Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Problem is Ohio State, Not Just Tressel

Last Friday, July 22, the NCAA apparently bought Ohio State's weak defense that former coach Jim Tressel was solely responsible for the incident that cost him his career. They thus concluded that this case does not warrant either "failure to monitor" or "lack of institutional control," two charges that are considered the worst to receive for a college football program.

This is surprising to anyone who has followed the Jim Tressel scandal, where he lied deliberately and directly to the NCAA when he signed a compliance form saying that he didn't know five of his football players had committed violations while an email conversation with Chris Cicero later showed that he clearly did. When news broke of Tressel's knowledge, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith initially and firmly stated that Jim Tressel would not be fired because "this case, in [Gene Smith's] view, does not warrant it." Media outcry and pressure from the scandal showed that perhaps it did, and Tressel was forced to resign. (His resignation was later changed to retirement.)

Anyone who is a fan of integrity was furious by Gene Smith's initial response ("at the end of the day Jim Tressel is football our coach"), and now Ohio State's actions, because it shows their interest lies not in following the rules—as the NCAA should recognize—but in protecting their assets, their ability to win, and their ability to beat Michigan. They threw Tressel under the bus while at the same time waiving his initial fine of $250,000 and paying him the rest of his salary as a retirement benefit. It's the sort of hypocrisy that one would think the NCAA, as college football's self-proclaimed watchdog, would loathe. Instead, the NCAA bought it.

Buckeye fans will say that my hatred of Ohio State in this case comes solely from my bias as a Michigan fan. While to some degree this is true, I didn't always hate Ohio State with the fervor that I do today. In fact, for many years I respected Ohio State and thought they had a solid program. I found it really hard to speak ill about a team when the coach, Jim Tressel, beat Michigan with such humility and respect. 

There were Michigan fans I talked to who spoke about a grand conspiracy perpetrated by Tressel, Gene Smith, Gordon Gee, boosters, and Ohio State fans everywhere, where they did whatever it took to beat Michigan because they were obsessed with it, because nothing else mattered—not rules, not honor, nothing. The rumors were that Tressel and Ohio State regularly looked the other way when their players committed infractions, and anytime Tressel said he had no idea what was going on, that was a lie. The man was secretly scum, and his choirboy senator demeanor was just a front to make everyone believe otherwise.

Of course, I didn't care much for conspiracy theories, and that's exactly what I thought my friends were spewing—confusing and overly complex conspiracy theories because Ohio State was your rival and that's what you do. Or maybe it was because Tressel kept beating Michigan and they just couldn't deal with it, and this was their way of rationalizing the losses. So, for a while, I didn't pay much attention to what those Michigan fans were saying; it was just senseless drivel. Then, when it came out that Tressel had not only known about his players selling memorabilia for cash/tattoos but also lied about it, everything changed. If Tressel was really an upstanding guy, why would he so obviously cover something up? Wouldn't the honorable thing be to punish those young men because bad decisions have consequences?

It finally became clear to me that Tressel didn't really care about honor or integrity. The reason: he had pushed so hard for the NCAA to allow those players to participate in the Sugar Bowl. Originally it was seen as something admirable because Tressel said he wanted those players to get their degrees, but it was actually an action that was just self-serving: he wanted those players to play in the Sugar Bowl so he could win, and he wanted them back so that he could have another successful year, another opportunity to beat Michigan. He knew they were ineligible, so that's why he did it. It was sick. The man really was scum. I knew right when I saw Tressel admit it and Gene Smith respond that he would not be fired and Gordon Gee just laugh it off. That was it. That was the moment all the conspiracy theories, everything my friends had said and I didn't believe, became real. I felt somewhat betrayed, because I had defended Tressel to these people, and they had been right all along.

And what was worse: Ohio State fans didn't care. They would have preferred if nothing had ever been discovered. To them, it wasn't tragic that the crime was committed in the first place; rather, it was tragic that Tressel had gotten caught. John Cooper ran a tight ship at Ohio State, but nobody cares that he had winning seasons or never brought NCAA sanctions against the Buckeyes, because he didn't beat Michigan. Tressel beat Michigan, so Tressel's okay. It didn't matter that he lied. It didn't matter that he played ineligible players. It didn't matter that he broke rules and broke them deliberately. He did it to beat Michigan, and that means he did it for Ohio State, and so ultimately he did the right thing. That's how they see it.

The NCAA has made a grievous error in taking the bait that Ohio State has given them, which only adds the college football world's cynicism that the system is broken. Sure, Ohio State fans are exhaling a huge sigh of relief because the NCAA won't hit them with the two most feared charges, because it means that the punishments might not be all that severe. But to the rest of us, not just Michigan fans, but anyone who's separate from Ohio State, it's like we're watching Al Capone get away with murder. We all know what's going on there. The evidence is clear if you open your eyes and see it.

The slap on the wrist that Ohio State's administration gave Tressel is enough to show that they didn't want to see him go. Their slow "investigation" that reveals nothing more than what has already been proven is enough to show that they aren't really complying with the NCAA. Changing Tressel's resignation to retirement is enough to show that the punishment he got is really not a punishment at all: he gets to go out on a good note—or, at least, that's how Ohio State's history books will show it. Vacating wins is necessary but not sufficient: it does nothing to deter future violations. Bowl bans and scholarship reductions do. Those are real, palpable negative effects on the program to heavily and steadily remind them they did something wrong, they lied about it, and now they're going to pay. (This was the NCAA's rationale with USC.)

Ohio State maintains that it is Tressel's fault alone and the university did everything it could to oust him, thus they claim that "fail to monitor" and "lack of institutional control" are not warranted. This is an obvious lie. Had Smith and Gee immediately fired Tressel, then it would be an easier point to argue. Yet because they didn't, because they thought that this wasn't a big deal, because it wasn't a major violation in their eyes, because their punishments were so lax in the beginning, they did not show true, swift compliance with the NCAA as they claim. Their response was slow and drawn out, like a chess match, waiting to see what the NCAA says. This makes them out to look like good strategists but really bad liars.

It is their attitude that makes Gee and Smith responsible, their attitude that "We have no intention of firing the almighty Tressel and let's just hope he doesn't fire us because we're not the ones beating Michigan at the end of the day." This is what leads me and so many others to believe that somehow Smith and Gee knew about the violations as well. There's just no paper trail to prove it, like there was with Tressel. So it's like it didn't happen.

My point is this: the problem is Ohio State, not just Jim Tressel. Tressel was not one man acting alone. Given the reasons why he did it, he could not have been. Tressel is the product of an environment that promotes winning at all costs, putting the talented players on the field even when they're ineligible because that's what wins games. Tressel is just a cog in the machine, surrounded by people who routinely look the other way and excuse bad behavior because that's what it takes to beat Michigan seven times in a row. Tressel wanted Pryor. Pryor wanted cars, praise, and adulation, so Tressel fed him a line that was confirmed by Eleven Warriors: "The two most important people in the state of Ohio are the governor and the quarterback for Ohio State. And the quarterback for Ohio State is number one." To Ohio State fans, that's pretty cool, because there's some truth to it. To the rest of us, it's sick and kind of demented. Are you so obsessed with one team that the quarterback, a college kid, is the most revered person in the state?

