Saturday, December 31, 2011

Brady Who?

There is a story in Michigan football lore that when Bo Schembechler was hired in December 1968, his name (particularly his surname) was so unrecognizable that a regional newspaper printed the headline: "Bo Who?"

Schembechler had spent ten years of his coaching career as an assistant, five of which he was at Michigan's most hated rival, Ohio State. Then he finally caught his break, spending six years as the head coach of Miami University of Ohio, famously ascribed as both the "cradle of coaches" and Schembechler's alma mater. He led the program to two MAC conference titles and a 40-17 record, with three ties.

When Michigan athletic director Don Canham was in search of a coach to replace Bump Elliott, the original target was Joe Paterno, then just starting out as Penn State's head coach. "But Paterno refused to abandon Penn State before a bowl game, and Canham did not want to wait," wrote The Detroit News columnist Jerry Green in The Michigan Football Vault. Canham explored other options and came across the virtually unknown Schembechler, who had been interviewed by Tulane, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Kansas State, and Vanderbilt. Wanting to coach in the Big Ten, however, Schembechler also interviewed at Wisconsin, but was irritated that the interviewers didn't take football seriously. When Canham and Michigan came calling, it apparently went better.

On Christmas Eve, Schembechler checked into an Ann Arbor hotel and used an alias. He probably didn't have to. When word of Michigan's new head coach hit the press, "the reaction was shock followed quickly by curiosity," wrote Green. "Who was this Bo? Harried sports journalists scurried around to learn the background of Bo Schembecher. But Michigan's impassioned alumni responded to Canham's choice of football coach with disappointment. Even Canham himself had preferred a better-known coach for the job Elliott was vacating."

Football in 1969 was not like today's 24-hour ESPN news cycle and national spotlight on elite programs and the coaching carousel. Regionally, however, Michigan's hiring of Schembechler was big news. Fans and alumni were "unnerved by Schembechler's close ties to the enemy." Michigan had been dominated by Ohio State and Woody Hayes and, worse, the 1968 game had a humiliating ending of 50-14. Even when blowing out the Wolverines, Woody Hayes went for two.

Obviously, we now know that Schembechler's connection to Ohio and Woody Hayes became his greatest assets. He was determined to put together an exact replica of Hayes's Buckeye squad, only bigger (unlikely), faster, and tougher. He spent the entire off-season and every practice preparing the Wolverines for the game against Ohio State. Schembechler knew that if he was going to truly make an impact, it would have to be in that rivalry. After Ohio State's dominance led them to a national championship in 1968, expectations for the 1969 Wolverines were pretty low. "Everybody thought Michigan wasn't going to win a football game that year," said Jon Falk in the documentary, The Greatest Stories of Michigan Football. "Ohio State was the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Schembechler's first season started well enough, but the Wolverines suffered a 40-17 loss to Missouri and a crushing 23-12 loss to Michigan State. Meanwhile, Ohio State was undefeated, ranked No. 1, and was looking clinch another Big Ten title and a national championship. They would be facing Michigan in Ann Arbor, confident, determined, and hating the Wolverines with everything they had—Woody had made sure of it.

Then, in what is considered to be one of the greatest upsets in college football history, and certainly one of the greatest games of the Michigan—Ohio State rivalry, Schembechler's Wolverines defeated Hayes's Buckeyes 24-12. His program was established, and suddenly everybody knew who Bo was.

It wasn't so much the way the season as a whole had gone—Schembechler was 8-3 overall, to Hayes 8-1—it was the way he had ended it. The win over Ohio State naturally outweighed the loss to Michigan State. Schembechler would go on to coach against USC in the Rose Bowl; Michigan lost, 10-3. But even the post-season defeat was not enough to sully the incredible finish to the regular season, and Michigan had earned a share of the Big Ten title. Yet no one could have expected, and certainly no one predicted, such a dramatic change so quickly. In his twenty years as Michigan's head coach, Schembechler won thirteen Big Ten titles. When he arrived at Michigan, Schembechler put up a famous sign to combat attrition that read, "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions." Well, as it turned out, those who stayed... were.

The hiring of Bo Schembechler at Michigan is perhaps a testament to one of two things. The first is the hiring of an unknown. Schembechler had garnered some success at Miami of Ohio, but it was hardly a splash hire, and he wasn't exactly comparable to Knute Rockne or Fielding Yost. The second part of the testament is that Schembechler was an outsider, someone hired outside of the Michigan family. He wasn't ever an assistant for anyone on a Michigan coach's staff. He wasn't an alumnus either. If Schembechler was anything before being Michigan's coach, he was a Midwestern guy and an Ohio native. However, he eventually defined a Michigan Man.

Around forty years later, after Bo Schembechler died in 2006, Michigan found itself in a similar predicament to the one before Schembechler was first hired. Ohio State was dominating the Big Ten conference and regularly making trips to BCS national championships under Jim Tressel. Michigan hadn't beaten the Buckeyes since 2003. There would be two coaching searches in the span of five years. The first one resulted in Rich Rodriguez, a coach with no connections to either Michigan or the Midwest, but he certainly wasn't an unknown. Rodriguez was the hottest coaching commodity of 2007 and, given Michigan's elite status, it wasn't entirely surprising that they hired him.

What became surprising was how badly Rodriguez's West Virginia ways fit at Michigan, a place and a program with its identity already so firmly established. Rodriguez was a drastic change in every department—his attitude, his personality, his offense. Some compared him to Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler, both outsiders to Michigan when they were each hired. Rodriguez was from West Virginia (like Yost) and he was a drill sergeant who cursed out his players (like Schembechler). In reality, these comparisons have been proven unfounded and borderline ridiculous. While he certainly shared Yost's point of origin, it wasn't enough to establish a genuine connection to the former Michigan coach. You might as well have said that they were both some from the same galaxy. Rodriguez and Yost may have both been innovators in offense, but if each coach is considered in their own respective era, they were from two separate worlds. Rodriguez was also nothing like the gruff, hard-nosed Schembechler. He wore his emotions on his sleeves, pouted, wept, cheered, joked, and threw tantrums. He was also a talker and perhaps never knew when to shut up. Both were known for being stubborn, but Schembechler's stubbornness was more out of not accepting anything but the best, in the manner of a military field general. Rodriguez's was more child-like. A personality that Michigan was not used to, he was most certainly the antithesis of Michigan's traditionally stoic coaches like Lloyd Carr.

No one really disagrees that Rodriguez didn't do his best at Michigan, but you can never underestimate the power of a bad fit, and Michigan and Rodriguez weren't working out and never would. Michigan had too much of an identity for someone like Rodriguez, who had made a career by bringing an identity to moribund college football programs. Michigan wasn't moribund when Rodriguez arrived, but it practically was when he left.

Ohio State never relented, not even once, and Michigan was in shambles. Brian Cook of MGoBlog later wrote that the 2010 season of 7-5 was actually closer to 4-8 than 8-4. Because of the porous defense, Michigan's wins that year were never comfortable. It was clear—or, at least, it was clear to athletic director David Brandon—that Michigan needed to go back to its roots if it wanted to be successful. Brandon's goal: find someone who understood Michigan in the way Rodriguez never could. That inadvertently meant that he would be looking for a Michigan Man. It was a "national search," but not in the way you'd typically expect.

The candidates were Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles. Brian Cook also wanted someone like Gary Patterson of TCU because of his spread offense. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, currently coaching his alma mater, was also mentioned. Harbaugh, who had built Stanford into a Pac-12 powerhouse that went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl, was set on going to the NFL, and David Brandon was never going to hire Les Miles in a million years. With the "ideal" options quickly fading, another name popped up. He had been considered a possible candidate for the Michigan job back when Lloyd Carr stepped down in 2007, but he was eventually passed over for Rich Rodriguez.

His name was Brady Hoke.



Hoke certainly wasn't a "flashy candidate" in either 2007 or 2011. In today's college football world, there are no such things as virtual unknowns (or unknown coaches) unless they are coaching at Division II. Even casual fans know who the hottest coaches out there are. Did anyone know who Brady Hoke was? Well, vaguely. Hoke was an assistant under Lloyd Carr who coached the defensive line (developing players like Glen Steele, Rob Renes) and who had helped Michigan to the 1997 national championship. In 2007, Hoke was the head coach of his alma mater, Ball State, and was in the midst of rebuilding the program.

