Brady Hoke wasn’t the first coach on most U-M football fans’ wish lists. But just seven months into his tenure, many have embraced him with an enthusiasm that verges on giddiness. “I’ve put up a tag on this blog that says ‘Brady Hoke poops magic,’ says Brian Cook, founder of the popular U-M sports blog Mgoblog.com. “Hoke is just walking around with a horseshoe, while Rich Rodriguez could’ve been a character in a Shakespeare play. He was done wrong by the universe.”
Fate surely has smiled on Hoke. Though the coach has earned acclaim for hiring a strong staff and recruiting several top players, it was pure luck that he took the reins at Michigan just four months before Ohio State lost coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrell Pryor to a series of NCAA violations. Upcoming player suspensions and other possible NCAA sanctions could weaken the U-M’s nemesis for years to come, driving top recruits into Michigan’s welcoming arms. But was fortune also a factor in Rodriguez’s downfall?
Dave Nightingale, editor of the U-M fan blog Mgobrew.com, thinks so. “I don’t know if it was an unlucky star, or if Rodriguez walked under a ladder, smashed a mirror, then kicked a black cat. But the stream of bad publicity–it was just one thing after the next. There was never good news. Then you lop on the demolitions that the team received at the hands of Ohio State and Wisconsin, and it was just a nightmare in terms of media relations.”
Rodriguez certainly had a gift for bad PR. His tenure at Michigan started with controversy (a bitter lawsuit with West Virginia University, his former employer), and ended with humiliation (a December 2010 banquet in which he teared up and seemed to plead for his job). Along the way, he struggled with player defections, criticism from former players, and NCAA penalties for major rules violations–all while compiling a 15-22 record, including zero wins against archrivals Ohio State and Michigan State.
Detroit Free Press sports reporter Michael Rosenberg argues that Rodriguez’s PR problems just served to exacerbate his failures on the field. “Ultimately, [Rodriguez’s failure] wasn’t about people just deciding they didn’t like Rich Rodriguez. I mean, he just didn’t do a very good job. Rich came in and wanted to create his own sort of culture, to establish something different–the same thing he did at West Virginia when he first got there. So I think he came in overconfident, and it backfired with the group of players he inherited. I think he violated some rules. I think he hired a poor coaching staff, and his staff did not have the connections within Michigan’s traditional recruiting base that it needed to have. And though his teams’ offensive talent and execution were very good, I think he had very poor special teams and a lousy defense.
“Rich is a very bright offensive mind, but he was not hired to be offensive coordinator, he was hired to be head coach,” Rosenberg continues. “And that means hiring a great staff, it means organizing the recruiting, it means building a team that has great spirit and morale and resolve and resilience. And in those areas it didn’t come together for them–which is why, when adversity struck, the team did not respond well. And if you want to fault him or the people who hired him, I think you can probably do both.”
Michigan’s athletic department declined to comment for this article, but many U-M observers see Hoke’s hiring and initial performance as a reaction to Rodriguez’s deficiencies–both personal and professional. Hoke is jovial and media-friendly, while Rodriguez often came off as brooding and uncomfortable with reporters. And where Rodriguez sought out fast, undersized players who could run his spread offense, Hoke’s 2012 recruiting class is dominated by large defensive players. Many observers take that as a sign that the team is returning to its roots. “You have to win football games, in the Big Ten or any power conference, by playing sound defense,” says Nightingale. “I think that’s the thing that really torpedoed Michigan’s seasons over the last three years. If you look at the losses Michigan had, I think we were first in the conference in points scored, and dead last in points allowed. So Hoke’s focus on defense will bring Michigan back to the place that it really needs to be.”
Hoke also has an innate advantage over Rodriguez that could matter more than their different approaches to the game. Unlike Rodriguez, Hoke is a “Michigan man,” having spent eight years as an assistant coach under Lloyd Carr. Speaking at a business networking meeting at Washtenaw United Way over the summer, the new coach wore his Michigan heritage on his sleeve, sharing fond anecdotes and quizzing the audience on U-M football trivia. He left to a rousing ovation. Try as he might, Rodriguez could never make that connection. At the uncomfortable 2010 banquet speech, Rodriguez seemed poignantly aware of his status as a perpetual outsider. “I hope you realize that I truly want to be a Michigan man,” he said. A few weeks later, he was fired.
“Hoke is going back to what we all know and love in a lot of respects, with tradition,” says Nightingale. “So there aren’t those questions about, ‘Will he adapt? Does he understand? How is he changing things?’ Instead, it’s questions about the football team itself and its performance–not questions about the coach.
“Michigan fans and media have the sense of ‘Yeah, he gets it.’ Because at heart, despite being the coach, Hoke’s a Michigan fan. He’s on record saying he wouldn’t wear gray and red because those are Ohio State’s colors–and this is when he was coaching at San Diego State! So I think he understands the university’s heritage and rivalries, and just the little things that make Michigan’s football program what it is. Those things mean a lot to any fan–you have to understand the importance of tradition.”
You also have to win. That remains to be seen (see story below). But whether it’s due to Hoke’s personality, his performance, or just the fact that he’s not Rodriguez, fans clearly have high hopes for the program.
“Whenever you hire a new coach, everybody is gaga about him until he punts on third and four from inside the forty-yard line, so we’re definitely in the honeymoon phase,” says Cook. “But Michigan seems to be refinding its footing under Hoke. If they take advantage of Ohio State’s impending massive NCAA sanctions, they can get to the level where they are a true powerhouse.”
Nightingale agrees. “I took an informal poll of my readers and the Michigan alumni I know, and an overwhelming majority are very happy with who is running our program. And the rest of them will be happy in the long run–so long as Hoke is successful.”