Tressel had to have known what he was getting when he recruited Pryor, but it wasn't a problem, because Ohio State, its fan base, and its shameless boosters would give him everything he wanted. As long as he produced on the field, nothing else mattered. Ohio State is the worst case of corruption in the history of college football. Until the NCAA realizes that, nothing's going to change. If the NCAA really wants Ohio State and other teams like them to follow the rules and follow them ethically, they must show that they mean business.

In a previous article, I cited a section of George Dohrmann's Sports Illustrated article that described an incident where Tressel, as an OSU assistant back in the 1980s, rigged a raffle at the Ohio State football camp. Dohrmann writes that most kids who attended the camp would never play a college football game, but they had probably saved up money from mowing lawns just to play once in Ohio Stadium and maybe, just maybe buy enough tickets for the raffle to win cleats and a Buckeye jersey. Instead, Tressel made sure that the elite prospects won the raffle.

While most people would see this as a despicable act by Tressel, and it certainly is, one must approach it from his perspective and see what he was attempting to achieve. It's unlikely that Tressel was a cackling villain who wanted to see hapless kids who'd never play lose the raffle. No, what Tressel wanted was to rig the raffle so that, if the elite prospects won the prizes, they'd have a memorable experience at the camp and maybe that would be enough to make them want to play for Ohio State. Rigging the raffle meant that poor kids would lose, yes, but it also meant that highly-touted recruits might commit to Ohio State because of it. Did it work? It's possible that sometimes it did. But what about those other times, the times when the elite prospect would win the cleats and the jersey and still wouldn't commit to Ohio State? That's when it's the most despicable.

The last two paragraphs are not meant to simply rehash why Tressel is a horrible person, they are meant to illustrate the overall point of why he was hired. While his rigging of the raffles may not have worked in all cases, it must have worked in some, which meant that Tressel successfully recruited great players, albeit through unethical means. Tressel fit in too well at Ohio State. Because he did whatever it took to win in Columbus, and because most of the time he won, Tressel was allowed to function. That's the point. That's why the problem is Ohio State and not just him. In Columbus there is a culture that surrounds the program of vile and unethical conduct that has been bred and fostered ever since Woody Hayes had his "Frontliners" booster club, who Dohrmann writes scouted and courted recruits, and they didn't do so ethically.

The most infuriating thing about Ohio State, and why I've come to hate them so much, is that it doesn't even occur to them to do things with integrity, the right way, the ethical way. They claim that Ohio State football is about a Sacred Brotherhood, but really it's just about winning. It's like they're saying, "What's the point of being ethical when you don't win? If you win ethically, great. If you don't—well, at least you won. Let's not speak out how we won; let's just enjoy it."

When it comes to violations that Tressel and Ohio State have committed, there are generally two modes of thought. The first is that he looked the other way accidentally. This is what Tressel himself claims. The assertion is that, in any other situation, Tressel would have realized that this was wrong and would have reported it. His mistake was that he simply didn't. Something didn't register in his mind. It was largely an accident, a brain fart, and he's still a good person. The second mode of the thought is that he looked the other way deliberately. This is my belief and what I extend to all of Ohio State. It doesn't matter the situation, Tressel and anyone else at Ohio State looked the other way because they thought they could get away with it. Why? Two reasons. One, reporting it is not to their benefit. If the players involved are crucial components to the game, then exposing them runs the risk of punishment, and it's better to seek forgiveness later. Two, no one can do anything if they don't find out. Let them prove that we've done something wrong, and then we'll admit it.

Normally, I tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and if this was just a one time thing, I would be in the boat with other people (mostly Buckeyes) who argue that Tressel overall is a good guy and he made one mistake once and we're all human. However, it is Tressel's track record and the fact that his credibility has been destroyed that puts me in the second mode of thought. There are too many coincidences that point to corruption at Ohio State. Maurice Clarett, Troy Smith, everything; this has been going on for years. The problem is not that one coach went rogue. The problem is that the culture in Columbus encouraged and practically demanded that he do whatever it takes to win.

I don't see that culture changing anytime soon. Probation notwithstanding, the Buckeyes will continue to do things unethically. I used to think that this was one big wake up call for Ohio State to get their act together, so that we can respect them as a rival. Now it's just another blip in their file. 

Mark my words, Ohio State will commit violations again, and they will get caught. Until the NCAA forces them to follow the rules, they'll have no reason to do so.

And with that, we all grow a little more cynical.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Players to Watch in 2011: Troy Woolfolk

No one wants to make a bigger impact right now more than Troy Woolfolk. The redshirt senior cornerback was unable to have playing time in 2010 because of a severe ankle injury that kept him on the sidelines. Reports indicate that Woolfolk is fully recovered and is eager to make up for lost time.

Before his injury, Woolfolk was probably the best cornerback in Michigan's secondary. When he broke his ankle during fall practice in September 2010, it was the first of many blows Michigan's defense would suffer. It would be followed by player attrition, questionable position changes, and a 3-3-5 scheme that apparently struggled to be effective. The result was that Michigan's defense became the worst in its history. Of course, because he was unable to participate, Woolfolk himself is not to blame, but it is very likely that he wants his return to the field to make a significant difference. With Brady Hoke's adamant focus on defense, Woolfolk knows that he'll be able to do so and that he'll be put to the test. Throughout 2010 Michigan was depleted in its secondary, and now it is desperate to find an effective and talented cornerback. Woolfolk might be the answer.

His father is Butch Woolfolk, who Michigan football history buffs will remember was a running back for Bo Schembechler and rushed for 3,850 yards (a record at the time). Butch Woolfolk also played in the 1981 Rose Bowl, in which the Wolverines won 23-6 against the Washington Huskies; it was Schembechler's first Rose Bowl victory. Butch and Troy share a father-son Michigan legacy with such players as Stan and Braylon Edwards, Jack and Jim Harbaugh, and Bob and John Kolesar, among others.

According to, Troy Woolfolk was a three-star prospect coming out of high school. Chris Balas does a relatively complete profile piece on Woolfolk in last year's Michigan Football Preview Issue of The Wolverine Magazine, listing him as the defensive secondary's best player, and it discusses in large part his journey to adapt to becoming a defensive back. According to Balas, Woolfolk was primarily focused on track in high school ("with football as an afterthought"), and though his speed was what attracted scholarship offers, he didn't entirely understand the game of football.

"Where I first got here, I didn't know cover three, cover two alignments," Woolfolk told Balas last year. "I was so lost. My whole freshman year was a building-up year. It was like I was playing a new sport. The end of my sophomore year was when I actually started picking up on the game and knowing it…I would always get in trouble for not using the proper football terminology. They would say 'use reroute!' to get a receiver off his route. I would say 'push the guy.' I was the laughingstock."

As a freshman at safety, he was initially coached by defensive coordinator Ron English, before Rich Rodriguez arrived and chose not to retain English as part of his new defensive staff. Despite the transition, Woolfolk managed to excel. By the time he was a junior in 2009, he started all twelve games and recorded 46 total tackles.

Rodriguez's defensive staff changed several times, and because the defensive secondary became increasingly spread thin, Woolfolk was moved around a lot. Since he was seen as probably one of the more skilled and reliable defensive backs, the coaches moved Woolfolk from safety to cornerback. And even then, his place in the defense was still in flux. He says the position change meant he had to essentially start over. 