Of course, with Michigan being such an elite program, it would seem unwise to hire someone who wasn't an elite coach. MGoBlog felt that Hoke fit the bill of a "crony," someone who had achieved success only by the buddy system and riding the coattails of great coaches. In short, the perception was that Hoke wasn't a good coach in his own right. He certainly wasn't proven. "Overall attractiveness: awful, awful, awful," wrote Brian. "The worst possible candidate. The mere idea this guy—who's never even been a coordinator anywhere and has his MAC team performing at a level well below the program's historical baseline—could get the job is infuriating."

Then, a year later, in 2008, while Rodriguez was busy going 3-9, Hoke went 12-1. Shortly thereafter he left for the job at San Diego State, a program which hadn't been to a bowl game in twenty years and hadn't won a bowl game in twice that. In Hoke's second year as head coach, San Diego State went 9-4 and won the Poinsettia Bowl. Hoke was still largely an unknown in the college football world, but he was starting to look like a more attractive candidate. And the Michigan job was open.

But had Hoke proven himself enough by turning around Ball State and San Diego State? The Michigan bloggers didn't think so. "Brady Hoke is now a legitimate candidate for the head coaching position at Michigan. Some people think he is a great college football coach and nothing to worry about. I think such ideas are preposterous. They are the cranial productions of blind fools who do not understand college football and offer no evidence to support their views," said a writer on Maize n' Brew. "In aggregate Brady Hoke is 47-50 as a head football coach, and 127-109-3 as an assistant defensive football coach. Mr. Hoke is already checked off as a 'Michigan Man' by the sports media and Michigan fans, because of his 8 successful seasons of defensive line coaching under Jim Herrmann and Lloyd Carr outlined above. But overall Brady Hoke's resume reads consistently below average and less than impressive. It's also full of shocking scenes of futility and defeat on the gridiron. Most importantly, Hoke's few accomplishments would probably pale in comparison to those of the man he would supposedly replace at Michigan—Rich Rodriguez."

This type of thinking largely comes from the idea that Michigan doesn't need a Michigan Man to be successful. "Why is that so damn important to us?" asked Brad on Maize and Blue Nation. There is also the notion that, despite Rodriguez, a Michigan Man is actually more detrimental to Michigan than would be an outsider. When Rodriguez was fired, Desmond Howard told the media that the next coach needs to be someone who understands Michigan. Brian on MGoBlog clearly disagreed:
The Michigan way is dead, literally and figuratively, and Michigan needs a new way. They seem poised to repeat the mistakes Alabama did as they fruitlessly tried to replace Bear Bryant, ("Mike Shula has a vague connection to Bear! That's the ticket!") except in this case the most OMG BO hire would be awesome but isn't interested. If Harbaugh isn't coming, just go outside again instead of shoehorning a guy into a spot he doesn't deserve and putting him behind the eight ball from the start.
This was the same sentiment three years ago. Michigan fans like Brian believed that, despite Michigan being Brady Hoke's dream job, he didn't deserve it. There was also the assumption that hiring Hoke would mean going back to the conservative play-calling of Lloyd Carr, and thus an offensive innovator needed to come in. The comparison to Alabama and Nick Saban was frequently made.

In 2011, it was made again by Maize n' Brew writer Dave, who subscribed to MGoBlog's anti-Hoke narrative:
I did not have an issue with Dave Brandon's "process" up to this point. I'm not even upset that he couldn't land Les Miles. Frankly, I felt going in that it would take a miracle to pry Miles away from $3.7 million a year, SEC recruiting, easier admissions standards, and a place where he can simply be himself. That, to me, wasn't a big deal. Miles was the biggest fish left in Michigan's original search pond, and not landing him was more a testament to Miles' love of his current job than of Brandon's abilities.

But flying to California to interview Hoke... man... I can't condone this one. Hoke is not a good football coach. He is, at best, a mediocre one and far beneath the standards of the office he would supposedly fill. Before people gufaw and ask me to consider the prior hire, I will. Rodriguez had two BCS bowls to his credit, a win over Georgia, a slew of league titles and arguably the most explosive offense in the country at West Virginia. Say what you will about the competition in the Big East, it's head and shoulders above anything Hoke's faced at San Diego State.

I just don't get this. I don't. If Michigan is conducting a legitimate search for a coach that can actually... you know... coach, how is it that we only have three people on the list? Is the only pre-requisite that the coach be from Michigan? Ask Alabama how well that worked out. Remember the glory years of DuBose-Franchione-Price-Shula? Not well. Alabama suffered indignity after indignity for ten years before they finally said "the hell with it" and hired Nick Saban.

Look at Notre Dame. Bob Davie, Jim O'Leary, Ty Willingham, Charlie Weis, another premier program that's spent nearly 15 years in the wilderness. It took them 15 years to hire a real football coach. Michigan is entering the same walk in the woods that Alabama and Notre Dame have both suffered through, and we're doing it just because he once wore our uniform.

That is why the mere flirtation with Hoke is so galling to me. We are sacrificing another three to four years so that we can have a "Michigan Man" at the helm. His track record is mediocre. His football teams [were] average in bad leagues. But hey, he played for Michigan, therefore everything is okay. This is nonsense. How a man like Dave Brandon [is] blinded by this is beyond me.
The writer (Maize n' Brew Dave) has since been absent from Maize n' Brew, but as much fun as it would be to say that it is because of Hoke's recent success at Michigan, it would probably be incorrect. It is also important to note that Hoke is actually not an alumnus of Michigan. He never "wore our uniform" as Dave incorrectly claims. Hoke's connection to Michigan is that he grew up a Michigan fan and coached defense for Lloyd Carr. He also recruited Charles Woodson and Tom Brady.

MGoBlog's Brian, still considering Hoke a crony of Lloyd Carr and a mediocre coach, made fun of Hoke's frequent mention of toughness and disdain for flashy offenses:
If you're eager to get Michigan started on a painful transition away from the offense they just painfully transitioned to, Hoke's your man. If he's hired we'll get some soundbites about flexibility but they'll be about as convincing as Tommy Tuberville's strained 'hhhhyyyarrrrr' upon his hiring at Texas Tech. If there are coaches out there comfortable with the spread offense that's proven itself kind of good across college football they'd be preferable to a guy who professes disdain for 'basketball on grass' and doesn't have the track record to suggest he's anything more than average at the other stuff.
Unless meteors hit both Jim Harbaugh and Rich Rodriguez, the chance Brady Hoke is Michigan's coach in 2011 is zero point zero percent.

Do you know how I know this? Because three years ago the rumors about Hoke were heavy enough that I scurried to the keyboard to point out this was a guy with one winning season, that 7-5, at a MAC school. While he's a plausible candidate for the Minnesota job now, back then he wasn't a plausible candidate for the job he was actually at. If Ball State's job was open they wouldn't have hired a coach with Brady Hoke's resume. And yet there were rumblings from within Fort Schembechler that had everyone panicked, just like today.

The obvious conclusion is that there are people who know and like Hoke in the athletic department, who hate everyone else who's ever been rumored for the Michigan job, and there are credulous people willing to relay anything that comes from a person with a job in Schembechler Hall. None of these people are Dave Brandon.

Brady Hoke will not coach Michigan in 2011. You may resume your day-to-day lives.
On January 11, 2011, Hoke was hired. MGoBlog wasn't happy:
This is a stupid hire. It will always be a stupid hire and David Brandon just led the worst coaching search in the history of Michigan football. He managed to chase off half of an already iffy recruiting class, hired a Plan C coach on January 11th, probably ensured the transfer of the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and restricted his "national search" to people who'd spent at least five years in Ann Arbor. Michigan just gave themselves a year of USC-level scholarship reduction voluntarily.

What are the chances that the best available coach is a 52-year-old with a 47-50 career record and no experience as a coordinator? Why weren't a half-dozen coordinators with time and results on their side given the opportunity to interview? Why did Brandon waste time with Les Miles, a guy on the downside who may not have even gotten a serious offer? After learning a hard lesson about program continuity with the last hire why did Michigan hire a guy who professes to hate the spread 'n' shred a day after two spread teams played for the national title?

