The University of Michigan football program isn’t used to this. It isn’t used to staring up at half the Big Ten/Eleven. It isn’t used to fielding a defense that was perilously close to scraping the bottom of the barrel—nationally—and giving up more points in a season than Michigan teams used to surrender in three.
Michigan football had been living in the penthouse and is now slumming. This is a program whose name wasn’t just spoken, it was said with a sneer—by both supporters and rivals.
Michigan didn’t get hurt, it inflicted it on others.
It started in earnest with the hiring of Bo Schembechler in 1969, and for the next four decades, just about, Michigan football was 10 wins, a Top 20 ranking (or higher) and a conference championship or very close to it. It was fall Saturdays spent terrorizing visitors to the Big House before 101,000-plus pairs of leather lungs.
It was a win over Michigan State, one over Ohio State at a rate of at least once every two years, a helluva tussle with Notre Dame and a bowl game—where the mystique sometimes took a hit. But at least there was a mystique.
Michigan football was a monster, being fed by the media, the fanbase, the alumni and the larger-than-life personality of Schembechler, the Chairman of the Board. Frank Sinatra had nothing on Bo.
Even after Bo retired in 1989, the program didn’t miss a beat. His disciples took over—Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr—and the monster stayed fat and it kept devouring MSU and then it even slapped Ohio State in most years.
Michigan football was, at the same time, real and mythical. The players arrived as teenagers and left as men. It wasn’t so much a program as it was a place, like West Point. It’s a wonder the players could move every Saturday, what with the weight of so much history and tradition on their backs. Yet no matter how much blood, sweat and tears were shed, the participants declared that it was all worth it.
But it’s not easy being Blue these days.
Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez—square peg, meet round hole—breezed into Ann Arbor from West Virginia and ever since, the Michigan program has been Humpty Dumpty, post great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…
Rodriguez is gone, given the ziggy by Athletic Director David Brandon in January, a move only slightly less necessary than when Moses raised his hands at the banks of the Red Sea.
The Man Who Would Save Michigan Football is so far removed from Rodriguez that you need a protractor to measure the difference.
Brady Hoke, ever since he was hired by Brandon from San Diego State, has been walking around Ann Arbor and other parts like his hair is on fire. Everywhere Hoke goes, he talks up Michigan football. As a former assistant at the school, Hoke gets it.
No one has to remind Hoke how important it is to beat Ohio State, squash Michigan State and give Notre Dame fits. Hoke doesn’t need a GPS to find State Street or Packard or the Diag. And certainly no one has to slip him any caffeine.
Under Hoke, Michigan isn’t “going” to do anything. With Hoke, you’re not going to do something; you’re “gouhnna” do it.
As in, “We’re gouhnna work hard. We’re gouhnna fight. We’re gouhnna battle. This is gouhnna be a winning program again.”
When you say that someone conveys something in their own words, it’s literal when it comes to Brady Hoke—he really does have his own words.
Hoke also has his own style, and it’s just what Michigan needs right now.
For all his inferring that the cupboard was near bare when he arrived in Ann Arbor three years ago, Rich Rodriguez has left a mess for Hoke.
The image of the university has taken a major hit. Michigan is pitied by some, laughed at by others. The last time that happened simultaneously, the Wolverines were being stomped on by Ohio State in 1968.
Then Bo was hired.
The word about Hoke when he was hired was that he could recruit a little bit. Nothing since then has changed that belief; Michigan has been widely praised for bringing in a competent class, which wasn’t easy because Hoke had mere weeks to get commitments after his hiring.
Then there’s the matter of that school down south.
Hoke started talking about Ohio State early in his introductory press conference. Only, he called OSU, simply, “Ohio,” or “that school in Ohio.”
Hoke made no bones about it; OSU is the biggest game on Michigan’s schedule. He said as much—in his own words.
Sorry, MSU fans. Three straight wins over the Wolverines hasn’t elevated your school past “Ohio” in terms of importance. Nor should they.
Ohio’s coach—for now—Jim Tressel, is either bemused by Hoke or admires him, depending on how you read Tressel’s comments about Hoke, made at the recent Big Ten coaches gathering.
“Brady’s great. Anything that’s good for the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is good for college football. And Brady’s good for the rivalry.”
It’s become a one-sided rivalry, and those trends in the past have cost some coaches their jobs—both in Ann Arbor and in Columbus. The Buckeyes fired John Cooper because Michigan was beating OSU like a drum every November.
Rodriguez, incredibly, actually admitted that he, basically, didn’t know “how big of a deal” it was to beat Ohio State until he’d been at Michigan for a while.
Hoke has only known it to be a big deal. The biggest, in fact.
But Hoke needs to start beating Michigan State, too. And continue to beat Notre Dame. And he needs to keep having good recruiting classes. He needs to restore pride and faith in Michigan football once again.
Brady Hoke has one charge and one charge only: He has to save Michigan football. That’s all.
And you know what?
I think he’s gouhnna do it.