"I think it hurt me a little because I wasn't able to excel at one position," he said in Balas's 2010 article. "Every time I'd get better I just had to erase all those memories and then go somewhere else. For instance, I'd start to get better at corner, then I'd go to safety and forget all the corner details. If I do more [man-to-man coverage] emphasis at safety, I'm going to get beat deep…It was just a hard adjustment. You have to do less chasing people and keep good awareness for other people coming into your zone. It's basically raising your awareness in the new defense. It was kind of hard at first, but you pick up on it, especially through repetition."

He expected to make a huge difference in 2010, which would have been his last year since he was a senior. "I won't be able to come back and to anything," he also told Balas. "I do extra running myself so I can know I gave it my all my last year." Then, on Tuesday, August 17, 2010, Troy Woolfolk suffered an injury in practice that would mean his hopes of playing in the upcoming season were over. He had dislocated his ankle and needed surgery. "[The coaches] said it happened during a tackle," Butch Woolfolk reportedly told the Detroit Free Press. "His foot got stuck in the turf and his ankle just turned. It was dislocated and when they put it back in the socket, they did an X-ray and found out about the ligament [damage] and the bone broke."

Nearly a year later, Troy told Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News exactly how it happened. "We were playing a cover three and it was a tight end, Kevin Koger, and a wideout receiver, which was Martavious Odoms, and Martavious ran a go-route to run me off and Kevin Koger ran a 5-yard out route," Woolfolk said. "The quarterback threw the ball to Kevin, so when I came down to try to make the tackle, I didn't see Martavious on my left. When I planted my foot to make the tackle, Martavious hit me on my left and my weight started coming over here (to the right), but then my foot got stuck in the ground, so my body didn't go with it, and that's when I felt a snap. At first when it happened I thought I sprained my ankle. I guess the adrenaline wore off, and I looked at it, and that's when I realized something may be wrong here. I panicked and I remember (defensive lineman) Ryan Van Bergen was next to me and I looked him in the eye and was like, 'Put it back in place! Put it back in place!' He looked scared. I just wanted it back in place, I didn't care how or who did it. It was bad."

It was a development no one could have foreseen. As Woolfolk was transported to U-M's hospital, news broke across the Michigan blogosphere. "The cornerback position has been hit particularly hard recently at Michigan," wrote Adam Rittenberg, an ESPN Big Ten blogger. "Troy Woolfolk brought leadership and experience to a Michigan secondary lacking both. His leg injury could leave a big hole in the Wolverines' defense." 

The rest of 2010 is history. Woolfolk may not have been able to play that year, but Rodriguez's coaching staff cleverly used it as an opportunity to redshirt him, so that he could possibly return in 2011. 

Like anyone coming back from a major leg injury, Woolfolk's recovery has been steady but slow-going. He has gone from wheelchair-bound to walking, and his physical therapy is coming along nicely. Much to the relief of the Michigan fan base, and possibly Woolfolk himself, he has been finally able to participate in practice and make solid contributions that remind everyone of his talent on defense. However, he was notably absent from Michigan's 2011 Spring Game, where he stood on the sidelines in pads. (It should also be noted that defensive end Ryan Van Bergen was on the sidelines for similar reasons.) In the Spring Game Press Conference, new coach Brady Hoke explained that, despite the contributions in practice, that for the intensity of the spring game, Woolfolk "wasn't quite ready" but that he was getting there.

Things have gotten a lot better since then. According to his father, Troy is fully back to doing seven-on-seven drills in practice, and recently, in June, Troy himself told reporters that he was back to 100 percent. "Right now, I don't even remember getting injured," he said. "Being out there, I don't feel it. It's not hampering me in any way. I can stop and break at 100 percent, so it's not even a factor."

Looking toward the upcoming 2011 season, now only a little over a month away, Michigan will need Woolfolk's abilities at cornerback. Besides his speed, his greatest asset is experience, which the secondary has been lacking. It's also possible that Woolfolk could be moved back to safety if that suits him better. While it's unlikely Woolfolk will suffer another serious injury as bad as the last one, I wouldn't rule it out, but there's a reason why we're naming Woolfolk as a player to watch, so generally I'm optimistic. If he does get injured again and is forced to sit out the 2011 season, this will all look bad.

Still, there are plenty of fans out there who remain uneasy about Woolfolk because they wonder how much his injury has hindered him. According to Woolfolk himself, there's nothing to worry about, and he's ready to make a big impact this season. He knows where the defense stands, and he's ready to bring back confidence to it. He was ready to do it last year, and since that opportunity was taken away, he craves it even more this time.

"I feel like I'm going to hit the ground running right away," he said. "I don't think it'll take a few games for me to get my swag back. I'm going to have it from the jump."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Expectations for Brady Hoke's First Season

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything on this blog. Like many of my fellow Michigan bloggers, my excuse is that I've been on vacation—well, if by "vacation" I mean relocating to California. I have been enduring the long, arduous process of moving across the country and finding an adequate place to live, and after that, establishing my internet connection.

The process has taken several weeks, but that's really no excuse. You want Michigan football, and you want it now. I sympathize, and I will oblige.

There's been plenty going on (sort of) in the realm of Michigan football, and it's apparent I have a lot of catching up to do. I'll tackle it as best I can, but for right now, I thought I'd start you off with a piece on Brady Hoke and what we as Michigan fans expect out of his first year coaching the Wolverines.

Joel Greer over at Bleacher Report already has created a sideshow titled "10 Reasonable Goals for Brady Hoke's 1st Wolverines' Season," which is not so much ten reasonable goals but rather how Hoke can go from doing really well to doing everything perfect. Greer lists that Hoke should sign a top-ranked (Top 5, at least: that's reasonable, right?) quarterback, such as Zeke Pike, for instance. (Pike has already committed elsewhere.) Greer is certainly entitled to his opinion, and while I think that his goals for Hoke aren't entirely on the reasonable side, here's a run-down of general expectations that Hoke has set and we have set, and where they fall on our wish list.

1. Win the Big Ten
Priority Level: Medium

Brady Hoke has said that this is the main expectation of Michigan's football program and, to a large degree, it is. However, for Brady Hoke's first year, for Michigan's football program after three years of uncompetitive play under Rich Rodriguez, the expectation that it will actually happen falls into the medium range, although Hoke himself probably thinks that it should be put in the "very high" category. Still, we at the Michigan Fanatic don't expect Hoke's Wolverines to win the Big Ten Championship in this first season. With Nebraska joining the conference and looking to make a strong start, with Michigan State brimming with positivity after becoming champions of the Big Ten for the first time since 1990, and with Wisconsin aiming to establish itself as the dominant Big Ten powerhouse, the battle for the 2011 title will be tough.

Fans and graduating seniors would love nothing more than a trip to the Rose Bowl, but as we see it, for Michigan and Brady Hoke to win the Big Ten would exceed expectations rather than simply meet them. If Hoke walks away from 2011 with the Championship, he will have stunned the Big Ten conference and, let's be honest, almost all of the Michigan fan base.

This expectation is "medium" largely because the Wolverines are working with the same football players that Rodriguez used, and they were never truly competitive when the Big Ten schedule hit. While our offensive players are skilled, we aren't exactly stacked on defense. When Hoke's recruits start taking the field in 2012, then the expectation to win the Big Ten will be a lot higher. At that time, watch out.

