Moments before the Michigan Wolverines introduced Brady Hoke as their new head football coach in 2011, Michigan fans had lots of questions. Why not hire a national star like Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh, who both played at Michigan? Who was Brady Hoke? Was he up to the task?
Hoke answered these questions by nailing his first press conference. He won over more Michigan fans in just a few minutes than his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, had been able to do in three years. When a reporter asked Hoke if the Wolverines would be rebuilding, he famously replied, “This is Michigan, for godsakes” – and a star was born.
It was hard to imagine a happier honeymoon than Hoke’s. In his rookie season, the Wolverines beat Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State – for the first time in eight years. They won their first BCS bowl game since Tom Brady did the job in 2000, en route to an 11-2 record. From the fans in the stands to the team in the trenches, the love for Coach Hoke was universal.
But then a great senior class graduated, the schedule got tougher, and Michigan’s amazing luck finally ran out. The team went 8-5, but most fans gave Hoke a pass, and rightly so.
But the Wolverines don’t look much better this year, and might even be worse. The Wolverines narrowly escaped losing to the lowly Akron Zips– which might have topped Michigan’s historic upset at the hands of Appalachian State. Then they slipped past a bad Connecticut team, before finally losing to a Penn State team so hampered by sanctions, it was playing with one hand tied behind its back.
Still, the Wolverines were 6-1, until last weekend. The scoreboard said Michigan State 29, Michigan 6, but the Spartans did more damage than that. The swarming Spartans sacked Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner seven times, and held Michigan to -48 yards rushing. Yes, that’s right: Michigan would have been better off not running a play at all then trying to run the ball.
It’s not the two losses that have Wolverine fans worried. It’s that the team is not getting better. Instead of looking sharp and strong – Michigan trademarks -- they look sloppy and soft.
To the fans’ credit, only the lunatic fringe is calling for Hoke’s head. His great recruits are still underclassmen, and even hinting that the coach is in trouble could scare off the next class of recruits. Further, if Michigan fires two coaches after three years, it becomes a revolving door that no credible coaching candidate would even consider.
A more concrete problem is next year’s home schedule, arguably the worst in Michigan history. Instead of seeing traditional rivals like Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, Michigan fans will be treated to Miami of Ohio, new Big Ten member Maryland, and yes, Appalachian State, for reasons only the Athletic Director must know.
Well, the schedule might be down, but the prices are sky high! A game for a family of four can top a thousand bucks – or two days at Disney World.
Michigan’s ticket takers are worried that thousands of fans, already pushed to the limit, might finally drop their seats. That could break Michigan’s 38-year streak of 100,000-plus crowds. A few more losses on the field this month wouldn’t help.
Last year, I wrote, “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 coaching style charming or cheesy, depending on one just thing: the number of games he wins.”
Former coach Bo Schembechler used to say: every day, you get better, or you get worse. If the Wolverines get better, the wins will take care of themselves, and all will be right in Arborville. If they don’t, no one can save them, and the future will be someone else’s to face.