I'd rather have Rich Rodriguez entering year four with a new defensive staff than this, a total capitulation. Does anyone remember Tressel's record against Lloyd Carr? 5-1. Change was necessary. It didn't work, but that doesn't mean you go back to the stuff that required change.
It's interesting to look back at all of this "aggressive skepticism," knowing how well Hoke has done in his first year. I was personally on board with Hoke after his opening press conference, when he convinced me that he believed in the right things and had the right approach. MGoBlog's Brian, however, wasn't impressed, and stuck to his guns about the necessity of the spread offense and, by extension, the necessity of someone like Rich Rodriguez. Fans like Brian, unwilling to give a Hoke a chance, soon became the outliers of the Michigan fan base. By the spring game, Hoke had both the support of the fans and, perhaps even more importantly, the alumni.

Hoke has since defied expectations. He convinced Denard Robinson to stay, hired NFL Ravens' defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, and re-established a recruiting foothold in both Michigan and Ohio, locking down some of the region's best recruits. With his offensive coordinator, Al Borges, Hoke and his staff have gradually introduced their offense while keeping the spread concepts that the players (and particularly Denard Robinson) are used to, in defiance of what the Michigan blogs believed would happen. Hoke has also gone back to basics with the players, teaching them fundamentals. The results speak for themselves.

In Hoke's first regular season, Michigan lost only two games. The most troubling was against Michigan State. However, Hoke solidified his legacy with a win over Ohio State that snapped a seven-year losing streak. It was a long time coming. It was also somewhat fitting: Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr all won their first games against Ohio State as head coaches. (The only exception is Rich Rodriguez, who lost. But is this really an exception? Despite his pedigree, Rodriguez never defeated either Michigan State or Ohio State.)

It's also interesting to see how the bloggers, once so opposed to the idea of a Michigan Man at the helm, have come to like and even accept Hoke. Even his staunchest critics are starting to believe in him. In a pre-season magazine, MGoBlog's Brian described his thoughts about how he initially reacted to the Hoke hire:
There's no way to sugarcoat it: I was mad. Hoke seemed like a reaction to Rich Rodriguez more than an independently good idea. He is the anti-Rodriguez: a big, jovial Midwesterner who loves Michigan and preaches toughness. It just seemed implausible that he really was the best one for the job, instead of a rebound guy.
Where Detroit writers and former players saw assets ("jovial, Midwesterner who loves Michigan and preaches toughness"), Brian saw flaws. And now that Hoke has transformed the defense from 112th-worst in the country to 14th, while grossly limiting turnovers and beating Ohio State, how does Brian feel?
I could not have been more wrong about Hoke. He's not the milquetoast win-by-not-losing sort. He's not even average. He has a gut feel that is on par with every RPG minimaxing engineer out there. Forged by the fires of MAC defenses, Hoke has learned to push when he should and pull back when he should. I would not want to play poker against him.

I know Hoke talks about toughness and physicalness even if the latter isn't really a word, and that's fine and important. It's half of the equation. The other half is putting your guys in position to take advantage of that. Hoke does that. MANBALL: pretty much not pejorative anymore.
The very first post that I made on The Michigan Fanatic was one that was in support of Brady Hoke. It was largely in response to a comment made by Dave at Maize n' Brew: "Brady Hoke is not a good football coach." After analyzing Hoke's record for myself, I found that he actually might be a good football coach. It's hard to recruit to places like Ball State and San Diego State. It's even harder to win. Hoke did both at each program. That, coupled with his passion for Michigan in his opening press conference, made me a believer. It was nice to see that Hoke genuinely wanted to be here, and that he loved Michigan as much as I did.

Still, I wrote that post judiciously. There was still the chance that all of Brian's skepticism could be proven right and that Hoke would completely burn out. Even heading into the future, there will always be that possibility, but it's nice to know that Hoke has a solid gameplan and a vision of where he wants Michigan to go.

It's fun to compare Hoke to coaches like Bo Schembechler, who built Michigan football into what at least three generations believe it to be, and such comparisons make the articles seem more profound than they actually are. Schembechler lost to Michigan State in his first year, but his win over Ohio State defined his legacy, and that is the win most remembered. Hoke's victory over Notre Dame was the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium, yet he lost to Michigan State, but the victory over Ohio State, even when Michigan was favored, should still be considered an upset. As former Michigan players often say, records don't matter in that game. That was certainly true this time. It will be true for every game between Michigan and Ohio State.

Hoke's has more wins in his first season than Schembechler did, but Schembechler lost in his postseason bowl. On January 3, Hoke's Wolverines will face Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Honestly, I said that it doesn't matter if Hoke wins or loses that game, and I still believe that. The win over Ohio State alone is enough to satisfy me for another year, and it's enough to keep me believing in the Hoke era. Obviously, I want Michigan to win all its games, and there will be disappointed fans if Michigan loses the Sugar Bowl. But as long as the team isn't embarrassed, Hoke really doesn't have anything to worry about. The problem with the Rodriguez era was the continued embarrassment. It made the losses harder to take, and it made Rodriguez lose his job a lot quicker.

Whether by going back to fundamentals or showing passion for Michigan, Hoke has worked to change that perception. The losses to Iowa and Michigan State, while difficult to take (as any loss is), were not embarrassments. (Plus, it's also pleasantly amusing that Michigan is playing in a BCS bowl and Michigan State isn't.) This is probably why so many people are on board with Hoke and feel optimistic about the future. This optimism isn't entirely unfounded. 

However, as a rational Michigan fan, you always feel trepidation about the frequently predictable "Michigan is back" comment, especially when Notre Dame says the same thing about the Irish every year, and every year they're wrong. Yet we know now that Michigan is different. It's not Alabama. It's not Notre Dame. There's a lot that 2011 has shown us about Michigan, but there's only one thing that we can certainly say:

We all know who Brady Hoke is.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Michigan to play Virginia Tech in Sugar Bowl

The Wolverines' hopes of receiving a BCS bid came true on Sunday, as they were matched with Virginia Tech for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Of course, not everybody is happy about this. Fans of most college football teams are a little more upset at Virginia Tech for "back-dooring" their way into a BCS bowl. Other at-large choices for the Sugar Bowl included Boise State, Kansas State, and TCU. They were passed up, however, for Virginia Tech; some believe because Virginia Tech is a "name" program.

"In a football sense, it's tough to argue for the Hokies against some of the other teams in the at-large pool, especially after the 28-point loss to Clemson Saturday night," wrote a Virginia Tech blog. "Fortunately for Tech, bowl games are rarely about football. The only bowl game that matters, truly matters, is the national championship game. Every other game is about selling tickets, filling hotel rooms and drawing TV ratings. These are glorified exhibitions. Virginia Tech has a history with the Sugar Bowl that proves they will do exactly that."

MGoBlog's Brian doesn't see too much peril from Virginia Tech in the match-up, though the Wolverines are 2.5 point underdogs. "The Hokies haven't lost to anyone other than Clemson (in dual blowouts) but also haven't played anyone else," wrote Brian. "They played no BCS teams in the non-conference and their ACC schedule contains no opponent with more than eight wins." The Hokies are 11-2.

And predictably, Michigan State fans are unhappy. The general consensus around the Spartan faithful is that Michigan State deserves to go to a BCS bowl because it beat Michigan and played in the inaugural Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. The Spartans lost that game but still feel that they are more deserving than Michigan, and it's not fair that they don't get to go when Michigan does.

Forget the fact that Michigan beat Notre Dame and Nebraska, two teams that handily trounced the Spartans. Michigan State primarily argues that, in its head-to-head match-up with Michigan, the Spartans won. Thus, they claim, they should go to a BCS bowl.

"Michigan sat at home tonight on the couch and watched us," Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, normally a classy guy and one who isn't fond of complaining, reportedly said after Michigan State lost to Wisconsin, knowing that his team would probably not go to a BCS bowl. "I don't see how you get punished for playing and someone else gets to sit on the couch and get what they want. If this is the way the system is, I guess it's a broken system."

These types of statements are par for the course in college football, especially from teams who don't get what they want. Those who do are often quietly content. Chris Petersen voiced his complaints when Boise State, who is not in an AQ conference, did not receive a BCS bowl bid despite an 11-1 regular season record.

"I'm really tired of the BCS, even the name," Petersen recently said at a press conference. "I think everybody is just tired of the BCS. Everybody's frustrated. I don't think anyone is happy anywhere…The whole thing needs to be changed, there's no question about it…Nobody likes it, nobody understands it, everybody thinks it needs to be changed, so hopefully it will be."

