Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hoke's Enthusiasm Continues to Make Believers, but His Real Test Will Be on the Field

Last week at the Big Ten Football Media Days event in Chicago, Illinois, Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke largely repeated the same message of his press conference when he first got the job, but there was something different, something that struck a chord with fans.

When he was asked what it would take in the long-term sense to rebuild Michigan to the national power that it was before Rich Rodriguez, Hoke answered, "Well, I don't think we're rebuilding. Period. I mean, we're Michigan. We've got kids who understand that they're Michigan." The video of his press conference can be found here, or you can read the transcript here.

Hoke's enthusiasm for the University of Michigan has partly been the reason why the majority (there are still Michigan fans who are nay-sayers out there, however) of the Michigan faithful has gotten behind him. Although it is probably more obvious to some than to others, Hoke seems to understand what Rich Rodriguez perhaps did not: that not all college football programs are the same. Michigan is an entirely different entity.

That is why it has become the winningest program in college football. That is why it continues to achieve success in academics in other areas because of a seemingly circular logic: we're Michigan because we're awesome, and we're awesome because we're Michigan. It is an energy that perpetually builds momentum and confidence, as any alumnus of the university will tell you. If you use that momentum and confidence to strive for excellence, you achieve success, and you become a Michigan Man.

Others see that as "Michigan arrogance," and perhaps, to a small degree, it is. Hoke is not an alumnus, but he is a Michigan Man because he was an assistant under Lloyd Carr. His dedication, fanaticism, and love for Michigan are what made him a winner, and ultimately what got him the coaching job.

Reporters and bloggers alike are sometimes baffled by Hoke's amazing ability to recruit, and those who were skeptical about him are slowly and steadily turning into believers. As an example, Brad at Maize and Blue Nation was mum on Brady Hoke and whether or not he considered the hire to be a good one. Yet when Hoke's staff landed Catholic Central recruit Matt Godin, one of the best defensive linesmen in the state of Michigan, Brad said, "Okay it's now safe to assume that Hoke and [Greg] Mattison recruit insanely well. First of all, they are dominating the state of Michigan, and making a dent in Ohio as well. If you look at the size of these defensive players, including Godin who stands 6-6, 265, there's clearly a difference in what Rodriguez/Robinson thought was big enough for the [Big Ten], and what Hoke/Mattison think is big enough. I think I'm with Hoke so far."

To anyone who has seen Hoke speak or followed him in the news, such a development is nothing new. His staff has landed at least seven of the top ten recruits in the state of Michigan alone. This goes back to the Bo Schembechler way of recruiting: you focus on the Midwest. Because the Wolverines have not landed such an array of Michigan and Ohio recruits since the Lloyd Carr days, and perhaps because Rodriguez had difficulty, people seem to be unable to figure out how Hoke is doing it.

The obvious answer is his enthusiasm. Hoke has a fanaticism for Michigan that is practically contagious. He understands and values the traditions in the way that so many Michigan fans do. His selling points to recruits cannot help but be sincere. When you see Brady Hoke, you see someone who loves the University of Michigan. He uses the momentum of Michigan not to build himself up, but to strive for excellence, because that's what Michigan ultimately is. If you're a Michigan fan, you can appreciate that. If you're not, you probably see it as arrogance. And so, when Hoke was asked how he has recruited so well in such a short amount of time, he answered honestly. To him, it was something that somehow could not be clearer.

"This might sound arrogant, and if it is, it is: we're Michigan," he said. "We have a global education. We're the winningest program in the history of college football. We have a tremendous staff of guys. The lifeblood for all of us, no doubt, is the guys you bring in your program. We've really tried to focus on the guys that fit the mold of Michigan with the integrity and character that we want to have. We want guys who will play with a toughness and play with an accountability in a team for each other. Those guys out on the road, they work it and do a tremendous job, but first and foremost: it's Michigan."

It is this type of dedication and passion for Michigan that he uses to win people over. Character and integrity were already big selling points Hoke made in his first press conference, and that showed people he was going to go after the right kids, the kids who understand that it would be a privilege to go to Michigan—as opposed to Ohio State, which made Terrelle Pryor feel like a deity in Columbus. In Ann Arbor, Hoke understands that there is something bigger and more significant than himself. It's the University of Michigan.

This is why he feels honored to be its football coach, why he holds the program to such high standards, and why he is apparently ready to meet the program's expectations. When he tells that to anyone—recruits, reporters, or fans—it's hard not to support him. His attitude towards Michigan is just plain honesty, how he feels about it. That's why, to the rest of us, he's made it look so easy.

To say that Hoke has done a fantastic job at Michigan will be hollow if he fails on the field, however—just as Rodriguez did. There is optimism, because all signs say that he should succeed. He has tons of returning starters on offense. He has brought a stellar defensive coordinator to teach fundamentals to a shaky defense. And, in what is probably the most impressive, he has turned teams into winners with much less. Hoke may have taken longer to turn programs around at Ball State and San Diego State, his previous two coaching positions, but the disparity in talent was likely the reason. With Michigan, Hoke has great players who are eager to learn. More importantly, they are eager to win.

Personally, I have been supportive of Brady Hoke since his first press conference, where I myself went from skeptical to believer, and I like Hoke's confidence and his energy from the love he has for Michigan, but I still have some doubts that Michigan will be as successful as Hoke expects (i.e. Big Ten Champions) in 2011. The primary reason for my doubt is that these are the same players that Rodriguez recruited and coached and were somehow frustratingly uncompetitive in the Big Ten.

Our offense is capable but hardly consistent. Roy Roundtree is probably Michigan's best receiver but does not always catch the ball when he needs to on third or fourth down. Denard Robinson is fast, yes, but does not weave well between defenders within arms reach; he is better in open space. Michigan's many running backs show glimmers of excellence but struggle to shake off tackles, and few have stayed healthy. The defense either did not fit in a 3-3-5, were simply less talented than we believed, or did not know how to tackle.

When he was fired, Rodriguez argued that 2011 would have been the difference. "We had gotten over the worst of it," he said. If he is right, then his players will win the Big Ten in 2011. I find that hard to believe because in 2010 Michigan did not lose the Big Ten narrowly, we lost it because we were so uncompetitive we hardly stood a chance. The blowout loss to Mississippi State solidified that, if anything.

Perhaps all Michigan's players needed was to be taught fundamentals, and because Hoke and Mattison are approaching fall camp in that respect, they will turn the program around quickly. However, if Hoke is correct, then the program is already there: it doesn't need to be turned around. That might turn out to be the right attitude.

Hoke has been confident and optimistic ("The expectation of this program is to win the Big Ten Championship") while at the same time blunt and candid. He has told reporters that the players are not where he wants them to be. Are they making progress? Yes. Will they win the Big Ten Championship? That remains to be seen.

It's possible that Hoke can motivate the players to do what they could not under Rodriguez. Yet Rodriguez's players never seemed unmotivated: they wanted to win because it was time to or because seniors were departing. It just seemed like everyone else was just a little more motivated. Michigan State, for instance, regularly plays its best game of the season against Michigan, while Michigan has recently played its best game of the season against Notre Dame. (A few weeks ago, we laid out the expectations Brady Hoke is facing, and Notre Dame falls pretty low on the list because we've beaten them for the past two years.)

Throughout all of this, Hoke has been appropriately evasive. All the great college football coaches are. He makes you feel that Michigan will be a winner very soon while at the same time saying that there is a lot of work to do, and that work will be very difficult. It's the attitude that has made him a program changer. I have no doubt that Hoke is a Michigan Man and understands what Michigan needs. He will take Michigan in the right direction.

And he will prove himself on the field. He has to.

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