2. Defeat Notre Dame in Michigan's First Night Game
Priority Level: Low

Athletic director Dave Brandon probably places this expectation "high," especially considering all the money and public relations his department has put into promoting the game as the first ever to take place at night in Michigan Stadium. (He regularly compares the event to the Big Chill.) So for Hoke to cinch a victory would definitely please all of Michigan's corporate fans, and certainly Brandon, but for the rest of Michigan's fans (depending on who you are), this expectation isn't that high at all.

It would be if Michigan had been suffering a losing streak against Notre Dame, but the Wolverines have beaten the Fighting Irish for the past two years in a row, defeating both Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly. The Irish fan base's expectations for Kelly are becoming increasingly high as they expect him to take Notre Dame to the National Championship very soon. He will be hard pressed to win this game against Michigan. If Hoke can defeat Kelly, it will do very little for Hoke, but it will do serious damage to Kelly, who from this loss will have his potential National Championship hopes snuffed out in the beginning of the season, and that will place him in the hot seat.

The game against Notre Dame will likely be very close and very exciting as it has been for the past two years. Both teams are in rebuilding stages, and against each other, they are pretty equally matched. But the pressure to win is more on Kelly than on Hoke.

3. Snap the Losing Streak against Michigan State
Priority Level: Very High

Against friends of mine who go or went to Michigan State, I tend to argue that Michigan's last three losses against the Spartans were not because Michigan State got better, but because Michigan got significantly worse. I often contend that, had Lloyd Carr not retired, it would be highly unlikely that Michigan would have lost three years in a row. Then it leads to a tiresome rant how most of the blame therefore must go to Rodriguez, who shifted recruiting away from in-state and gave up valuable prospects to the Spartans, and really didn't take the rivalry all that seriously.

Presumably, that's all going to change under Brady Hoke, who has put up countdown clocks in the locker rooms ticking down to the game against Michigan State (and Ohio State as well). Spartan fans soiled their undies as they watched Michigan's best in-state prospects commit to U-M, especially on defense, thanks to Hoke and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Nothing would further re-establish Michigan's dominance over their in-state rival than for Hoke to win against the Spartans in his first year.

Most sites and blogs predicting Michigan's win-loss ratio for 2011 consider this game to be the difference-maker. Michigan's schedule before they face the Spartans is really just as light as it was last year (with a possible exception against Notre Dame), and against Michigan State the Wolverines will really be able to show just how much progress they have made. If this were any other year, it probably wouldn't matter as much, but because Michigan has lost three times to the Spartans under Rodriguez, Michigan fans will be looking for a palpable difference from Hoke's regime. This will be it. It will be a very important game for Hoke to win and, just like it would have for Rodriguez, it will quiet much of the negative speculation around his future at Michigan.

4. Show Remarkable Improvement on Defense
Priority Level: High

Rich Rodriguez's supporters believe that it was the defense (and Rodriguez's defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson) that caused his departure, often overlooking the fact that Rodriguez was himself the head coach, not just the offensive coordinator, and hired Greg Robinson. As a result, when Dave Brandon fired Rodriguez, he sought out a defensive-minded coach, Brady Hoke, who in turn hired Greg Mattison, someone whom the majority of the Michigan fan base agrees is a stellar defensive coordinator.

The Wolverines finished 2010 ranked 112th in total defense, so Hoke and Mattison have their work cut out for them. They will be hard pressed to show a tangible improvement right away, returning to teaching toughness and fundamentals. However, let's not forget that these are the same players Rodriguez recruited and suffered losses.

The question surrounding Michigan's defensive situation for 2011 is this: was the terrible defense a result of personnel (i.e. lack of talent in the players) or a result of poor coaching (i.e. lack of fundamentals)? The optimists among Michigan's fans tend to think it is the latter, that Michigan's defensive backs couldn't effectively tackle because they weren't taught properly. Others argue that it was because the defensive players were placed into positions which they weren't comfortable playing.

In any scenario, the expectation now is that Hoke and Mattison will have to get it right. Cornerback Troy Woolfolk should be able to play in 2011 after a serious ankle injury kept him off the field in 2010, and his playing should create a noticeable difference. There is also Will Campell being returned to the defensive line, after Rodriguez inexplicably moved him to the offensive line last year. (If memory serves, Rodriguez claimed it was because he lacked personnel on the offensive line.) Campbell says he always preferred to be on defense, and by all account he is a beast who loves to hit.

Notice that we didn't say the expectation was to show "marginal" improvement on defense. No, for Hoke to truly show that he is moving Michigan football back to a tradition of toughness, the defense must improve remarkably. It must make big stops when it has to, mistakes must be kept to a minimum, and for the love of God they have to tackle in open space. If all the optimists are right, then that's going to happen, because Hoke's focus right now is on the defense. This year, it will have to be.

5. Win His First Game
Priority Level: High

In the grand scheme of things, this could probably fit into a "medium" priority level, considering that it's arguably more important to beat the Buckeyes and the Spartans than the Western Michigan Broncos. Still, Hoke knows that this will be his inaugural game as Michigan's head coach (his dream job) and that it shouldn't be overlooked.

Like any first game of the schedule, this sets the tone for the rest of the season. Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan started with a loss to Utah, and while his supporters will argue that it wasn't entirely unexpected, it still served as an appropriate precursor to the rest of his career at Michigan: high build-up, little substance. One could even say that his tenure never recovered or never stood a chance after that game. It will largely be the same for Brady Hoke. Western Michigan, however, is not nearly as tough to beat as Utah, and all things considered it should be a relatively easy win for Michigan. The Broncos will show up to play, so Michigan can't snooze it's way through this one.

We rank this priority "high" not because meeting the expectation will bring great satisfaction, but failing to meet it will bring great disappointment. The last thing Brady Hoke wants is to start out his head coaching career at Michigan on a sour note. (As I said, in the grand scheme of things, this one game against a mid-level opponent is not super important, and if Hoke loses he can easily recover credibility with wins over Michigan's rivals.) Many have said that, given all Hoke has accomplished in the offseason, all he has left to do is prove himself on the field, and this game will be the first real test of that. He must win it.

6. Defeat San Diego State
Priority Level: Medium

While at least some (maybe most) of the Michigan fan base would drop their jaws if Michigan lost to Hoke's old team of San Diego State, personally I wouldn't be all that surprised. Hoke turned San Diego State into a winner in two years and defeated Navy in the Poinsetta Bowl. His SDSU Aztecs also came very close to defeating TCU. When they play Michigan in 2011, they'll be looking to win.

At best I think this game will be awkward rather than embarrassing or challenging. Hoke certainly has the personnel on offense (i.e. Denard Robinson) to win against his old team, who didn't have the raw talent to which established programs traditionally have access. However, I wouldn't count out San Diego State. They were more or less primed and ready to execute Al Borges's offense, and they did well against good teams. They will do well against Michigan, but can they win? That's to be determined.

Michigan needs every win it can get in 2011, and if San Diego State loses it will hurt more in the short term than the long term. It will be embarrassing, yes, to lose to Hoke when he hopped a flight to Ann Arbor, but the Aztecs aren't as big a program as Michigan, and as such, they don't have as much to lose. Michigan and Hoke, on the other hand, need to win, and they need to win now.