Michigan's Sugar Bowl opponent, Virginia Tech, caught a lot of flak because the BCS picked them over someone else (Kansas State, TCU, Boise State). Yet the arguments for Virginia Tech are plausible enough. The Hokies have a solid fan base and a good following, and they usually travel very well. They also have made several trips to the Sugar Bowl, a history that no doubt played a factor in their selection.

It should be noted that the BCS is often misinterpreted as a playoff, where a team's merit determines their status. In reality, it is more about creating exciting match-ups. Michigan and Virginia Tech are two historical programs who would generate a lot of interest.

That isn't to say that Michigan or Virginia Tech or anyone should or does play in a BCS bowl by name brand alone. You have to qualify as an at-large team. In order to Michigan to be eligible for the Sugar Bowl (or any BCS bowl), it had to crack the Top 14. That usually happens when teams lose their championship games. Georgia, for instance, lost to LSU in the SEC championship, dropped in the rankings, and is set to play Michigan State in the Outback Bowl in the battle of the runner-ups.

However, Michigan State's main gripe against Michigan playing in the Sugar Bowl is less a statement about the BCS (as they would have you believe) and is more about bitterness towards their rival, which is to be expected. If Purdue was 10-2 and had a BCS bowl bid, Michigan State fans would not be anywhere near as bitter. It is only because Michigan got to the Sugar Bowl that they are now complaining—even when it was predicted to happen weeks ago. Spartans typically, and bizarrely, judge their success almost entirely on what Michigan does—or, in this case, where Michigan goes. They don't (and perhaps they can't) see themselves as a good team in their own right. They went to the Big Ten championship. Michigan did not. Still, that is not enough.

Michigan's players Ryan Van Bergen and Kevin Koger were asked what they thought about Kirk Cousins's comments about Michigan not being worthy to play in a BCS bowl. "If he wants to be able to sit on the couch and watch us play in the Big Ten championship game, then he can do that," Van Bergen said. "We would have loved to trade places and have that chance and have that opportunity. All complaints aside, they had an opportunity to the Rose Bowl sitting right in front of them to grab, and they didn't seize the opportunity. I think they'll do well in the Outback Bowl, but best of luck, best wishes—we're going to the Sugar Bowl, and we're excited about it."

"We did get to recover a little bit, but I'd rather play in the Big Ten championship game," Kevin Koger added. "I mean, the inaugural Big Ten championship—that says a lot of about the teams that played in it. We'd be happy to trade places, but it is what it is."

The game is set for January 3, 2012, at 8:30 p.m.

It will be the first time Michigan has ever played Virginia Tech.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Horizon

First, this needs to be said: Suck it, Buckeyes.

Ohio State fans often loved to repeat the number of days since the Maize and Blue had last beaten the Scarlet and Gray. Before November 26, 2011, it had been 2,925 days, and the Buckeyes were always happy let you know. (The Columbus Dispatch, which follows Ohio State football, kept a ticker on their page that reminded everyone of the number of days, but yesterday they had to change it.) This game means everything in the world to both teams. Some will say that it actually means more to Ohio State, because they don't really have another rival that keeps them up at night, but it means plenty to Michigan. And after eight years, the number of days that Michigan had last beaten Ohio State goes to zero.

Not surprisingly, Ohio State fans, who often can dish trash-talk out but can't ever seem to take it, have a million excuses. They "congratulate" Michigan fans that it took the Wolverines eight years to beat the Buckeyes. Yet they forget—understandably, given the nature of this rivalry, that you only see what you want to see—that Michigan dominated the rivalry not so long ago when John Cooper was the Buckeyes' head coach, that no matter how good Ohio State would be Michigan would always be better, and when the rivalry first began back in the late 1890s, Michigan once beat Ohio State 86-0.

But see, tell a Buckeye about that, and you'll get a healthy helping of context. 1890s football was not like ours is today. Yet we could use the same argument of context for Ohio State's eight year reign of dominance. It had been four years of an Ohio State winning streak between Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr—legitimately, and you'll be hard pressed to find a reasonable Michigan fan unwilling to give the Buckeyes props—but the dominance extended to seven (with one Buckeye win vacated, appropriately) because Michigan selected the wrong coach to renew the rivalry. Now, Michigan has obviously selected the right one, and the reign of dominance has ended.

You won't find too many instances of Schadenfreude from Ohio State's fan base after this game, however. The rational ones fully expected a loss, and most of them are content with entertaining the rumors that Urban Meyer will be the Ohio State next head coach instead. They'd prefer to think about that than what had happened in the Big House. A few weeks after he resigned, Jim Tressel told the Buckeye faithful that Michigan would lose. In fact, he practically guaranteed it. "Don't forget," he said encouragingly, but with a distinct tone of hatred that he no longer needed to hide. "November 26, we're going to kick their ass!" Well, as it turns out, Mr. Tressel... you were wrong. Payback sucks, doesn't it?

After the 40-34 win against Ohio State, Michigan fans everywhere uttered the same phrase: it's about time.

If anyone ever doubted Brady Hoke, they probably don't now. Within a year, he has changed so dramatically the play of the Michigan football team. Last year they were determined but uncompetitive. This year, they were still determined, but because they were competitive, they won a lot of games—the most important of which was Ohio State—putting Hoke's first season record at an astonishing 10-2 and the possibility (likeliness still to be determined) of going to a BCS bowl.

Hoke, of course, gives all the credit to the players, particularly the seniors. After the Wolverines clinched the win over Ohio State with the victory formation, Hoke went onto the field and was given a Gatorade bath that echoed San Diego State's program-changing victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. When a reporter asked Hoke what it felt like for him to win ten games, Hoke said, "Oh, that doesn't matter. I'm happy for those kids. That's what this game's all about." He also said, in a later press conference, when asked about Urban Meyer as the potential next coach of Ohio State, "You know, the good thing about coaches...we don't do the competing. It's the kids. It's the guys on the field."

Yet it is impossible, especially after what we have witnessed over the past three to four years, to discredit the effect of having the right coaching staff. The fact that Brady Hoke is Michigan's head coach is precisely the difference. Under Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines got worse defensively each year, and by the time they faced Ohio State at season's end, they never stood a chance. There is no doubt that the players wanted a win, even then. So why didn't they win? It was not like they didn't care and suddenly in 2011 decided that they were going to work hard and do the right things on the field. That passion has always been there. It's what keeps the players going day to day. It's why they play the game.

The reason they are winning, however, is because Hoke's staff has done a fantastic job preparing them. You can have all the passion and willpower in the world, but if you aren't executing good fundamentals, you're not going to play effectively, and ultimately you're not going to win. Hoke came in and taught the players what they needed to learn, so that by the time they faced Ohio State, they'd be ready, and they'd be competitive. Thanks to Tressel (and Rodriguez, to some degree, as he must endure at least some blame given the radical change we've seen recently), the Buckeyes were used to winning, but this year it wasn't going to be so easy. (Don't feel too bad for Rodriguez, by the way. He's got another BCS coaching job.)

Hoke also emphasized the rivalry more palpably since day one. He was asked about it in his introductory press conference, a time when he won a lot of people over because it was an opportunity for him to show his passion. He ended every team meeting with "Beat Ohio." And, of course, much like Woody Hayes only referred to Michigan as "that school up north," Hoke will only refer to Ohio State as "Ohio." However, unlike Hayes, Hoke has an incredible respect for Ohio State and won't hesitate to admit it.

I'm very proud to have Brady Hoke as Michigan's head coach. Most Michigan fans are, especially since in his first year he has snapped the most frustrating losing streak in Michigan's history. I also say "he" and give him credit because he justly deserves it. Bo Schembechler was given credit for upsetting Ohio State in 1969. The head coach prepares and motivates the team, the players go and execute. 

It is an often unbalanced system, where coaches are rarely recognized for victories but are almost unequivocally given blame for failures. The seniors and the players did a fantastic job, and they deservingly get their credit from Hoke (as well as everyone else), but it was Hoke who transformed the team, not the team which transformed itself. That's why you have coaches in the first place. The buying-in to Hoke's methods combined with a staff that competently coaches has resulted in a good transition and an even quicker turnaround. The demands of trust and hard work were needed and met on both sides.

The victory over Ohio State obviously means more than just one thing. It validates that Hoke was the right hire and is the right man for the job. The man who hired him, athletic director Dave Brandon, admitted that he was actually a little surprised on how well Hoke has done in such a short amount of time—considering the state of the program when he inherited it. 

