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Football is fun once again for the Wolverines
Looking at Brady Hoke’s big, linebacker’s body, it isn’t hard to imagine him as a little kid, riding a Stingray bike with the banana seat to a pee-wee football game, black-and-gold helmet gleaming in the autumn sun and the last bit of his customary Saturday pre-game glazed doughnut sticking to his fingers.
Especially the doughnut part.
For Hoke, that image remains his default setting for football, despite his hard-nosed approach to the game. After the hard work, commitment, sacrifice and preparation, it’s about the fun of game day, something Michigan football fans have been missing lately. The ugly remnants of the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment still litter their memories, and some wonder whether the iconic program can regain its proud status. Hoke, a former Michigan assistant and Ohio kid who grew up loving the Wolverines, believes it can be done. It’s going to take a lot of work, but the ultimate payoff will bring the same kind of joy to the U-M community that those 1960s Saturdays provided for him.
“Game day’s got to be fun,” Hoke says. “That’s why Sunday-to-Friday is so hard. It’s important to a lot of people, but it’s still being eight, nine, 10 years old and going to those early Saturday morning games.
“It’s still football.”
Don’t get Hoke wrong. He isn’t one of those freewheelin’ coaches who tries to be everybody’s friend, even if his last stop was laid-back San Diego State. His old-fashioned methods have no room for compromise, and his message is delivered bluntly and with a voice that could crack concrete. His idea of “fun” on the football field is “blocking, tackling and taking the line of scrimmage,” not basketball on grass or letting people “play in space.” If everybody’s nose is bloody after the game or practice, things have gone according to plan.
He may not be the most creative person to put a whistle around his neck, but after three years of newfangled football in Ann Arbor that seemed to forget that physical defense was a prerequisite for winning, Hoke’s methods are like comfort food for Michigan fans, who grew tired of Rodriguez’s nouvelle cuisine.
“Brady is not a hard guy to get to know,” says new Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, who followed Hoke to Michigan from San Diego State. “You hear someone say, ‘That guy is complex.’ Not Brady. What you see is what you get. He doesn’t put on airs.”
Hoke arrives in Ann Arbor at a critical juncture in Michigan football history — just like Bo Schembechler did in the late 1960s. Like it was then, Michigan is a wounded program, having posted losing records in Big Ten play three straight seasons and suffering through a detestable seven-game futility streak against Ohio State, a streak that was punctuated by a 37–7 loss last season during which it appeared as if the Buckeyes were actually taking it easy on U-M. Unlike Rodriguez, who never quite understood the Michigan culture, Hoke is quite familiar with not only the level of success expected from his teams but also how they are supposed to achieve victory.
He’ll replace the spread with a pro-style offense, and he spent much of the spring trying to figure out which players he could convert into fullbacks and tight ends. If Hoke has his way, Michigan’s defense will never allow Wisconsin to run the football 29 straight times, as the Badgers did in last year’s humbling 48–28 defeat. Michigan football is about toughness and determination. It’s a Big Ten mindset that sneers at trends and gimmicks and believes in football basics and competition above all. Hoke embraces that.
“Competition is critical,” Hoke says. “Every great team that I’ve been associated with — Michigan, San Diego State, Ball State when we won the (MAC) championship — has had a group of guys that have been, number one, accountable and have competed every time they took the field.
“They have competed in the classroom so they’re not a distraction to the team. It’s so important at the end of the day. When you have a job interview out in the real world that you compete. You have to be competitive and get up off the ground when someone knocks you down.”
Hoke’s success is tied to his ability to build strong relationships with players and instill the type of discipline needed to create accountability and a sense of team. Miss a class, and your entire position group shows up the next day at 6 a.m. to run or lift. Fail to work, and you might find yourself looking for another place to play. His mindset has roots in a revelation he experienced after his sophomore year as a player at Ball State, where he admits that his goals were “to play football and probably drink every beer in Muncie, Indiana.” Once Hoke realized how destructive his path was to himself and his teammates, he began the process of transforming himself from a lout into a productive person. His career, which has featured stops at Michigan (assistant: 1995-2002), Ball State (head coach: ’03-08) and SDSU (head coach: 2009-10), has been characterized by a discipline he lacked early on in his life. He now makes sure his players don’t have similar episodes.
“Brady contends, and I agree, that not everybody can play here,” Borges says. “But if you’re willing to accept the discipline and regimen, you’ll be successful.”
The Michigan mantra, first uttered by Schembechler when he was trying to figure out who was worthy of playing for the Wolverines back before the ’69 season, is: “Those who stay will be champions.” But you have to get them into the program for them to stay, and that may be Hoke’s biggest challenge. Three years of sagging fortunes under Rodriguez made Michigan less appealing to recruits. “Michigan is not the hot school it was five-to-seven years ago, but it’s still Michigan,” says national recruiting analyst Bobby Burton, editor of 247Sports. Hoke’s first class was solid, especially since he had less than a month to salvage it. If the Wolverines are to contend in the stronger-than-ever Big Ten, Hoke must lure top talent to Ann Arbor and fit it into his vision. Fortunately, his experiences help him. “He gets along with kids well,” Burton says. If he lands the recruits, he must then coach them to a level once enjoyed by the Wolverines.
This year, that means working with a host of returning players who were recruited by Rodriguez to run a spread attack that is much different than Borges’ offense and a bunch of defenders not necessarily suited for trench warfare. That will entail some concessions schematically but no ground given in philosophy or broad strokes. Hoke won’t stand for that.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to us being accountable to each other and the program,” Hoke says. “We’re going to have the character and integrity and toughness mentally and physically to be successful.”
And doughnuts. And fun. Especially on game day.
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