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Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel understands Loyola and beating the odds

He’s a rarity as a top black administrator at a Power 5 school

As Michigan prepared to play Loyola in the NCAA men’s Final Four on Saturday, Warde Manuel found himself feeling begrudging admiration for the Chicago-based Ramblers.

In a game cast as David versus Goliath, Michigan is the giant. And Manuel is the giant’s director of athletics. He oversees a program with a $182 million budget. While programs like Loyola struggle to reach the Final Four once in a generation, mega programs like Michigan aspire to win conference and national titles in multiple sports every year.

On Wednesday, Warde will fly to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Michigan’s men’s hockey team is competing in the Frozen Four, the NCAA’s hockey championship.

Last year, sophomore Brienne Minor earned Michigan’s first NCAA singles tennis championship. Still, there’s something about Loyola that Manuel, deep inside, admires.

“It’s a great story,” Manuel said Friday, a day before Michigan ended the Ramblers run. The Wolverines prevailed 69-57. “Loyola’s a great story because they won four games coming from an 11th seed. “Supposedly in our system, the 11th seed is supposed to indicate you can’t perform, you can’t beat people?”

Manuel knows about beating odds. He experienced it on multiple occasions during his life, most recently in 2014.

As the athletics director at the University of Connecticut, his men’s team reached the NCAA tournament final as a seventh seed.

“I witnessed [head coach] Kevin Ollie and that team take it one game at a time and not listen to those who said they couldn’t do it, over and over,” Manuel said.

Manuel calls UConn’s 2014 national championship “one of the highlights of my administrative career.”

UConn won both the men’s and women titles that season.

“Many were shocked that UConn won. I would say that there was nobody in that locker room that was shocked at the outcome,” Manuel said. “That’s the way this tournament is — you have an opportunity. All you can ask in life is for an opportunity.”

That has been Manuel’s calling card throughout his career. He’s done an excellent job with the opportunities given.

He is also that rarest of breeds: an African-American athletic director at a Power 5 member university.

As odd as it is to say about an industry dominated by black athletes in revenue-producing sports, there are only a handful of black athletic directors at these top schools. They are at places like Ohio State, Vanderbilt, Stanford, University of Southern California, Florida State, Arizona State and California-Berkeley.

Manuel thinks that might change in the next decade. “I hope so,” he said. “I believe it can. There’s a stronger, more diverse pipeline of young administrators. I think we’ll see a difference in the next 10 years.”

I met Manuel in 1989 while reporting a series for The New York Times about student-athletes on campus.

A highly recruited high school All-American football player from New Orleans, Manuel was on the NFL track until he suffered a career-ending neck injury.

“One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is knowing that the dream I had to play professionally was not going to come to fruition,” Manuel once told me.

Because of the injury, Manuel’s life and worldview changed. He saw the university in a new light.

He was freed from the athletics bubble, where many athletes spend entire careers because of time demands and preference.

Manuel put himself on an academic-athletics administration track, eventually being named associate athletics director at Michigan.

He became the University of Buffalo’s athletics director in 2005, managing the school’s $25 million budget.

In 2012, Warde was named athletics director at UConn, where he presided over an $85 million budget and a men’s basketball program reeling from NCAA sanctions.

He was named the Michigan athletic director in 2016.

“It was homecoming for me,” he said. He met his wife at Michigan. They raised their two children in Ann Arbor for nine years before moving to Buffalo.

“Your alma mater’s always with you.”

Manuel is a cogent example of a player evolving from the playing field to a seat at the table of power, control and influence.

When we spoke in 1989, Manuel said he felt that intercollegiate athletics “takes away some of your ambition for academics.” Three decades later, he feels that it’s not so much sports that takes away the ambition, but personal choice.

It took a devastating injury to get him to see the light, sooner than later. Once his eyes were opened, he had the tenacity, the will and drive to pursue the education that would open doors.

In his role as an athletics administrator, Warde said he encourages young athletes to get out of the sports bubble.

It’s not easy.

“I try to tell them, get out of your dormitory; get out of your apartment; go to plays; go to productions when your classmates invite you to one. Something going on campus, get out,” he said. “Go see a speaker, go talk to somebody else and have discussions. That was extremely valuable to me.”

Manuel earned his MBA while he was associate AD at Michigan.

He now runs one of the nation’s most storied college sports programs.

About the persistent issue of whether to compensate athletes for participation in intercollegiate sports, Warde feels that the opportunities presented to attend college and earn a degree are substantial compensation.

He said he is offended by critics who compare college athletes to slaves on a plantation.

“It is an inappropriate analogy around who these student-athletes are and what they should — and most of them are — get out of intercollegiate athletics,” he said. “There is a value there. There is a return on their participation through education.”

In Manuel’s view, the athletes, by and large, “are well taken care of.”

“Many of the things they need and a lot of what they want are taken care of, not just at Michigan but across the board.

“We need to be cautious about how we talk through what these young men and women go through on their college campuses, which I think is far, far better than slavery.”

What’s next for Manuel? A college presidency? A commissionership?

When we met 30 years ago, he was a football player who had jumped off the sports conveyor belt into education and administration.

Now he is an athletics director on the precipice of winning a second national basketball title in four years.

“I’m loving what I’m doing now,” Manuel said. “I have not thought about doing anything else. If I’m lucky enough to retire on my own from my career as the athletic director at Michigan, that’ll be all I need.”

First, though, there’s that pesky David — Loyola.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.