"Coming off the disappointments of last year, particularly with the performance of our defense, I would have expected it would have taken us longer to be in a position where we have a shot at a BCS bowl berth and a shot at a hugely successful season," Brandon said on a radio show the week before the Ohio State-Michigan game, unaware that Michigan was going to snap the losing streak that Saturday. "Brady has done exactly what I hoped he would do, exactly what I expected him to do, and maybe a little faster than I thought it could be done."

Which brings us to the much larger point. The win against Ohio State confirms Hoke as Michigan's Man, but it also puts a stamp on this being a completely new era. It allows us to look at the night game against Notre Dame as the beginning of a great season, rather than as a repeat of last year. I'll be hesitant to say that "Michigan is back" as Detroit News writer Bob Wojnowski does, or at least "back" in the sense that Michigan is the dominating, national championship contender it was more than a decade ago. Yes, this team has progressed, but it still has a long way to go. What Michigan is now is a team that has a firmer sense of direction and, perhaps even more importantly, a firmer sense of identity.

In the Rodriguez era there was more uncertainty: every game could be lost, and Michigan didn't really scare anybody. If anything, the win over Ohio State proves that Michigan, as a program, can make strides to improve and become as excellent as we remember. I don't know what it was—and a lot of people just blame Rodriguez—but the last years' teams were always full of hope, seemingly ready to make a stride, and then could not get it done. Seeing that year after year was not only frustrating, it was disheartening.

Had Michigan lost to Ohio State, it may not have been as bad as I initially predicted. Michigan would have still been 9-3, a vast improvement over any of the Rodriguez years, but there would have remained that impending sense of uncertainty. Can Michigan ever beat Ohio State, we'd ask? We would go into 2012 never fully sure that Michigan would do well against Alabama in that season opener. Most would probably predict a blowout loss. Let's not go crazy: Michigan still could lose (a loss against Alabama is always possible)but now we can say it's not a foregone conclusion. We don't have any reason to be afraid or uncertain. The coaches have a plan, and they're going to carry it out, and the program is going to be successful.

It has a head coach who is devoted heart-and-soul to the program, the university, and the team. He is competent and demands competence. That's what we've known Michigan to be for so long, but because we fell away from that for the past three years, and we fell away badly, we stopped expecting it. Some of us even stopped believing it could happen. Yet we can see it now, the direction in which the program is headed. We know that Michigan is going to be fine, but we always should have known. There was a head coach who knew all along, and he knew why, and he tried to tell us the reason a long time ago. It was simple and elegant, as most powerful things are.

This is Michigan, he said. That's why.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Season's End Will Determine Hoke's Legacy

Yep, we're talking about that subject again.

All eyes will be on the Big House this Saturday, as Brady Hoke leads the 9-2 Michigan Wolverines onto the field. They will attempt to win against Ohio State, something Michigan has not done since 2003.

The losing streak against the Buckeyes has been painful and frustrating. Every year (except maybe 2008), Michigan had a legitimate chance to snap it and start to tip the rivalry in their favor—or at least make the rivalry interesting again. Instead, it was the same old story, and Ohio State won year after year.

Michigan came into the 2009 contest 5-6 but at home. A win against Ohio State would've meant the Wolverines could finish 6-6, hardly acceptable given Michigan's tradition, but it would definitely been enough to salvage the season emotionally. Michigan would have been bowl eligible, and fans would have felt better about Rich Rodriguez. At least, they would have said, he got this one done. It may have even been seen as Michigan finally turning the corner: Rodriguez, they would have thought, was finally making strides as Michigan's head coach. He would go onto a bowl and may win that one. It would be 6-6, but it would be a turnaround from the disastrously unthinkable 3-9 2008 season, where the Wolverines suffered confusing loss after confusing loss. It would be 6-6, but it would have been enough. It would have been a win against Ohio State. They didn't; Michigan finished 5-7.

2010 was the same story. After a fantastic start, Michigan lost to Michigan State for the third year in a row, and fans realized that the Wolverines' porous defense could not stop anybody. But perhaps it could rally together against the Buckeyes, who were looking for a BCS bowl berth. More importantly, it would give Rich Rodriguez that eighth win he so desperately needed. It was year three, and he needed eight wins. Writers were already saying he'd be fired if he lost that game. Rodriguez's Wolverines had squeaked themselves into bowl eligibility, but a victory against Ohio State would have really allowed everyone a collective sigh of relief. Instead, because of a completely inept defense and a Denard Robinson that was managing injury after a season of constant beat downs, the Wolverines lost again to the Buckeyes. They lost in their bowl game, too.

It was curtains for Rodriguez. Everybody, even his staunchest supporters (and, surprisingly, there were many), could see that. They may have protested, but on some level they knew there was no way Rodriguez could possibly be retained. There would be nothing but uncertainty for the 2011 season, and that's something that the Wolverines certainly did not need. That prospect was also obviously unacceptable to David Brandon.

There are hardly games that coaches are more harshly judged by than this one. There are hardly games that mean more, too. Every school has its rivalries, but Michigan vs. Ohio State is so different because it is often (if not always) the barometer for each season's merit. If Notre Dame goes 1-11 but defeats USC, it is still considered a lasting disappointment. One victory, even against the hated Trojans, cannot avenge a ridiculously dreadful season. Yet if Ohio State goes 1-11 but defeats Michigan, it is considered a lasting success. Rather than talk about how the team only got one win or lost eleven games, they'd say this was the team that lost every game except the one that truly mattered. And someone else would add: we can sleep soundly now. The bizarrely fanatical nature of this rivalry means precisely that their ridiculously dreadful year was avenged.

For Michigan and Ohio State, the season so often is this game.

Michigan needs to win this one because they flat-out deserve it. The Wolverines have endured so much from hiring/firing of Rodriguez, to the attrition and bad press, to the constant unequivocal slaughters every year at the hands of their hated archrivals. On a deeper level, Michigan doesn't just need to win for itself, but for the rivalry. As much as Michigan's players deserve a win, the rivalry deserves it more. Michigan vs. Ohio State has not been interesting since 2006. The Buckeyes have had an unchecked reign of dominance for more than six years. Despite the fact that Michigan deserves a triumph here if only to make the rivalry interesting again, not to mention how the Wolverines have fought so hard to earn it, Buckeye fans (in the midst of a 6-5 season) are frustratingly confident that Ohio State will not only win this game but will win it convincingly.

What's even more frustrating is that it could happen. Michigan was the undisputed Big Ten champion in 2004, coming into the game 11-1, yet they lost to a mediocre Buckeye squad in Columbus. In 2006, the Wolverines and the Buckeyes entered the contest each undefeated, ranked No. 2 and No.1 respectively, and every Michigan fan in America had had enough of this losing streak to Ohio State. On top of that, Michigan wasn't just playing to stop the losses and potentially go to a national championship, they were also playing for Bo Schembechler, who died the night before the game. The Wolverines lost anyway.

A year later, the 2007 contest was Mike Hart and Chad Henne's last best chance to win one game against Ohio State. They lost, and Buckeye fans still sing about the overconfident, trash-talking Mike Hart's 0-4 record to the Scarlet and Gray. Then came Rich Rodriguez, and instead of turning the tables in the rivalry, the losing streak only got worse. With each game against Ohio State, the stakes to win got bigger and bigger, but for the wrong reasons. In 2006 the stakes were to snap an irritating losing streak and go to national championship and re-establish Michigan's place as a college football power. In 2010 it was just desperation. The Wolverines had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and yet they still lost.

Unlike 2008-2010, the 2011 game against Ohio State could tell a very different story. For the first time since 2007, the Wolverines are 8.5 point favorites and are legitimate picks to win. (Michigan was picked to win every time since 2007, even in 2008, on the sheer nature that balance needed to return to the rivalry. It never happened.) Much like the Wolverines in 2009, Ohio State enters the game with a true freshman at quarterback, and a winning season on the line. (The 2009 Wolverines were fighting for bowl eligibility, at 5-6. The Buckeyes here are 6-5. The stakes are quite different, but they are also quite the same.)

Lloyd Carr was placed in the pressure cooker for two reasons: he lost to Appalachian State and he lost to Ohio State four times in a row. He was supposedly forced into retirement, but official history is that he left on his own terms. Rich Rodriguez did not, and the rivalry games are a big reason why.

