Exactly one year ago, Brady Hoke was the darling of Michigan football fans.
He’d charmed even the doubters at his first press conference – where he coined his now famous phrase, “This is Michigan, for God’s sake!” — then led a team that had averaged just five wins a season over the previous three years to a 10-2 regular-season record, including thrilling wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska and arch-rival Ohio State. Then he capped it all off with an overtime upset of Virginia Tech in the prestigious Sugar Bowl – Michigan’s first BCS bowl victory since a young man named Tom Brady beat Alabama on January 1, 2000.
The man could do no wrong. When Hoke started referring to injuries as “boo-boos” and Ohio State as “Ohio,” fans did not think he was an ignoramus who knew nothing about the greatest rivalry in sports – as they surely would have if Rich Rodriguez had said the same things — but a motivational genius, who understood exactly what the duel was all about.
When fans noticed Hoke did not wear a headset during games – unlike just about every other coach in the country – they did not conclude he was an out-of-touch, glorified cheerleader, but a master delegator and teacher, trusting the play calling to his assistants while he focused on coaching his players.
When you’re winning, everything’s cool. But when you start losing, the same people who patted you on the back start questioning your quirks.
So, this year, after the Wolverines got smoked by top-ranked Alabama, then lost to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State – three teams they beat last year – some fans dusted off their pitchforks and torches, and more will surely follow suit if the Wolverines lose their bowl game.
But Hoke’s phenomenal freshman year was just as predictable as his sophomore slump. In fact, I predicted both – and this, from the same guy who guessed just about everything wrong from 2007 through 2010, what I call my “unfortunate streak of poor prognostication.”
My calculations were pretty simple: Last season, almost all of Michigan’s key players returned, including an exceptional class of senior leaders. The schedule was much easier, too, with all but one of their big games at home. Perhaps most important, the defense simply had to be better (as my father often tells me, “When you’re on the floor, you can’t fall out of bed”) – and it was, dramatically. I figured all that had to be worth at least two wins, maybe three, and that proved true.
Likewise, when I predicted Michigan would go 8-4 this year, I made my calculation on the same criteria, just in reverse: the schedule would be substantially tougher, opening with Alabama in Dallas, then playing improved Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State squads, all on the road; and they had lost key players like Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin, and David Molk, who might have been the toughest to replace. Plus, their leadership and luck were bound to dip, at least a little – and they did.
Sure enough, now they’re 8-4 – and just to get there, they needed last second comebacks against Michigan State and Northwestern. Because Penn State and Ohio State are both ineligible to go to bowl games this year, Michigan will move up in the bowl game pecking order, and therefore will have to play a tougher team than expected – and probably lose, which would leave them with an uninspiring 8-5 record.
But to the fans, it’s not just whether you win or lose – wait, what am I saying? Of course it is! Michigan fans, to their credit, do not believe in a win-at-all costs program, and I’m confident Hoke doesn’t, either. But it’s also the way they’re losing that’s making some fans rummage for their pitchforks.
If you’re going to let your assistant coaches pick your plays, as Hoke does, you better pick those assistants very carefully. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison transformed Michigan’s defense from one of the worst to one of the best in his first season, with the same players, and he’s kept his defense right up there this year, with arguably less talent. I’ve never seen anything like it. If he’s not the best defensive coordinator in the country, I’d like to see who is.
But on offense, coordinator Al Borges took a thoroughbred offense, led by one-of-a-kind Denard Robinson, and reduced it to a plow horse. In the final plays of last week’s 26-21 loss to Ohio State, Robinson sat on the bench – which didn’t sit well with anyone, even the announcers.
But Robinson didn’t sign up to play for these coaches, and these coaches did not recruit him, either. It won’t be fair to judge Hoke until his recruits become his players, and that takes a few years.
By then, fans will either find Hoke’s style charming or cheesy, and it won’t depend on his press conferences, his football philosophy or his headset, just one number: how many games he wins.
As General MacArthur once said, “There is no substitute for victory.”
And that goes double when you’re playing Ohio State.
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Friday night, Dan Chace’s documentary, “PERSERVERENCE: The Story of Dr. Billy Taylor,” premiers at the Michigan Theater at 7:30 and 9:55. It’s received excellent reviews, and is about an hour long, followed by a question-and-answer session with Dan and Dr. Taylor. For information and tickets, please go to perserverencefilm.com, michtheater.org/shows/perserverance.
Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later, I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM. And on Sunday mornings, from the start of football season to the end of March Madness, I co-host “Off the Field” with the legendary Jamie Morris on WTKA from 10-11 a.m. And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”
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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now, in hardcover OR PAPERBACK!
My next book, “Fourth and Long,” about the future of college football, will be published by Simon & Schuster in September, 2013.