Friday, November 25, 2011

Season's End Will Determine Hoke's Legacy

Yep, we're talking about that subject again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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