The entire year, Michigan fans have been hoping Brady Hoke would make things right again. Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr all won their first games against Ohio State. It was fitting, because they were "Michigan Men." Almost equally fittingly, Rodriguez lost because he wasn't, some say. Brady Hoke, an obvious Michigan Man, has the chance to solidify his legacy at Michigan. A victory over Ohio State would be the biggest kind of fulfillment this season and Hoke's status could ask for.

Ramzy Nasrallah, perhaps the sole reasonable Ohio State blogger, who has a perplexingly immense amount of respect for both Michigan and particularly Brady Hoke, believes that this game is more than winnable for Hoke, but given the recent history of the rivalry and the way Rodriguez's squads performed each year, the stakes could not be higher.

"[Hoke] is now at the brink of a ten-win season in what had been scheduled to be a year of cleaning up the wreckage of the last three years," Ramzy wrote in a recent blog post. "Neutralize Ohio State to end his first run and the tone for the Hoke era is established. It would be the ultimate validation of his stewardship and confirmation of his methods. Should Michigan lose—as an 8.5-point favorite at home to an Ohio State team that is as listless as it is lacking any cohesion—then not only is Hoke's eventual legend weakened, but the success of the 2011 season will be questioned...It has been almost 3,000 days since the Wolverines closed a season in an acceptable fashion. Hoke has to beat Ohio State; he reconfirmed the importance of doing so and made it a job requirement. Michigan hasn't had a finisher for too long. He finds himself selling the same bill of goods that Tressel presented in 2001. If Hoke fails to close as Tressel did, it impacts everything he is trying to do both in Ann Arbor and Ohio."

Jim Tressel began his era at Ohio State with a 7-5 first season, but that seventh win was against Michigan, and that made all the difference. No one was disappointed with the overall season record, and before long Tressel had his squads competing for national championships. Ohio State's interim coach Luke Fickell stands upon the brink of an almost-identical scenario. Lose and he has no choice but to make way for the next Ohio State head coach while being undeservingly despised; win and his first season is remembered just as fondly as Tressel's was, and Fickell becomes a legitimate candidate for the job.

Hoke, as Ramzy points out, has arguably more on the line. In a time when Michigan has faced so little certainty and has even less security, a win against Ohio State is crucial. Under Rodriguez the Wolverines faced increased criticism and anxiety year after year, all of which was punctuated more harshly and sharply because of a loss to the Buckeyes. It didn't just put a sour taste in their mouths because it was often the last game of the season; it brought everything (absolutely everything) into question—and it ended up costing Rodriguez his job. Eventually it will be same for Hoke, if he cannot end the season with a much-deserved victory. Michigan will go to a bowl game, yes, and how it fares against that opponent will be important, but it almost won't matter if the Wolverines can't beat Ohio State when the Buckeyes are at their weakest.

Bo Schembechler solidified his legacy with a victory against Ohio State that became a defining moment in both his career and Michigan's history. It came after a span of mediocrity, and with Ohio State entering as defending national champions, people were skeptical. When Michigan won, that skepticism vanished, and the players carried Schembechler out on their shoulders. Now, the Wolverines are looking to rebound after a worse span of history than what Schembechler inherited. It would certainly be a defining victory for Brady Hoke.

It would mean even more to Michigan. It would mean everything.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arizona Hires Rich Rodriguez

Former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez was hired by the University of Arizona to coach the Wildcats' football team, a report said Monday. The news of the hire broke from a deliberate tweet by Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, showing a picture of Rodriguez and his family wearing Arizona hats.

Rodriguez spent the past six or so months working as an analyst and commentator for CBS Sports, after being fired from Michigan on January 5, 2011, for posting a 15-22 record in three years with the Wolverines. He also had a combined 0-6 record against Michigan State and Ohio State. In his first two years at Michigan, the Wolverines posted losing seasons and did not go to a bowl. Rodriguez's squad finally achieved bowl eligibility in 2010, but were humiliated 52-14 in the Gator Bowl by Mississippi State.

Meanwhile, former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, who dug Arizona out of the ground and after five years finally brought them to bowl games, but never seemed competitive for the Pac-12 championship, was fired by athletic director Greg Byrne in the middle of the 2011 season. The reason for Stoops' dismissal is generally believed to be his demeanor on the sidelines (i.e. frequently losing his temper) and, perhaps more importantly, starting the season 1-5. Stoops was replaced mid-season with interim coach Tim Kish, the defensive coordinator. Under Kish, the Wildcats defeated UCLA and hated rival Arizona State.

When he fired Stoops, athletic director Greg Byrne said he wanted to take Arizona to the next level, he wanted Arizona competing for Rose Bowls and Pac-12 championships, and while grateful to Stoops for building the program from scratch, Byrne also said that it was time to move on. Byrne then conducted a national search that included former Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who reportedly turned down the job, and former Oregon head coach, Mike Bellotti. However, a lot of this could have merely been a smoke screen, as Byrne said when he started the hire not to trust any source unless it comes directly from him. Two days ago, Byrne announced through his Twitter account that Rich Rodriguez would be the next head football coach at Arizona.

It is a fresh start for both sides, and a chance for bigger and better things. Arizona fans were getting fed up with Stoops' sideline antics, which weren't being tempered by victories, and frustration built up as the Wildcats seemed mired in mediocrity. A change appeared necessary. Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez, who said repeatedly while at CBS Sports that he hoped someday for an opportunity to be a head coach again, wanted the chance to repair his reputation. Michigan had moved on and was experiencing success. It would only seem fair that he should be able to move on, too. He had been knocked down, sure, but he wanted to get up, dust himself off, and get back on the horse.

Initially, that meant that Rodriguez might have to settle for a less glamorous coaching job or a position as someone's offensive coordinator. Rodriguez himself has always maintained that he wants to be a head coach, but he was just hoping for the opportunity. There were a few that came along. Rodriguez's struggles at Michigan were not enough to keep Tulane from being interested in him. (Rodriguez had been Tulane's offensive coordinator from 1997-1998, where he helped the team to a 12-0 season, a record of success it has not experienced since.) With few options on the table, Rodriguez considered taking the job.

Yet Tulane is not in a BCS conference and, were Rodriguez to become Tulane's head coach, it would be a conscious step back. Tulane's place in a weak conference means that, even undefeated, it can not compete for national championships, which are Rodriguez's ultimate ambition. Rodriguez had reached the pinnacle of college coaching—Michigan—and now it seemed like he'd have to completely start over.

Then, much to Rodriguez's surprise, Arizona came calling. The Wildcats are the only team in what was formerly the Pac-10 to never even make an appearance in the Rose Bowl. They have also been desperate for success ever since John Mackovic cratered the program with abysmal seasons in the early 2000s. Mike Stoops was hired to fix the mess, and he did, but then could not meet the program's newfound expectations. The savvy Greg Byrne would be cautious in his decision about the next guy. Fans were generally optimistic because Byrne had hired Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, a decision which made Byrne a hot commodity as athletic director and helped him get the position at Arizona.

In the press conference where he introduced Rich Rodriguez, Byrne said that he considered a variety of candidates and wanted someone who fit his criteria. Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller talked to Byrne and suggested Rodriguez, calling him "the hungriest guy out there" and "the guy that the other coaches don't want coming to the Pac-12." It also helped that Rodriguez received a glowing recommendation from Urban Meyer, who told Byrne that Rodriguez was "one of the five greatest minds in college football" and said that it would be "an incredible hire for the University of Arizona."

Not surprisingly, given Rodriguez's history, Byrne had some concerns. There was the matter of Rodriguez's 15-22 record at Michigan, his trouble with the NCAA for practice time, and the fact that Rodriguez seems like a magnet for lawsuits. Byrne did his homework, however. He heard Rodriguez's side of the story and checked with the NCAA and compliance office at Michigan to verify it. He also wisely picked up a copy of John U. Bacon's "Three and Out" book, which provides a rigorously detailed, in-depth analysis and exploration of Rodriguez's time at Michigan, why he struggled, and ultimately why he was fired. When Rodriguez learned that Byrne had read "Three and Out," he was surprised. "I think it helps you," Byrne told him.

