New Michigan Board of Regents chair Jordan Acker is huge sports fan: 'I trust Jim (Harbaugh)'

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Thursday marked a new beginning for college sports, and Jordan Acker, too.

Just as collegiate student-athletes were finally allowed to pitch for companies and profit off their personal brands Thursday, Acker launched his term as the University of Michigan Board of Regents chairman.

The timing of the two events was coincidental — but also fitting: Acker is a sports junkie and basketball fanatic. The 36-year-old was also raised in the digital age, with progressive views. An attorney by trade, Acker is a proponent of the name, image and likeness (or NIL, for short) movement that has detonated the NCAA’s amateurism model and created a different dimension.

He told the Free Press last week the new freedom for college athletes “is going to be by far the biggest change that our programs are going to deal with over the next two years. But look, Michigan has innovated before successfully, and I expect us to do it again.”

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As Acker emerges as one of the most powerful figures on campus, he will have the ability to influence where the Wolverines go from here in this new order. The last 16 months have shaken Michigan athletics: A global pandemic, a shocking scandal and projected budget deficits in the millions have chipped away at the Block M's prestige. Despite a third-place finish in the Directors’ Cup — a competition that measures schools' success across all sports -- the Wolverines have suffered more than they have flourished. Most notably, the football program endured the darkest days of the Jim Harbaugh era, limping to a 2-4 record in the fall before a COVID-19 outbreak canceled the final three games.

The misery of it all has guided Acker’s mission for this academic year.

“We need to bring some joy back to our campus, whether that is in research, whether that is in learning, whether that is in athletics,” said Acker, who succeeds Denise Ilitch atop the board.

Acker hopes to devote some energy toward enhancing the gameday fan experience and raising the curtain shrouding Michigan football. In April, the Wolverines played their spring game behind closed doors and didn’t televise it even though, at the time, the state permitted 20% capacity at outdoor venues. It appeared to be a missed opportunity for a program in need of reconnecting with its most ardent supporters. It was also odd considering how other schools, such as UCF, used their intrasquad scrimmages as marketing events for players, with an eye on inevitable NIL reform.

But Acker was reluctant to criticize the decision and cited the spike in coronavirus cases during that time as a reason for keeping the spring game closed to the public.

“I am in favor of transparency,” he said. “But I am not a football coach by any stretch of the imagination. And I trust Jim.”

That faith in Harbaugh is shared by athletic director Warde Manuel, who negotiated a contract extension to keep the coach in Ann Arbor through 2025.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh arguing a roughing the punter penalty late in the second quarter against Oregon State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Ann Arbor.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh arguing a roughing the punter penalty late in the second quarter against Oregon State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Ann Arbor.

“It’s not a short-term play for me,” Manuel said in March. “We’ll see how the season plays out and make decisions accordingly. This is something that I want to work, (Harbaugh) wants to work.”

Acker is confident it will, in part, because he believes in Manuel.

The two of them, Acker said, are aligned on most issues and communicate regularly, exchanging texts and talking.

“We have those conversations all of the time about what does Michigan look like now, but what does it look like five, six seven years in the future,” Acker said.

Acker is trying to look ahead. But that will be difficult with the ongoing abuse scandal surrounding the program. Hundreds have accused Michigan team physician Dr. Robert Anderson, now dead, of molesting them. A university-commissioned report by WilmerHale released in May found Anderson “engaged in sexual misconduct” on “countless occasions.” The scandal has raised questions about the legacy of iconic coach Bo Schembechler, whose statue stands outside the football headquarters named after him. According to the WilmerHale document and other accounts, multiple former players said they complained to Schembechler about Anderson’s invasive exams.

“I remain horrified and saddened by the monstrous behavior of Dr. Anderson,” Acker said.

And Schembechler?

“Obviously Bo Schembechler retired when I was 5 years old and so I never really watched him coach,” he said. “That’s one of those things that is difficult to speak to, but I do think college football has changed dramatically in the 30-plus years that he retired. And we have plenty to look forward to.”

As fans have returned to stadiums and arenas around the country, Acker expressed excitement about what lies ahead and his potential impact. In the siloed world of academia, where the athletic department often operates like its own city-state, Acker could potentially serve as a bridge between South State Street and the rest of campus.

Last summer, Harbaugh and university president Mark Schlissel appeared at odds over the Big Ten’s five-week postponement of the football season While Acker said the reported friction between Schlissel and Harbaugh was “overblown,” it added yet another negative headline. Acker would like to see positive momentum generated on the fields, courts and rinks hit the front page instead. After all, he considers Michigan athletics as one of the two main gateways to the university —helping to market the university and its brand.

“That joy that we have has been missing,” he said. “Because of COVID, we haven’t had that communal joy.”

There have been other reasons for that, too. But Acker’s mission is to change the mood and put Michigan in the best possible position to succeed — both in athletics and in the classroom. In one of the most volatile environments in the history of college sports, he’ll have the opportunity to influence how the Wolverines navigate this uncharted territory. The timing of his term as chairman couldn’t have been better.

“I didn’t run for this because I am a big Michigan sports fan,” he said. “But it doesn’t hurt. ...That’s for sure.”

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: New Regents chair could lead Michigan athletics into new age