Still, a loss for Michigan in this game will only remind fans how good Hoke was at San Diego State, and that the Aztecs are mainly reaping the benefits of his coaching. It's hard to say that such a game is a win-win for Hoke, but there really isn't much upside or downside. It won't hurt too badly if we lose, and it won't feel too great if we win.

7. Notch at least 8 wins
Priority Level: High

With all of the returning starters on the roster, Hoke and Brandon are going to look pretty ridiculous if Michigan fails to even go a bowl game this year, but I won't entirely be surprised if the Wolverines go 6-6. That doesn't mean they should. Yes, Denard will be adapting to the pro-style offense as best he can (let's not forget he ran it in high school), and in any transition there's going to be growing pains, which could result in losses. However, despite what Hoke's detractors might say, Michigan isn't starting over from scratch. The Wolverines have at least two effective QBs on the roster (incoming freshman Russell Bellomy has yet to prove himself), a host of speedy wide-receivers, and a decent potential running back in Stephen Hopkins.

The defense may be bad, but we'll at least have a four-man rush in Greg Mattison's 4-3 system, which probably will be loads more effective than Rodriguez's 3-3-5 system. (It certainly worked when Rodriguez occasionally had four linemen rushing the opponent's quarterback.)

However, more than anything else, it will come down to wins and losses. Hoke's record must be better than Rodriguez's for him to survive at Michigan. Fans may have gotten used to 10-win seasons under Lloyd Carr, but because Rodriguez failed to even reach 8 wins in three years, fans would love nothing more than to get back to the standard. Eight wins would be welcomed warmly rather than with scorn. In the past, 8-4 seasons weren't exactly appreciated, but this year it will mean that Michigan is on its way to being a contender again.

8. Beat Ohio State
Priority Level: Extremely High

If you thought snapping the losing streak against Michigan State was important, then this priority is practically a matter of life and death. Michigan has suffered three straight losses to the Spartans but six straight losses to the Buckeyes. Something must be done about this. If there was ever a game in which Hoke had to prove himself, this would be it. He must snap the losing streak against Ohio State.

Really, all the signs are there for Hoke to win the game. The Buckeyes are reeling from scandal, Tressel has resigned, and quarterback Terrelle Pryor has flown the coop before he could be investigated by the NCAA. Ohio State's recruiting has tangibly suffered. There are dozens of question marks surrounding the program's future. High on the list is who will play quarterback for the Buckeyes: either 25-year-old fifth-year-senior Joe Bauserman or incoming freshman Braxton Miller. Bauserman was Pryor's backup and therefore has the necessary experience, but the fans don't have much confidence in him because he's not the savior-level athlete that Pryor was. Miller is a highly-touted recruit who was believed to eventually replace Pryor, but he might be forced to step into the position early. However, despite Buckeye fans thinking that Miller will be awesome, he might be prone to the same on-field mistakes as Michigan's Tate Forcier.

With Tressel gone, Luke Fickell is OSU's interim head coach with no experience at the position. He may turn out to be Ohio State's version of Lloyd Carr, or he might turn out to be Ohio State's version of Tim Brewster. Hoke's experience as head coach easily puts him above Fickell at the position, and he knows it's time for Michigan to capitalize on Ohio State's woes. Fickell knows that, if he really wants to replace Jim Tressel as Ohio State's permanent head coach, he must win this game. But for Hoke, a loss would be unacceptable. Michigan's losing streak alone is enough reason.

Of course, Ohio State fans would love if the Buckeyes can still beat Michigan even when they've suffered so much, but Michigan's needs to win this far more than the Buckeyes do. They need to undo the losing streak and make the rivalry competitive again. It's no fun (really, for either side) when one team is completely dominant. This is Michigan's opportunity to restore what has been lost, and for Hoke to end his first season on a very good note. 

I said this for Rodriguez, and I'll say it for Hoke: it's hard to criticize the coach when he beats Ohio State. Hoke needs to do that. He needs to show that he is not only a different coach than Rodriguez, but a better one. Rodriguez could never beat Ohio State. 

If Hoke could do that in his first year, all will start to feel right in the world.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Ohio State Self-Vacates 2010 Season, Changes Tressel's Resignation to Retirement

Just when it seems like there's nothing to talk about in the offseason, Ohio State is at it again.

The Associated Press reported today that Ohio State, in an attempt to appease the NCAA allegation committee for lenient punishments, has decided to vacate all of its wins from the 2010 season. 

Ohio State University released a statement yesterday detailing why they think this self-imposed punishment is sufficient and that the NCAA "take no further action." The university has also decided to waive Jim Tressel's fine of $250,000 and is changing his resignation to retirement.

This is odd considering that the university is placing most of the blame on Tressel. It places the rest on the student-athletes and tattoo parlor owner, Ed Rife, who was involved in a federal drug investigation and participated in the Buckeyes selling memorabilia for cash and tattoos.

The university insists that no one in the athletic department or administration beyond Tressel had any knowledge of the NCAA rule violations. They claim that since it "sought and accepted Tressel's resignation," further punishments on the football program are not warranted. It also feels that suspending the four remaining Buckeye players who broke the rules (Terrelle Pryor left Ohio State) is an adequate enough reduction of competitive edge. The players' suspension is for the first five games, not the entire 2011 season.

Ohio State University's attempt at honesty and compliance with the NCAA is littered with contradictions. Probably the biggest fallacy out of OSU's statement is that it "discovered and self-reported violations." This is false. The discovery of Jim Tressel's knowledge that his players were ineligible came from Yahoo! Sports writers Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson, who reported the information publicly on March 7, 2011 that Tressel had first learned in April 2010 that his players were illegally trading Ohio State memorabilia for benefits. (Wetzel and Robinson reportedly gave Ohio State three hours to respond before they went public; Ohio State made no comment.)

Tressel's smoking gun was that he had an email trail with Christopher Cicero, an Ohio State alumnus working for the U.S. attorney general and who had stumbled across the investigation of Ed Rife, that revealed he was aware that his players were involved in selling memorabilia to Rife. Tressel said he would "get on it asap," but he didn't. Instead, he signed a compliance form in December 2010 stating that he had no knowledge that his players had committed infractions. When Wetzel and Robinson broke the news in March 2011, after Tressel had convinced the NCAA to allow the ineligible players to participate in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, which Ohio State won, Tressel admitted guilt. Despite Tressel claiming that he withheld information to protect the players, it didn't change the fact that he lied directly to the NCAA. It is more appropriate to say that he withheld information to protect Ohio State from losing games.

Ohio State's statement that it discovered Tressel's violations of NCAA rules is false because of one clear reason: if Wetzel and Robinson had not conducted a journalistic investigation and released the story, no discovery would have been made. Tressel was a highly successful and very much beloved member of Ohio State's football program, and self-reporting any rule violations that he had made was not in the football program's best interest (i.e. to win games, defeat Michigan, etc.) Anyone within the athletic department who blew the whistle on Tressel would have most certainly been terminated, discredited, and ostracized by the community for attempting to bring down Tressel, a "man of honor." Thus, Ohio State could not have discovered or "self-reported" the violations because it (and its fanbase) would have demanded proof, which they wouldn't dare to seek out, let alone provide to the public. Instead, Wetzel and Robinson had to provide the proof of their own accord, and the proof was indisputable. Ohio State and Tressel had no choice but to admit guilt.