According to Rodriguez in his introductory press conference, he and Byrne first talked face-to-face about Arizona at his home in Detroit, Michigan. They also had breakfast in New York at a "secret restaurant" to discuss the job. Rodriguez was initially concerned that someone might recognize him, but after the restaurant became packed with customers, no one seemed to notice. Then, towards the end of Rodriguez's meeting with Byrne, a Michigan alumnus noticed Rodriguez and enthusiastically asked, "Hey, Coach Rod! What are you doing here [in New York]?" Rodriguez told him that he had a TV gig with CBS, which was true. The Michigan alumnus did not recognize Byrne. "That would have blown his cover," Rodriguez told the crowd at the press conference on Tuesday, earning a chuckle.

At first it may appear dubious that Rodriguez would be a good fit at a place where expectations were so dangerously high. Then, however, with a little research, one can find that Arizona's expectations, which are squarely on the Rose Bowl, are not greatly insurmountable. Arizona is in the Pac-12 South Division, the weaker of the two, especially since its only two contenders are an ineligible USC and an inconsistent Arizona State. (UCLA is in the contest by sheer luck alone.) The two most difficult teams in the Pac-12 are Oregon and Stanford, but both are in the North Division. Arizona could lose to both and still play in the Pac-12 Championship if it gets by USC and takes care of the weaker teams in the South Division. Getting there would not be like facing the stout teams in the Big Ten's Legends Division.

There is also Rodriguez's spread offense, which seems perfect for the Pac-12 conference. The teams in the conference appear to prefer speed over size—it is not the beefy Big Ten—and several teams already run a spread-type offense, with Oregon as the leader among them. (By the way, if you didn't already know, Rodriguez is one of the original architects of the spread.) The only team that actually has a traditional power-running offense is Stanford. Unlike the Big Ten, where spread teams tend to struggle (Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska), Rodriguez should do very well here. It will be a lot more like West Virginia than like Michigan.

Rodriguez also inherits a team that he does not need to completely transform in order to run his offense. While the Wildcats graduate senior quarterback Nick Foles, Rodriguez gets to utilize the talents of running quarterback Matt Scott, a definite dual-threat who will be a red-shirt senior in 2012. Rodriguez also gets Ka'Deem Carey, a speedster at running back. Mike Stoops' Air Raid offense is similar to Rodriguez's spread except that it prefers a heavy passing game with as many as five wide receivers. The transition to Rodriguez's spread-option will not take nearly as long as it did at Michigan and will not be as nearly as painful. This is probably the best situation Rodriguez hope could for.

What is even better about Arizona and what ultimately helps Rodriguez is that the program's identity is not so rooted in tradition as Michigan's was with the ideal and security of the "Michigan Man." The Arizona fans don't care if Rodriguez has ties to the program. In fact, given that previous Arizona coaches who did have ties were unsuccessful, many actually prefer Rodriguez on the simple notion that he doesn't. Rodriguez will not have to constantly combat the idea that he doesn't belong. Arizona, which is traditionally known as a basketball school, is still looking for a sense of identity in football. It is practically a blank slate. Rodriguez will be able to shape the image of Arizona's program instead of struggling to uphold it.

He still faces some initial challenges. The first is finding a competent and suitable defensive coordinator. Rodriguez will either have to find someone who can mesh with his philosophy, or he will have to find someone who can coach defense well and run that system independent of Rodriguez's control. (The latter is often pushed for by fans especially because Rodriguez is an offensive mind and because his two defensive coordinators at Michigan—Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson—had hardly any experience with the 3-3-5 defense Rodriguez insisted they run.) A primary target for Rodriguez must be Jeff Casteel, defensive coordinator at West Virginia, who was on Rodriguez's staff there but did not follow him to Michigan. Casteel could easily leave West Virginia, since he has no ties or particular allegiance to Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers' current head coach.

The defense for Rodriguez was dooming at Michigan, and it is going to be the most important question he is asked until he is successful. In a one-on-one interview with the Tucson Citizen, Rodriguez was judiciously asked about his plans for defense, particularly if he intends on retaining the 3-3-5 he had at West Virginia where it was effective and at Michigan where it failed.

"I like to run the odd front because it gives you versatility, but even the 3-3-5 now has morphed into a 3-4," Rodriguez said. "I'm going to try to hire the best defensive coordinator I can, and if his schemes and philosophy can match some of the parameters I give him, then we'll do that. I just want to have a great coach and a great scheme. Defensively, things are a little different. In this day and age you have to have more of a variety because one week you might see a spread team and the next week you see two tight ends and I-backs. In this league, you'll see that with Oregon and Stanford. I'm not married, so to speak, to a 3-3-5."

Rodriguez has apparently learned a great deal from his struggles and mistakes at Michigan, and he knows what kind of questions are going to be asked. At his introductory press conference, Rodriguez stressed the importance of the Arizona State rivalry and that he will emphasize it every day. He also said his primary goal for the program is winning the Rose Bowl, a statement which provoked cheers. Rodriguez did not spend time dishing out false promises, however. Though he had many goals, his only actual guarantee was that Arizona would get his best effort and the best effort of his staff.

Realizing from his experience at Michigan that he needs all the initial support he can get, Rodriguez also appealed to the former players, a wise move that he had neglected to do when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. That disconnect did not help him through the struggles of his first few years, and by the time Rodriguez realized how crucial it was to have the former players on his side, it was probably too late. This time, at Arizona, he was intent on not making the same error.

"There's a lot of great players," he said. "I want all you lettermen that are here to know that you have an open invitation to come back and visit with me and visit with our staff. I think it's important that if you gave of yourself as a student-athlete here, and I know all the other coaches feel the same way, that you feel welcome back. And you will. I guarantee you'll feel that, and you're welcome back immediately. And you always have been. I know that, but just because I did not go to the University of Arizona and this is my first time here, don't think for an instant that I don't want you around, because I do. Now I can't let you call the plays, unless you're on the staff, but I do want you around. There's a lot a guys that I want to know. I want you all to tell me, to help me have success here. You know, I want to win the Rose Bowl—at the University of Arizona."

At Arizona, that part about the Rose Bowl may be more important than the part about the former players, since Arizona is not as rigid as Michigan. Again, there is no such thing as an "Arizona man." Still, his appeal to them was shrewd and well-prepared. He still doesn't know everything about Arizona. The difference is, this time, that won't hurt him.

If Rodriguez's first challenge was hiring an effective defensive coordinator, then recruiting will be his second. He has recruited out of Arizona before, gaining commitments from Taylor Lewan and Craig Roh, both from Scottsdale. However, the fact that Rodriguez did not recruit heavily in the area is a concern for some. He recruited a number of players from California and Texas, but even he admits that he still prefers Florida. Rodriguez acknowledged the importance of establishing a recruiting base in Arizona and locking down the state. It will be imperative that Rodriguez hire a West Coast oriented staff or retain some current Arizona assistants (he knew quarterbacks coach Chris Scelfo while at Tulane) to make up for his lack of experience. These are hardly difficult challenges, and Rodriguez will have overcome them within a couple years.

For Michigan fans, Rodriguez has long been a polarizing figure. The mere mention of his name sends us into a flurry of emotions. Some consider him a good person, a genuine guy, while others consider him scum marked by the humorlessly predictable moniker "Dick Rod." The notion of whether Rodriguez and Michigan were a bad fit is hotly debated, and even today there are still those who believe that Rodriguez should be the Wolverines' coach. That is the nature of Rich Rodriguez: there will always be those who love him, and there will always be those who hate him. It is hardly universal either way, though. West Virginians' hatred of Rodriguez is borne out of love because he made them so successful and left for a better opportunity. Yet he was beloved in Morgantown when he was its coach. His departure from his alma mater was a cut that ran deep, and it was almost cathartic to make him the bad guy. It was certainly expected.

His time at Michigan had a similar effect. Rodriguez produced the worst seasons in the history of the program, punctuated with the worst defenses. Yet even before that, Rodriguez was on the ropes because he was such an outsider. His hire alone had so many implications. It meant so many things would change, not just in Michigan's brand name offense but the very identity of what it was to be a "Michigan Man." Though Rodriguez was not the first outsider Michigan hired, he was the first departure from the school of Schembechler. The Michigan faithful had long become comfortable with the Legacy of Bo. That, to them, was Michigan football. Rodriguez, to those who hated him, was a threat to that.

Rodriguez's mistakes at Michigan are frequently discussed, yet John U. Bacon insists that Michigan committed just as many sins as Rodriguez. They did not embrace him. They did not give him full support. At a banquet in Ann Arbor in 2008, one former player got up to the lectern and said, "I better not see any of your guys from West Virginia on our sidelines! This is our program!" He was never reprimanded.

