This time last year, Brady Hoke was the darling of Michigan football fans.
He’d charmed everybody at his first press conference, then led a team that had averaged just five wins a year to a 10-2 regular-season record, with thrilling wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska and arch-rival Ohio State.
Then he capped it all off with an overtime victory in the Sugar Bowl.
The man could do no wrong.
When he referred to injuries as “boo-boos” and Ohio State as “Ohio,” fans did not conclude he was an ignoramus who knew nothing about the greatest rivalry in sports, but a motivational genius, who understood exactly what the duel was all about.
When fans noticed Hoke did not wear a headset during games – unlike every other coach in the country –they decided he was not an out-of-touch, glorified cheerleader, but a master delegator and teacher, trusting the play calling to his assistants while he focused on coaching his players.
When you’re winning, everything’s cool. But when you start losing, your quirks start looking a little funny.
So, this year, after the Wolverines got smoked by top-ranked Alabama, then lost to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State – three teams they beat last year – some fans started dusting off their pitchforks and torches, and more will surely follow suit if the Wolverines lose their bowl game, as expected.
But Hoke’s phenomenal freshman year was just as predictable as his sophomore slump.
Last year, almost all of Michigan’s key players returned, including an exceptional class of senior leaders. The schedule was much easier, too. Perhaps most important, the defense simply had to be better than Rich Rodriguez’s historically bad unit – and it was, dramatically.
But this year, crucial players graduated, their schedule was tougher, and their leadership and luck were bound to dip, at least a little – and they did.
Sure enough, now they’re 8-4 – and just to get there, required last second comebacks against Michigan
State and Northwestern. Because Penn State and Ohio State are both ineligible to go to bowl games this year, Michigan will move up in the bowl game pecking order, and therefore will have to play a tougher team than expected – and probably lose.
But to the fans, it’s not just whether you win or lose – wait, what am I saying? Of course it is! But it’s also the way they’re losing that’s making the fans find their pitchforks.
If you’re going to let your assistant coaches pick your plays, as Hoke does, you better pick those assistants very carefully.
One of them transformed Michigan’s defense from one of the worst to one of the best, but another took a thoroughbred offense, led by one-of-a-kind Denard Robinson, and reduced it to a plow horse. In the final plays against Ohio State, Robinson sat on the bench – which didn’t sit well with anyone, even the announcers.
But Robinson didn’t sign up to play for these coaches, and these coaches did not recruit him, either. It won’t be fair to judge Hoke until his recruits become his players, and that takes a few years.
By then, fans will either find Hoke’s style charming or cheesy, depending on just one number: how many games he wins.
As General MacArthur once said, “There is no substitute for victory” -- and that goes double against Ohio State.