The second biggest contradiction within Ohio State's response to the Notice of Allegations is that it actively sought out Tressel's resignation. When Ohio State responded to the Yahoo! Sports article's release, essentially admitting guilt, athletic director Gene Smith said that Tressel would be suspended for two games (later increased to five) and would pay a fine of $250,000, but Smith was quick to discount rumors that Tressel would be fired. "Wherever we end up, at the end of the day Jim Tressel is our football coach," he said. "All the speculation about him being terminated is pure speculation and this case, in my view, does not warrant it." Ohio State University president Gordon Gee also laughed off suggestions that Tressel would be dismissed. "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me," Gee said.

If Ohio State actively sought out Jim Tressel's resignation, Smith and Gee would not have said that Tressel was always going to be their football coach. Tressel's resignation came eventually because of increasing media coverage over the issue, as well as numerous Ohio State alumni (e.g. Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Spielman) who called for Jim Tressel to step down. In the end, he did. Tressel announced his resignation on May 30, 2011. It is also possible that Tressel resigned as a preemptive measure because Sports Illustrated was releasing an article detailing Tressel's corruption throughout his entire college coaching career.

The article holds that Tressel used ignorance of his players' infractions as a means of distancing himself from the crimes they committed, just as he did when five Buckeyes got involved with Ed Rife. If it seems strange that Tressel was ignorant of his players' improper or illegal actions all the time, it's because it is. Tressel could not be both entirely ignorant of what his players did while at the same time being so close to them that he was frequently considered more of a father than a coach. The full, objective reality can never really be known, either because Tressel will take those secrets to his grave or because those who do know will not dare reveal the truth. (See: Sacred Brotherhood.) The article reports that Tressel was more aware than he let on, but he chose to look the other way because he needed those players to win games. 

Perhaps the most damaging revelation of Tressel's corruption is this:
The [Maurice Clarett] and [Buckeye booster Robert Q. Baker] scandals were further evidence that Tressel was, at best, woefully ignorant of questionable behavior by his players and not aggressive enough in preventing it. At worst, he was a conduit for improper benefits, as Clarett alleged. The latter interpretation is suggested by a story that has long circulated among college coaches and was confirmed to [Sports Illustrated] by a former colleague of Tressel's from Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State in the mid-1980s. One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting.
At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won—a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel."
Because the allegation is so damaging, Ohio State fans question the credibility of the source. While problematic, the presupposition that the source not be identified is necessary because of backlash that would arise from the Buckeye nation. Wetzel and Robinson of Yahoo! Sports did not initially reveal that Christopher Cicero was their source. After his identity was revealed, Cicero received and continues to receive numerous death threats from Buckeye fans—enough to the point where he publicly regrets informing Tressel of the players' rule violations. The fear and intimidation imposed on Cicero alone is enough reason for Sports Illustrated to keep the source anonymous. Predictably, however, the result from Buckeye fans is to say that Sports Illustrated is and perhaps never was a credible news outlet, despite previously saying that George Dohrmann, who wrote the article on Tressel, was "the real deal."

In any case, Tressel's resignation was seen by some as the honorable thing to do. Others see it as an attempt, much like Ohio State's response today, to placate the NCAA from instilling harsher punishments, when it is actually more like Tressel flying the coop before the chickens come home to roost. Like Terrelle Pryor, Tressel left Ohio State before the NCAA had even ruled, which means that he leaves the university to face any punishments they receive alone.

Still, despite Tressel's numerous transgressions and wrongdoing, and putting the university in a position where it could suffer for years to come, several Buckeye fans see Tressel as a man who can do no wrong. They showed up at Tressel's house to show their support, and later they held a parade in his honor. The reason: they don't see Jim Tressel's rule violations as a bad thing, but as him "doing what's best for the state of Ohio." What does that mean? It means that anything Tressel did to win championships and beat Michigan is all right in their book. Tressel's response to their adulation was not to apologize for letting them down. Instead, he promised that Michigan would lose to them again. It was exactly what they wanted to hear.

Reports indicate that Gene Smith admitted asking Jim Tressel to resign. So, which is it: was it Tressel's idea to resign, or was it Smith's? If it is the former, then the notion that Ohio State actively sought Tressel's resignation cannot be true, and Ohio State's athletic department had no intention of letting Tressel go. If it is the latter, then it contradicts Smith's earlier statement that Tressel was and forever would be Ohio State's coach, and Tressel could not make "the honorable decision" to step down because he was asked. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle: pressure mounted from the media and Ohio State alumni saying that Tressel was a toxic asset, and the decision for Tressel to leave was a collective one.

In terms of appealing to the NCAA for mercy, this creates another problem. If Ohio State sought Tressel's resignation and places the majority of the blame on him, why would they change his resignation to retirement? (There is an interesting parallel with Michigan's Lloyd Carr, who officially retired but in reality was asked to resign because he had failed to defeat Ohio State consistently. Tressel's retirement/resignation, in contrast, resulted not from losing games, but from breaking NCAA rules.) Furthermore, if Ohio State intends to paint Tressel as a culpable figure, and no one beyond him knew of the players' actions, then why would they waive his fine of $250,000? In what now appears to be an obvious and blatant contradiction, Gene Smith had explicitly said a month ago that Ohio State will hold Tressel to his punishment and that Tressel "will pay the fine."

It is more likely that Smith and the athletic department are thinking about Ohio State's fans and less about the implications of what they're doing has towards the NCAA. Not surprisingly, Ohio State still wants the fans to see Tressel as a lovable figure, and so they have softened the blow of his departure. While this is understandable for the Buckeye faithful, it hardly makes sense to the rest of us: fans quickly forgave Woody Hayes after Ohio State fired him for punching a player from Clemson on national television. Hayes has buildings and streets named after him. It stands to reason that Tressel will have them too someday. So, if the Buckeyes will still love and forgive Tressel regardless of what he did, the changing of his resignation to retirement is meaningless. It won't change history. The rest of the world will remember Tressel for his scandal.

As mentioned previously, Ohio State's response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations is an attempt at honesty, or at least appearing honest. However, Smith and Gee's earlier comments either mean that it is an obvious statement of dishonesty or that they genuinely (perhaps deliberately) underestimated the implications of Tressel's and the players' major NCAA violations. The latter easily explains why Ohio State has gradually increased the severity of its self-imposed sanctions. Tressel's suspension was increased from two games to five to his full-on departure. Ohio State has also vacated all of its wins from 2010, including the Sugar Bowl victory won on January 1, 2011.

Finally, Ohio State has installed a two year probation period. This, however, is relatively light. When the NCAA found that Rich Rodriguez's staff and players had exceeded practice time by roughly an extra twenty minutes per week, Michigan self-imposed a probation period of three years. Today, those practice violations look pale in comparison to what Ohio State has done.

Despite Ohio State claiming that Tressel's departure and the players' five-game suspension means that the team will be significantly less competitive, there's something missing. Ohio State has not imposed any bowl ban restrictions or scholarship reductions. Doing so would most certainly damage recruiting in any capacity. But do the punishments of bowl bans and scholarship reductions relate to the rule violations that took place?