Yet Rodriguez will doubtfully be remembered as the coach who didn't get a fair shake. I will personally remember Rodriguez as the guy not who squandered Michigan's tradition, but who didn't understand it—or at least did not understand it fully. When you become the head coach of Michigan, you are given the keys to the kingdom. You are the keeper of the legacy of the coaches like Yost and Schembechler, who built Michigan into the winningest program in college football. This is why so many people ground the identity of the program in its history, and this is why they were so affected by Rodriguez. It was an incredible departure.

One of the best kept secrets about Rodriguez (largely his own doing) was that he embraced Michigan's tradition. He frequently utilized it in the locker room to motivate players. He talked about it constantly with them. What Rodriguez didn't do, and why so many people didn't think he was a Michigan Man, was take that devotion to the public, and show the fans that he cared about all the right things. If you put Rodriguez's locker room speeches to the Wolverines next to Brady Hoke's press conferences, it's hard to tell the difference.

Rodriguez will instead be remembered for bringing Michigan fans a newfound appreciation for Lloyd Carr, whose legacy some felt did not get the appropriate amount of respect it deserved when Carr relinquished his position, despite the loss to Appalachian State and the losing streak to Ohio State. Rodriguez's 3-9 season of 2008 makes Carr's 8-4 season of 2007 look like unparalleled success. Rodriguez's seasons never reached eight wins at Michigan, and Carr is now in the College Football Hall of Fame. He is the revered figure his players wanted him to be, while Rodriguez is seen as the guy who created a mess that Brady Hoke had to come in with Greg Mattison and fix. For Michigan, the old ways are back, and no one in Ann Arbor could be happier.

Admittedly, we at the Michigan Fanatic give Rodriguez a lot of heat for his decisions, but these opinions and statements are largely based in the result of those decisions rather than a simple, personal bias or hatred. Personally, I don't hate Rodriguez. I believe he is a genuine guy who gave three years of his life to the Michigan football program in a way more intimate than any fan ever will. He was something most people will never be: he was Michigan's head coach. He was closer than any of us.

His firing was necessary, because I could not look at 2011 and see that we had a chance to win the Big Ten under him, but I did not want Rodriguez to fall into an eternal pit of despair after he was fired. Thankfully, he didn't. CBS hired him, and within a year, he has found another coaching job at a program in a BCS conference. His stint at Michigan will be but a blip on his career. After everything we experienced with Rodriguez during his time here, and everything that he experienced from us, the man deserves some success and happiness.

At Arizona, I hope he finds it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolverines Capitalize on Nebraska's Mistakes in 45-17 Win

Did anyone see this win coming? Well, I certainly didn't.

Speculation in college football is often a cruel mistress. We often try to make bold predictions and at other times still be skeptical. We look at games on the schedule and where we are as a team and think, "There's no way we can win that one." Well, after Michigan defeated Nebraska in a 45-17 rout, I looked pretty silly for saying before the season that the Wolverines only a 17% chance of winning. I also said that Michigan wasn't a dominating team. Both appear to be wrong.

Well, sort of: I still won't say that Michigan is a dominating team, but I will say that they are significantly improved. Significantly. It almost looks like a completely different squad out there. That's what's so baffling: these are by and large the same players that Rich Rodriguez had during the 2010 season, where Michigan went 7-5 and lost those seven games (as well as a sixth in the Gator Bowl) in the most embarrassing way possible. Last year, Michigan was ranked 112th in yards allowed. Now they're ranked 14th in total defense. There is no question you can ask except: What the hell happened?!

A lot of it is Brady Hoke, and the rest of it is Greg Mattison. (Also, side props to defensive backs coach Curt Mallory.) To change a defense so dramatically in the span of one year is beyond remarkable. I'm still blown away by it. During the game against Nebraska, former Florida head coach and current ESPN color commenter Urban Meyer said that Michigan had "the most improved defense in America." He is certainly right.

The reason why the Wolverines beat Nebraska so convincingly is largely because of three words: time of possession. Michigan had the ball for roughly 42-43 minutes of the entire game, while Nebraska had it for 17-18 minutes. That's the defense keeping Nebraska off the field—the Cornhuskers didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter—and the Michigan offense maintaining control of the ball and wearing the Nebraska defense down. Fans saw what happens when Michigan is able to establish a running game: Fitzgerald Toussaint powered his way over Nebraska, and quarterback Denard Robinson had a good game on the ground too. That threat, combined with Denard's good passing game (he had a beautiful touchdown pass to wide receiver Martavious Odoms at the fifty to the endzone), was too much for Nebraska to handle.

Michigan still faced its share of challenges. The power had gone out in Michigan Stadium and players were unable to see the play clock. The officials used hand signals to show when it was counting down. At least one time Denard Robinson suffered a delay of game penalty because he had watched the umpire instead of the official hand-signaling the countdown. Brady Hoke, however, took the blame for the mistake. "The first one, the penalty we had, that's on me," he said. "I should have called a timeout. For me not to do that, that's bad coaching." (The Michigan fan base later helped Denard out by vocally counting down the play clock. The power was eventually restored to Michigan Stadium.)

Detroit News writer Bob Wojnowski, who had called for the firing of Rich Rodriguez last November after the loss to Ohio State, says that Brady Hoke has brought Michigan back to prominence. "They pounded with power and attacked with animosity," Wojnowski wrote of the Michigan-Nebraska game in his weekly column. "On a chilly November afternoon, you could see it again, and you finally can say it again. Michigan's football identity is back, quicker than expected. And also just in time. This wasn't the final piece of evidence, but it certainly was the most compelling. What happened Saturday in Michigan Stadium is what used to happen. A big, physical foe rolled into town and ran smack into a wall of pads. The Wolverines' 45-17 rout of the Cornhuskers was their best game of the year, by far, and the loudest statement of the Brady Hoke era, by far."

Was this game a statement? Yes, it was. Michigan showed a full Big House against Nebraska exactly what they would have been if they had capitalized on the mistakes of Iowa and Michigan State. They would have easily won. They established a running game and stopped Nebraska from running the ball. It seems like an old, tired adage, but right now it feels like nothing could be closer to the truth. The tougher team usually wins.

Make no mistake: Nebraska had a tough team against Michigan. Quarterback Taylor Martinez ran effectively several times, showing the speed that put him in Heisman talks early in the season, and when he saw a receiver run past Michigan's safeties, he threw a touchdown. However, Nebraska lost because it committed too many errors on special teams and could not offset Michigan's seemingly magical ability to force turnovers. (The Cornhuskers had five turnovers, while the Wolverines had one.) It was a welcome game between two teams who argue over who was the true National Champion in 1997. If this game was the decider, Michigan won.

During the entire game, Chris Spielman and Urban Meyer talked about how much of a threat Denard Robinson is when he is allowed to run. "He is a runner first and a passer second," Meyer said. They were also critical of the games when Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges decided to limit Robinson's carries, despite the reasoning that the coaches didn't want him to get injured. "If I'm the opposing coach," Spielman said, "I'm happy to see Devin Gardner come out."

Denard was mainly allowed to cut loose because it is that time of the season. Granted, he didn't carry the entire offense on his back as he did under Rich Rodriguez—and he'll be thanking Fitzgerald Toussiant for bearing the majority of the load—but Denard did get a lot of carries in this game largely because Michigan doesn't really have anything to lose. They won't be playing in the Big Ten championship, and the only regular-season game following this one is Ohio State, so why hold back? The trepidation that Denard Robinson will get injured before the game against the Buckeyes is now gone, and that means look out.

As much as this game was a satisfying victory, I think the main reason why it feels so good is because it's a sign of things to come. Spielman and Meyer also talked at length about the freshmen that are on the field on defense (Brennan Beyer, Blake Countess, Desmond Morgan, in particular) and how they're making impact plays. 

"When you have three true freshmen that are big time players and contributors on your defense, that kind of shows where a little bit of their talent might have been depleted on the defensive side over the years, and that shows what Brady Hoke is doing as far as recruiting," Spielman said. "And once they get the talent that they need at Michigan—they're a Michigan defense now—they'll really be a Michigan defense when that talent starts rolling in."

It's certainly an encouraging thought. It was an even better win—and, for these players, after everything they've been through, it was even more deserved. Michigan now stands at 9-2.