ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- This summer, on the eve of his fourth season as Michigan’s head football coach, Brady Hoke saw the team he always wanted. The Wolverines had a retreat, with motivational speakers and a big cookout, and they all slept on cots and blowup mattresses on their practice field. The next morning, coaches made breakfast for the players.
For Hoke, the highlight was a double-elimination kickball tournament, which lasted around three hours. It finished with a championship game in the school’s softball stadium.
“We put guys together who are never together,” Hoke says. “It was neat to see guys who don’t really hang out together strategizing -- because there is a strategy in playing kickball, to some degree. It was absolutely fun to see all the guys in the stands -- who weren’t playing for the championship -- cheering.”
Some fans will read this and think: Oh, that’s nice. Let him coach kickball. Well, some people don’t see college football the way Hoke does.
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Hoke is sitting in his office in Michigan’s football facility, and according to the expert opinions of people who may or may not be experts, his seat is hot. Hoke went 11-2 in his first season in Ann Arbor. He went 8-5 the next year, and then 7-6 in 2013. He fired his close friend, offensive coordinator Al Borges, this offseason.
Hoke continues to catch flak for not wearing a headset on the sideline, even though he has explained, roughly 14 million times, that he does wear a headset sometimes, and constantly communicates with his assistant coaches, and has somebody standing behind him talking about play calls. When you go 7-6 at Michigan, people just assume you are clueless.
You can look at Hoke’s record and see regression. This is not what Hoke sees. He sees the foundation of the program he wants to build -- the kind of program that people used to celebrate more, a generation ago, when college football did not seem so much like the pros.
Hoke’s first team, in 2011, had exceptional leaders and some injury luck, helping propel it to that 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. The ‘12 team lost to four of the top eight teams in the final AP Poll, which helps explain 8-5.
Last year’s 7-6 team was the big disappointment to Hoke, and not just because of the record. It did not look or feel like a Michigan team is supposed to look or feel.
The offensive line was terrible. Practice efforts were inconsistent. And, while it may seem strange to those unfamiliar with Michigan football, the winningest program in the history of the sport takes the most pride in how it responds to losing. From 1968 to 2007, Michigan posted 39 winning records, one 6-6 record and zero losing records. Other schools won more national titles in that stretch (Michigan only won one), but no program was more resilient.
The 2013 team was missing something. It went beyond scheme or talent. The team was, somehow, less than the sum of its parts. “We had a unique senior class,” Hoke says. “I could have given more tools for them in leadership.”
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Asked if the seniors failed to set a daily example for the young players, Hoke said, “I would say I didn’t set the daily example. That’s not them. That starts with me. It always does.”
He failed to win enough games, but he also failed to get the best out of his players. That gnaws at him.
Spend some time with Hoke, and you can tell: He thinks his 2014 team, which is currently (and deservedly) unranked, will be different. The Wolverines are young, but all but three of the players are his recruits. This means they should fit his schemes. More importantly, it means they understand what made the program run so well for so many years, because that is what Hoke sells on the recruiting trail.
He talks about character and integrity. While he says “believe me, not every guy’s been an angel,” he also says, “our team keeps getting better.” This sounds silly, because the records keep getting worse. But Hoke finally sees the depth of talent and character that he desires.
So, he looks at talented senior quarterback Devin Gardner, and says: “If Devin Gardner slips up, practice-wise, game-wise, he won’t be the quarterback.” He sees defensive end Frank Clark and inside linebacker Jake Ryan, both All-Big Ten-type players, and says: “If Frank Clark isn’t practicing his ass off every day, Frank Clark’s not gonna be in there. We moved Jake inside and it gives him 50 percent more chances to make plays, but he knows, if he doesn’t play, this other guy is coming in.”
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Best of all for Hoke, those guys all seem to like it this way. “You walk through that weight room and they’re pushing each other," Hoke says. "They’re competing against each other, and they’re fighting for the same positions, but they’re helping each other.”