Ohio State clearly feels that they don't. Yet Tressel's transgressions were a direct result of his interaction with players, as he himself claims that he wanted to handle the situation internally. (As it turned out, handling the situation internally meant not handling it at all.) Bowl bans are appropriate because Tressel had convinced the NCAA to let the players participate in the Sugar Bowl, when he had known all along that they had been ineligible for that season. His statement that he didn't know was proven to be a lie.

The NCAA had decided to open an independent, unrelated investigation on Terrelle Pryor because he was taking illegal benefits from Ohio State boosters. There is plenty of photographic evidence that Pryor was driving cars he could not afford—an unmistakable violation of NCAA rules. However, following his lawyer's advice, Pryor left before NCAA could rule against him. (Had he stayed at Ohio State, he most likely would have been suspended from the entire 2011 season.) As such, and because these infractions relate directly to benefits for players, the NCAA should reduce Ohio State's capacity for scholarships, as it did for USC because of Reggie Bush.

If the NCAA wishes to impose punishments that act as a deterrent and prevent future violations, then these must be included. Ohio State doesn't want to do anything that would reduce their chance at winning the Big Ten or, perhaps more importantly, defeating Michigan every year. This is why bowl bans and scholarship reductions were not included, but the vacating of wins was. Those games have already happened, and Ohio State has enough past victories to outshine them. A truly harsh (and perhaps appropriate) punishment would be to vacate every game that Tressel has coached at Ohio State. This would mean that Ohio State would lose its 2002 national championship and several Rose Bowl victories, a crushing blow to the Buckeye faithful.

However, such a punishment can only happen if the NCAA sees Ohio State as a repeat offender, possibly taking Dohrmann's Sports Illustrated article into consideration. Not surprisingly, Ohio State claims that the incidents involving Jim Tressel and the five Buckeye players were isolated, and thus only 2010 should be vacated. Dohrmann's article clearly shows that Tressel has a history of corruption at Ohio State.

Interestingly enough, among all the allegations against Ohio State, the one that the NCAA did not include is that Ohio State has presented a "lack of institutional control." This is typically considered the most severe. In its response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations, Ohio State might have unwittingly admitted that it had a lack of institutional control. Evidence for this exists in the fact that Ohio State has now imposed stricter "corrective actions" that will increase monitoring of where student-athletes go, where they eat, what they receive or can do, etc. It also will increase education of staff and student-athletes in the requirements of compliance. 

In the strictest sense of the definition, if Ohio State had institutional control, it would not need to crack down now simply because one of its staff members (Tressel) committed a major violation. Furthermore, Gene Smith has said that Ohio State will overhaul the compliance department. Why would that be necessary if Ohio State had institutional control? The fact that it is making these sweeping changes now suggests that it did not have institutional control previously.

Buckeye fans are not surprised that the 2010 wins were vacated but, like Ohio State's athletic department and university officials, they are hoping that the NCAA finds the current self-imposed sanctions to be sufficient. "This is pretty huge as I imagine most of us were bracing for something much worse," writes Jason of Eleven Warriors, an Ohio State fan blog. "Of course, the NCAA could come back and say the punishment is not enough, but given athletic director Gene Smith's relationship with the organization and the close level of cooperation between the school and the NCAA, there's a chance that the two sides are somewhere in the vicinity of each other on the punishment side of things."

Meanwhile, Brian Bennett of ESPN's Big Ten blog feels that Ohio State's self-imposed sanctions are far too lenient, and calls into question the university's decision to change Jim Tressel's resignation into a retirement:
Vacating wins was already an automatic outcome from the NCAA, which would have surely erased the Buckeyes' 2010 victories because of those ineligible players. The best way to appease the infractions committee, as USC learned, is to appear as contrite as possible and get out ahead of the sanctions by imposing your own harsh conditions.

Instead, Ohio State has tried to half-step it, again, just as it did in its 10-day sham investigation last December, and just as it did when it originally announced that Tressel would be suspended for only two nonconference games. The school's response, predictably, tried to lay all the blame at the feet of the departed and disgraced coach.

"The responsibility is upon Tressel," the response says. "The institution is embarrassed by the actions of Tressel."

Yes, Ohio State is so mad at Tressel that it waived the $250,000 fine it levied at the coach when it became aware he lied to his superiors about the NCAA scandal. You remember that fine, the one Gee assured the Columbus Dispatch in June that "he will pay it." Well, instead, now the school will pay Tressel $52,250 as part of what now will be known as a "retirement," rather than a resignation. That will surely show him!
Even with these sanctions, there's little to suggest that Ohio State has seen the end of the storm. The period of uncertainty before the NCAA hearing in August has already hurt Ohio State's 2012 recruiting, and most recruits would be wise to commit elsewhere. Bowl bans and scholarship reductions would only solidify the pain that Ohio State is feeling now.

The Buckeyes are facing a stern evaluation of conscience in the coming days. Ohio State will soon learn what it means to put winning and beating Michigan above anything else. Until then, it will not do anything to jeopardize that. If the NCAA is not as weak as colleges, sports analysts, and readers across the country believe them to be, then they will teach Ohio State a lesson. They will make the Buckeyes pay the price for dishonesty.

After all, if you can't enforce rules, then there's no point in having them.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Will 2011 Be Michigan's Comeback Year?

There's plenty of reason for optimism regarding Michigan football this upcoming season, but some Michigan fans are still skeptical. The Wolverines look to snap the losing streaks against their two most hated rivals: one, against the Ohio State Buckeyes, for seven years which has been far too long, and the second, against the Michigan State Spartans, for three years which is unacceptable. However, fans tend to attribute the losses against MSU more to Rich Rodriguez than anything else, since he slipped up in-state recruiting and it is highly doubtful Lloyd Carr's Wolverines would have suffered the same set of losses.

Rodriguez's frequent losses in "red-letter games," as athletic director Dave Brandon called them, ultimately resulted in his firing, as he posted a 15-22 record, and failing to defeat anyone worthwhile in the Big Ten. (The victory in 2008 against Wisconsin, when the Wolverines finished 3-9, is a notable exception.) Brandon went out and found a "Michigan Man," someone who understood the traditions vastly better than Rodriguez seemingly ever could. That Michigan Man is Brady Hoke who, despite plenty of jokes, jabs, and skepticism from certain Michigan blogs, might actually be a good football coach.

Even for the most skeptical Michigan fan, however, it is difficult to say that Hoke is doing a bad job. On his first day, Hoke showed his passion for Michigan with his first press conference. "We're going to have a pride in who we are," he said. "Everyone who's going to touch this program and deal with these kids is going to have a fanatical love for the University of Michigan or they won't work in the football office, I can tell you that."

What's interesting is that Hoke's speech seems both improvised and rehearsed. Whether he knew exactly what to say can be debated. It is possible that Hoke's passion for Michigan was so intense that he had been preparing for that day (when he would give his first speech) for the greater part of his life. It is also possible that Hoke simply said what he felt and said it honestly, without having to rehearse. It could be fun for him, perhaps, to just talk about Michigan. This is in large part why Hoke has convinced so many Michigan fans that he is the right man for the job, because he has connected with them, because he showed them why he loves Michigan, when Rodriguez could not and did not. That's what you get when you hire a Michigan Man.

