January 11, 2011
Michigan athletic director David Brandon made it clear last week that he would pull no punches, spare no expense and swing for the fences in pursuit of the next face of college football's all-time winningest program, and you can't accuse the man of not taking his cuts. Last week, Brandon struck out on his first choice, ex-Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who happened to be everyone else's first choice, too. Last night, Brandon struck out on his second choice, ex-Wolverine lineman Les Miles, who has one national championship ring at LSU and wants to take his shot at another one. Two big names, two big, public whiffs.
The guy who finally accepted the job today, San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, is more like a leading off an inning with a bloop single, or a walk: Respectable, under the circumstances, but a long way to go before anyone gets excited. The university plans to introduce the new boss at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, for which one lucky, underwhelmed Michigan fan can win a seat.
Well, Brady Hoke is excited, anyway: An Ohio native, Ball State alum and longtime Wolverine assistant under Lloyd Carr, Michigan is his dream job, the endpoint he's been aiming for most of his career. He also fits at least the first two criteria Brandon laid out for Rich Rodriguez's replacement after firing Rodriguez last week, as Hoke is a) An experienced head coach, with stints at Ball State and San Diego State; and b) A defensive coach, having presided over one of the most dominant units on one of the dominant defenses in the last 20 years as defensive line coach for Michigan's 1997 national championship team – a far, far cry from the rock-bottom units that have struggled as Big Ten whipping dog over the last two years.
Hoke's track record for producing winners is less obvious, beginning with his actual record: Just 47-50 in eight years as a head coach. Hoke does have two major credits over the last three years, the first for resurrecting Ball State as an undefeated MAC frontrunner. He got out of Muncie just in time to avoid a major exodus from the program after the 2008 season, and had his new team (now his old team), San Diego State, in a bowl game this winter for the first time since 1998, After a solid decade as Mountain West doormats, the Aztecs won nine in Hoke's second year, with all four losses came by a combined 15 points.
Most importantly, though, Hoke is an official repudiation of the disavowed Rich Rodriguez era, if not the man himself. Rodriguez was explicitly an attempt to bring the stale formula of the Schembechler school into the 21st Century: He ran a spread offense that traded no-frills brawn for speed and misdirection; his staff swore and intensified workouts; recruiting got more far flung, routinely dipping into Florida for a parade of tiny, quick guys to fill out the depth chart at the newly created position of slot receiver. He had no ties to the Michigan program, the state of Michigan, or the Big Ten, and after disappointing seasons that bordered on collapse – at least, on what passed for collapse at the time – in 2005 and 2007, that was part of the point. After 40 years, the old way had led to four straight defeats against Ohio State and eternal humiliation at the hands of Appalachian State.
But the culture clash and the probation never really rated among the list of charges against Rodriguez compared to his record – he lost, too often and by too much, and more than anyone could remember Michigan ever losing before. In contrast, the last days of the Lloyd Carr administration seemed like a Gibralter in the distance.
Hoke doesn't have Harbaugh or Miles' resumé; he didn't play or coach under the sainted Schembechler. But he does have the old-school Michigan pedigree from his days under Carr, and will commit to building the program behind the burly linemen and towering pocket slingers that Harbaugh and Miles have established at Stanford and LSU. After three years of attempting to transition out of that mindset into something smaller, faster, sleeker and newer, Hoke is a sign that the Wolverines have declared defeat and decided to turn back home. That will make a lot people happy, but only if the wins eventually follow.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.