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 of taking over the Wolverines, and returning the team to glory?
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 capture in three years, for a variety of reasons. When a reporter asked Hoke if the Wolverines would be rebuilding in his first season, he famously replied, “This is Michigan, for godsakes” – and a star was born.
It’s hard to remember a happier honeymoon than Hoke’s. In his rookie season, the Wolverines beat Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State – the latter for the first time in eight years. They won their first BCS bowl game since a young man named 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. Hoke’s second team went 8-5, but most fans gave Hoke a pass, and I believe 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 barely slipped past a bad Connecticut team – which fired their coach shortly thereafter – before finally losing to a Penn State squad so hampered by sanctions, including a drastic reduction of scholarships, it was playing with one hand tied behind its back.
Still, the Wolverines were 6-1 – until last weekend. The final score said Michigan State 29, Michigan 6, but the Spartans did a lot more damage than that. They swarmed Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all day, sacking him seven times, and held Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing. Yes, that’s right: Michigan would have been better off not running a play at all than trying to run the ball.
The Spartans are now 8-1, and playing for a Big Ten title. The Wolverines are 6-2, and playing to keep their fans on the bandwagon. 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, and seemingly more so every week.
To Michigan fans’ credit, only the lunatic fringe is calling for Hoke’s head. His two great recruiting classes have barely reached the field, and even hinting that the coach is in trouble could scare off the next class of recruits. Further, if Michigan fires two consecutive coaches after three years, the place starts to look like a revolving door that no credible coaching candidate would even consider.
A more concrete problem is next year’s home schedule, which might be the worst in Michigan history. Instead of being served 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! Taking in a Michigan football game for a family of four – without restaurants or hotels – can easily top a thousand bucks, the rough equivalent of two days at DisneyWorld.
Michigan’s bean counters are worried that thousands of fans, already pushed to the limit, might finally drop their tickets. That could break Michigan’s 38-year streak of 100,000-plus crowds. A few more losses on the field in the remaining four games – none of them easy – certainly 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 over time, 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.
And that is the last thing Michigan needs right now.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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