Brady Hoke grew up in Ohio, graduated from Ball State, and started his coaching career at Yorktown High in Indiana. He is a football man, through and through.
In 1995, Hoke began an eight-year stint assisting Michigan, a run that included the Wolverines’ first national title since 1948. The coaches and players loved the guy.
They kept in touch, while Hoke turned around Ball State and San Diego State.
After coach Rich Rodriguez’s third season, former athletic director Dave Brandon fired him. Michigan fans wanted Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles, but Brandon hired Hoke. After going outside the Michigan football family for only the fourth time in more than a century, Michigan had officially declared itself: Only a Michigan Man would coach Michigan.
In a crucial introduction, the largely unknown Hoke hit all the right notes to win over just about everyone. When asked if he would need to rebuild, he replied, “This is Michigan, fer Godsakes.” Brandon made it into a t-shirt.
Hoke enjoyed the kind of universal support Rodriguez never could generate. That included an open checkbook to hire the best assistants.
In Hoke’s first season, the Wolverines went 11-2, and the man could do no wrong. After that season, I wrote:
“When Hoke refers to injuries as ‘boo-boos’ and Ohio State as ‘Ohio,’ fans decided he was a motivational genius, who understood exactly what the duel was all about."
“When fans saw Hoke working the sidelines without a headset, 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, it’s cool. But when the losses start piling up, your idiosyncrasies seem a little less charming.”
Well, after the Wolverines went 8-5 in Hoke’s second season, and 7-6 in his third, some fans started dusting off their pitchforks and torches. This season, the Wolverines couldn’t get out of their own way, stumbling to a 5-7 record. Hoke’s teams didn’t get better during each of his four seasons, and most of his players didn’t get better during their careers. That’s coaching.
On Tuesday, interim athletic director Jim Hackett told Hoke it was over. When Hoke told his players, a lot of tough guys shed tears. They still love him.
It’s hard to feel too sorry for a guy walking away with $17 million, almost a million per Big Ten win. But it’s also hard to watch the dream of a decent man turn into a nightmare.
A few minutes later, Hackett met with the press to give them the news. He pointed out Hoke didn’t cut corners, he graduated his players who stayed, and he cared about all of them. But Hackett was refreshingly free of corporate jargon when he explained why he’d made his decision: "I believe that Brady had enough time to produce results and they're just not there.”
Hackett’s next job will be his biggest: hire a coach who can bring Big Blue back, and keep it from going into the red.
The name everyone has in mind, once again, is Jim Harbaugh. When he was in junior high, his dad assisted Bo Schembechler, and Jim served as the team’s ball boy. He became Michigan’s starting quarterback, and is now seen as its savior.
He may be, but he’s not the only person who could coach the Wolverines. Seven years ago, it seemed like every Michigan fan wanted Louisiana State head coach Les Miles. If Hackett asked, Miles would come back tomorrow.
Beyond that, Michigan could hire almost anyone – and Hackett doesn’t seem to consider being a “Michigan Man” a factor in his decision.
It’s worth remembering that back in 1968, Michigan athletic director Don Canham first asked Joe Paterno to become Michigan’s head coach. Then he settled on some unknown from Miami of Ohio, named Glenn Schembechler. Seemed to work out pretty well.
But it’s a good bet Hackett will go for a big name – and he probably should. After all, he’s betting the entire athletic department on his first hire.