Saturday, December 31, 2011

Brady Who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His name was Brady Hoke.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all know who Brady Hoke is.

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