Then he went to work. Despite the uncertainty that comes with a coaching tradition, he managed to salvage Michigan's 2011 recruiting class and lined up Matt Wile, an incoming kicker, who is most certainly needed as Michigan's kicking game in 2010 was atrocious. Probably Hoke's biggest and best move as Michigan's new head coach was hiring Greg Mattison as the defensive coordinator. Mattison had previously coached Michigan's defense from 1995-1996 and was defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens when Hoke called. Michigan's defense was perhaps its worst ever during Rodriguez's tenure, and Hoke's hiring of Mattison seemed to put a lot of uneasy fans at ease, and some are starting to give him a little credit.

Hoke continued to do well in recruiting and brought back the focus to the Midwestern states of Michigan and Ohio, each ripe with talent and considered pipeline states for U-M. In bringing back that focus, Hoke and his recruiting staff have landed several big-time commitments for the classes of 2012 and 2013, and has even managed to steal some recruits away from Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (who dominated the state of Michigan during the Rodriguez years) and Ohio State (whose coach, Jim Tressel, recently resigned because of NCAA rule violations). Among those noteworthy commits from the state of Michigan were defensive end Mario Ojemudia and tight end Devin Funchess, both from Farmington Hills Harrison, which is believed to be a "Spartan stronghold." Hoke's staff also landed James Ross from Orchard Lake St. Mary's Preparatory, another target of Dantonio's recruiting staff and, with his commitment to U-M, was another disappointment for Michigan State fans.

On the field, Michigan's 2011 spring game left plenty to be desired. The offense wasn't nearly as explosive as it had been a year previously, and perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps the offense had been destroying the defense last year not because the offense was good but because the defense was just that bad. Many suspect that Rodriguez focused exclusively on offense and left the defense to be merely the offense's "sparring partner." However, in spring 2011, Hoke and Mattison were hard at work bringing the defense back to Michigan's standards (i.e. tough as a brick wall), and for the most part the defense dominated. It only gave up one really big play, when running back Mike Cox burst past the D-line and ran for a touchdown. These are all players from Rodriguez's time, and the difference in terms of success will likely be how well Hoke and his staff are able to coach the players, since he did not recruit them. We can never really know if the defense has substantially improved until the Wolverines begin their season in the fall.

Michigan certainly looks poised to do well. Its chief rival, Ohio State, will have to deal with the burden of NCAA sanctions for the mistakes of Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, and a host of other Buckeyes. At least for 2012, Michigan State's recruiting has fallen behind Michigan's. All the signs are there for a Michigan football revival, which is exactly what the program needs. The years of losses under Rodriguez may have been well received by Michigan's rivals, but to the Wolverine faithful such a breakdown was unbearable. However, with Michigan going back to its roots, things are starting to look, sound, and feel like Michigan again, and that could mean great success in the making. Brian Christopherson, a writer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, believes that Michigan's difficulties reflect in many ways those had by Nebraska in 2007, and since Nebraska pulled out of it, Michigan will too. "Such pitfalls are normally short-lived for the elite programs, especially if you find the right guy with the right vision," said Chistopherson. "Nebraska has cleaned off the muck of 2007 since Bo Pelini's arrival. And don't expect the Wolverines to be stuck in the middling pack long, either."

Because Rich Rodriguez ran the spread offense so extensively, there might be a fear in the Michigan fanbase that Denard Robinson, recruited by Rodriguez out of Florida and seemingly molded to fit the spread, might not fit with the pro-style offense that Hoke's offensive coordinator, Al Borges, is planning to coach. Robinson excited the Michigan fanbase because of his amazing abilities to run, as evidenced by the 2010 games against Connecticut and Notre Dame, where his speed was seemingly impossible to defend. (By the time Michigan reached the Big Ten conference part of their schedule, Robinson's running became less and less effective.) Such a use of his talent (i.e. a quarterback who runs) fits well in the spread because he is considered a dual-threat quarterback, and with so many options available the opposing defense cannot possibly cover all of it. However, Michigan's pro-style offense was effective with Anthony Thomas, Tom Brady, Chad Henne, and Mike Hart during their days on the team, and it stands to reason that it could be effective here too. After all, Robinson is not completely foreign to this type of offense; he did run some of it in high school.

Borges has said that Robinson's place in the offense will not be a square peg in a round hole. Despite saying that Robinson will move to under center (he spent most of his time in the shotgun for the spread), Borges also said that the offense will be fitted to Robinson's ability, under center or in the shotgun, and his running ability will still be utilized. "We're still going to have that stuff," Borges told reporters after the spring game. "I've been saying that all along. I think everybody when I came here was under the impression that we were going to line up under center for every play, but I haven't done that in years. And we will continue to keep and do some of the things that [Robinson] is good at, just adding our power game to it."

The main focus on Robinson: adding structure. The pro-style offense should bring enough of that, and should Robinson develop substantially as a passer, he will have more to rely on than his running, which also should mean that he'll be at less risk for injury. For right now, Borges and his offensive staff are assessing and re-assessing. They understand that they have to do it right in this first year, but they're still confident that Robinson is a talented enough quarterback to be successful and effective. All he needs to do is develop that ability. "Once he gets it down where he's comfortable, I think you'll see a pretty good quarterback," Borges added. "And we'll make it work for him. It's not going to be the stuff we like; it's going to be the stuff he can do."

Robinson himself isn't opposed to less injury or a heavier passing game. "I like throwing touchdowns, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I think I like throwing touchdowns more than me scoring." Of all the Michigan players, Robinson has been the most electrifying factor in the offense. He was a front-runner for the Heisman early on in 2010 and put up 329.9 yards per game of total offense. Now his focus will be shifted to passing more than running, but running will still be used, which could make for an interesting (if not exciting) season.

2010 was supposed to be the year that everything turned around. It was supposed to be the year that Rodriguez's system, with the players he recruited, was fully in place and the Big Ten would suffer the consequences of tangling with an explosive offense. Instead, Rodriguez and Michigan went a measly 7-5 that year, with humiliating losses to both rivals, and an utter blowout by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, after the Wolverines took a month to prepare. Rodriguez supporters argued and continue to argue that the man was never given enough of a chance, but to the rest of the Michigan faithful, three years was enough. No improvement before the bowl game alone was unacceptable.

There's a lot of the same skepticism and dread when it comes to Hoke, who does not have the same successful pedigree that Rodriguez did. Hoke's actions, however, have been the difference and may continue to be the difference. All he has to do now is prove himself on the field. He has won over several Michigan fans, called the alumni back home, and convinced high school kids to go to Michigan. It's practically impossible to say that Brady Hoke has not met the expectations that any Michigan fan could have. Rodriguez did not meet those expectations, and those who supported him often found themselves alone and against the masses, with little to use as ammunition other than "wait, it'll get better." The effect of Brady Hoke is already so much more tangible.

The comeback that Michigan should have had in 2010 may very well come this year. It's starting to look that way. At the very least, Hoke should have a decent year, and 2012 will be the one (since his recruits on defense will be coming in) that sees a huge, legitimate effect. He turned around San Diego State in two years. He already has the talent at Michigan, and throes of defensive players coming in next year, so perhaps it's time to get excited now.

Hoke has clocks in the locker room counting down to the games against Michigan State and Ohio State. The players will be watching them every day. Maybe we should too.