Monday, June 6, 2011

Brady Hoke Might Actually Be a Good Football Coach

Well, the Michigan football blogosphere has been pretty quiet lately.

It's the offseason, and there's so little going on that us Michigan fans who desperately crave some maize and blue news are left to little more than recruiting updates. And there are only so many times you can listen to the Michigan fight song or watch Michigan highlights on youtube before you need more. There are only so many times you can play the latest version of NCAA Football PS3/Xbox and bring the Wolverines to 30 straight national championships or smack around the haters in online dynasty before you start craving something more. Us Michigan fans crave Michigan, and we need our fix. Do you check Michigan football blogs every day? Do you run a daily (or hourly) google search of Michigan football, Brady Hoke, or Michigan recruiting? Do you wake up in the middle of the night and start singing The Victors?

You may have a problem. We are here to enable you.

So, because it's the offseason, and there's not much going on, we thought we'd bring you a little op-ed piece on Brady Hoke.

I'll admit, in the days when Rich Rodriguez's job hung in the balance, when the debate raged on about who might be Michigan's next football coach, I was uncertain about Brady Hoke. I wanted Jim Harbaugh. I would have settled for Les Miles. But Harbaugh's love for Michigan was overshadowed by his ambition for the NFL, and LSU was never going to let Les Miles slip away. (LSU had already lost Nick Saban to the Miami Dolphins, and now Saban coaches for Alabama.) My position was: if Dave Brandon could not get Harbaugh, then he should give Rodriguez one more year.

Then Brady Hoke entered the picture. Like many Michigan fans, I was up-in-arms about the hire. I thought it was a cop-out. I thought it was the third choice. I thought Brandon didn't try hard enough to get Harbaugh. I thought Michigan was screwed.

Then I saw Brady Hoke's first press conference, and everything changed. My friend had recommended that I see it, claiming that his roommate "did a total 180" from hating Hoke to loving him. I knew that meant I, who had similar feelings of uncertainty, had to see it too. I immediately went home and watched the press conference, and I knew that Hoke was the right hire. I sat back and echoed what everybody else had been saying: he gets it.

What does that even mean? It means that he understands exactly what Michigan football is. He understands that Ohio State is, first and foremost, the team to beat, the greatest rivalry Michigan has and the greatest rivalry in all of college football—maybe even the greatest in all of sports. He understands that Michigan's defense must be a priority in coaching, and that recruiting (while Michigan is a national brand) must come from your pipeline states of Ohio and Michigan. He understands that you must compete for the Big Ten title, you must beat Ohio State, and the rest will follow. And, for God sakes, you must be tough. You cannot get smacked around by Iowa and Wisconsin.

Hoke's understanding of this is perhaps the biggest thing that separates him from Rich Rodriguez. Did Rodriguez understand these things? His supporters will tell you that he did, but not in so many words, and probably not with the same level of passion. But this piece is on Brady Hoke, not Rich Rodriguez. Hoke understands these things so passionately because he loves Michigan in a way that perhaps only a Michigan Man can. That may be why Brandon wanted a Michigan Man over an outsider. That is why Hoke has and will connect with many Michigan fans in a way Rodriguez never did or never could. Hoke gets it.

While his press conference may have been enough to win me over, as it did the majority of the Michigan faithful, there is still roughly 14% or 15% of the Michigan fan base who probably think that Brady Hoke is not only a bad hire, but a worse coach when compared to Rich Rodriguez.

The reason: Hoke has an overall record of 47-50. Statistically, he has lost more games than he has won. The chief advocate of this reasoning is MGoBlog's Brian Cook, the eternal pessimist, who when new coaches were considered back in 2007 listed Brady Hoke among his Profiles in Cronyism post. Cook is also a die-hard Rodriguez supporter who believes that Rodriguez's innovations in offense were exactly what Michigan needed and now that Hoke has been hired Michigan has taken about twenty steps backward. He claims that the offensive numbers put up by Denard Robinson in 2010 prove this. (He may be forgetting, however, that Denard's explosiveness only worked when the opposing teams were not expecting it, as was the case with Connecticut and Notre Dame, but which obviously failed against Michigan State and Ohio State, where Denard put up at least half the rushing yards. They saw him coming.)

Cook recently put up another post called "Brady Hoke's Intricately Rendered Sculptures" which quietly admits that Hoke may (grr!) be doing a good job but which also attests that any success he will have is the result of the stage that Rich Rodriguez set. Although Cook claims not to be giving Hoke backhanded compliments, he says "the man poops magic." Sarcasm aside, that sounds as backhanded as you can get. He implies that much of Hoke's already achieved success has come from support from the now-friendly media because Hoke is simply not Rich Rodriguez. A kitten could have gotten the same support. It seems that Cook sees Rodriguez through such rosy-colored glasses that even if Hoke wins a national championship it will be because Rodriguez made everybody hate him so much that they had no free will but to love Hoke and thus give him the support and effort he needed to win that championship. Hoke, you owe Rich Rodriguez for all your success.

