way he wants, there also must be a person within the hierarchy unafraid to occasionally tell him, “No.”

Can Manuel be that man?

Sharing the stage with a dynamic personality such as Harbaugh can’t be easy. Just ask the San Francisco 49ers. Or Manuel himself, who has had to deal with outspoken UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.

The attention Harbaugh has brought to Michigan since his arrival 13 months ago largely has been positive, but when it trends more negatively, as has been the case lately with Harbaugh’s recruiting practices, there will be focus on the thoughts of his superiors.

Manuel fits the Michigan Man prototype. He played for Bo — and isn’t that the first line on any Michigan Man’s resume? Anytime Manuel ventured away, he eventually returned to his alma mater.

But his arrival this time comes at a moment when the revered “Michigan way” of doing business is in conflict with the reality of big-time college football. There’s a widening gulf between the aging, old-school “blue hairs” who want to win with honor and the younger faction, frustrated that Michigan has fallen behind Ohio State and Michigan State and wants championships … regardless of how.

Manuel must bridge that gap.

Outgoing interim athletic director Jim Hackett was the perfect fit in the aftermath of the Dave Brandon debacle. He adroitly engineered the Harbaugh courtship, and regardless of whether Harbaugh brings Michigan football back to where fans think it should be, it won’t affect Hackett’s legacy.

But it’s now Manuel’s responsibility to ensure that nothing impedes Harbaugh’s efforts in constructing his program — even if that means putting up with idiosyncrasies that could get annoying the longer the Wolverines go without winning a Big Ten championship.

Michigan’s athletic department basically can print money. The Big House is a cash register again. And Manuel is the right hire for Michigan in that the Wolverines don’t need a CEO as their athletic director right now.

Manuel is back home. Like his football coach, he followed his heart. He learned plenty as the athletic director at Buffalo and Connecticut. But nothing could prepare him for the task awaiting him.

While he’s technically the department’s newest boss, it’s clear that his main job will be staying out of the way of the guy who’s actually running the show.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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