It pains me somewhat that Michigan fans like Brian do not genuinely see Brady Hoke as a good coach in his own right. When you see 47-50 superficially, Brian is right: it is supremely unimpressive. Hoke is not a sexy hire. However, when you analyze why that number is 47-50, and where Hoke was and what he did there, it is absolutely impressive.

Hoke left Michigan as an assistant to be the head coach of his alma mater, Ball State. Located in Muncie, Indiana, Ball State is not exactly on the list of any blue-chip prospects. It must recruit against Notre Dame, Purdue, and Indiana. Without any sizable talent, Hoke nevertheless coached the Cardinals to a 12-2 record by his sixth year. For Ball State, which had been one of the weakest MAC teams, such a record in one season is unbelievable. Ball State had not had a winning season of ten-plus victories since 1978. Before Hoke's 2007, Ball State had not had a winning season at all since 1996.

The point: It's tough to win at Ball State. It's not a program like Michigan. You can't compare Hoke's record at Ball State to Rodriguez's at West Virginia. Ball State is by nature a weaker team in a weaker conference that doesn't have the same (or, really, much at all) appeal for talented prospects. It does not mean that it produces weak coaches.

After Hoke went a shocking 12-2 at Ball State, he left for San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs compete against such tough teams as Utah, TCU, and Boise State. Before Hoke's arrival, San Diego State had not gone to a bowl game in twelve years. They had not won a bowl in forty-one years. In recruiting they are behind primarily USC and UCLA, but also Cal, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, and sometimes Texas. It was the same deal he had at Ball State: the really good players have a long list of stronger programs before they even consider San Diego State.

Yet in two years Hoke coached the Aztecs to their first winning season since 1998. In 2010, his team nearly defeated #2 TCU but lost 40-35. He did not get blown out. Perhaps most impressively, Hoke took his team to the Poinsetta Bowl and won, defeating Navy, 35-14. (Rodriguez, with loads more talent at Michigan, did not defeat Mississippi State in his bowl game, and was actually crushed 52-14.) Again, for San Diego State, Hoke's achievements are remarkable: he has taken programs which do not ordinarily win and helped them to victory. Despite the lack of highly-ranked talent, Hoke has used what he had and won a lot of football games.

Why? Because Brady Hoke might actually be a good football coach.

He does not have a catchy-sounding name like Rich Rodriguez. Nor does he talk as smoothly or as articulately. He is also not as photogenic.

Instead, Brady Hoke has an odd name, looks like the stereotypical football coach, and he talks like one too. He talks toughness. I have known only three football coaches personally in my life, and all of them sound like Brady Hoke, not like Rich Rodriguez. Wouldn't you rather have a coach that acts like a coach instead of a coach that acts like a politician? (For the record, I believe Rodriguez is a good football coach too.)

I'm actually surprised at how forgiving the media and the fan base have been of Brady Hoke, who looks curiously similar to Fred Flintstone. But I think they are forgiving not because they see him as a lovable idiot (and an idiot he is not), but perhaps because he reminds them of their own high school coach. More likely, it is because he reminds them of a Michigan football coach. As I said, personally, he reminds me of every football coach I ever met. And that's a good thing.

It shows he knows football. And when someone who knows football, knows how to win games with the players he has, also happens to think that Michigan is the greatest place on earth, all I can say is watch out.

Hoke has already proven himself at Michigan to a large degree. He has done what Rodriguez never did: he won over, almost unilaterally (depending on who you are), the fan base, and he has (to some degree) united the factions. He has brought on a stellar defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who previously was DC for the Baltimore Ravens and would have not come back to Michigan for anyone but Brady Hoke. He and Mattison have invigorated recruiting, surprised us by not only salvaging the 2011 class, but has also nabbed most of the best in-state prospects for 2012—infuriating the recruitniks of Michigan State. He also didn't shoo Denard away.

Hoke is a special guy. There's a reason why so many players vouch for him. (You may or may not know that he had something to do with recruiting Glen Steele, Charles Woodson, and Tom Brady.) He connects with players and keeps them in line. He shows them why it is a privilege to be at Michigan and to play for Michigan. He also knows the Big Ten.

Now, Hoke has the opportunity of a lifetime. Michigan is his dream job. He knows the expectations, but he doesn't expect it to be easy. But that's why Michigan is Michigan. It demands the best because it is the best. Hoke finally has the opportunity where recruiting is not a hugely uphill battle, as it was at Ball State and San Diego State. But probably, for him, Hoke has the opportunity to give back to the team, the program, the university that he loves so much.

And frankly, when you've got someone who is as good as Hoke is and loves Michigan as much as he does, there's no one better.

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