Coaches coach for all sorts of reasons: ego, an obsession with winning, innate competitiveness, the desire to outsmart the guy on the other sideline. Hoke takes his greatest joy in getting through to his players. He says things like, “Character wins in life, and character wins out there,” pointing toward Michigan Stadium. He says he takes his greatest pride in 69 out of 69 seniors graduating in three years. He says his team is like having “115 sons.”
“Look, we want to win every doggone game," Hoke says. "Those losses hurt, but it never hurts as bad as when you can’t save a kid, or you can’t get him to understand what you’re working towards for him.”
People might read that and think it’s an empty sales pitch, or self-defense from a guy who just went 7-6, with five losses in his last six games. Hoke doesn’t mind.
“It’s like not wearing a headset, right?” he says. “I don’t worry about what other people think.”
That’s probably for the best. Other people keep getting the wrong idea, anyway.
Hoke fired Borges in January and hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama to replace him. The Michigan athletic department made a big show of introducing Nussmeier, and critics added up a few facts:
A. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon is into big shows.
B. Hoke has been very close to Borges for many years.
C. Brandon took questions at the press conference; Hoke did not.
D. Michigan waited until January to make the change.
They concluded that:
E. Brandon forced Hoke to fire Borges and hire Nussmeier.
Brandon has denied it. Hoke has denied it. But A, B, C and D are undeniable, so critics say Hoke is simply Brandon’s puppet.
They are wrong, in both the macro and micro sense. Hoke is his own man. He tried to hire Nussmeier once before, when he coached at Ball State, and he and Nussmeier share the same agent. The idea that Brandon chose Nussmeier is silly, as Brandon would be the first to say. As for Borges: Hoke’s greatest strength is understanding the need for coaches to connect with players. Borges was not connecting anymore. It was clear on the field. That was not entirely Borges’ fault, but something had to change.
Hoke was asked: Have you talked much to Borges since January?
No response. Not a word.
The simple truth is that Hoke fired Borges. He hated doing it, but he did it nonetheless. The skepticism is not surprising, because people perpetually underestimate Hoke. Not necessarily as a coach -- everybody is entitled to an opinion about that, and since Hoke is 73-63 in his college career, some of those will invariably be negative. That’s fine. But they underestimate him as a man.
They see video of him saying, “This is Michigan, for God’s sake!” or hear his stories about drinking every beer in Muncie, Ind., when he was a young player at Ball State, before coaches convinced him to grow up, and think he belongs in one of those old Da Bears skits on Saturday Night Live. (Which were resurrected in State Farm commercials with Aaron Rodgers.) But Hoke is as comfortable with himself, and as sure in his beliefs, as any coach in the country. He looks people in the eye when speaking to them. He says what he means. There are questions about whether his way works, but he has never wavered in his belief that it does.
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He tries to run the program that he thinks his school deserves, and that means putting the university first, players second and his own self-interest third. Unlike some prominent coaches, Hoke does not run players off his team because they aren’t good enough or arrange phony medical redshirts to get another scholarship.
“Running guys off, all that, that’s not us,” he says. “Have we had guys who medicaled? Yeah. But they really medicaled. Have we had some guys who left during the transition? Yeah. But I don’t think we’ve ever run a guy off.”
It can be hard to balance everything and stay true to himself. Last year Hoke was in the middle of a strange, and frankly tragic, firestorm. In November 2009, when Hoke coached at San Diego State, Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student. The school did not take action for four years, for reasons that remain unclear. On Nov. 20, 2013, according to The Michigan Daily, the university found Gibbons responsible for sexual assault. Gibbons played at Iowa three days later, but missed the following game, against Ohio State, because of what Hoke described as a “muscle pull.” Gibbons then missed Michigan’s bowl game because of what Hoke called a “family issue.”
Hoke has been told not to comment on the case. Still, when asked if he spoke the truth, he said, “Yes.”
So, Gibbons had a muscle pull?
And was it right to call it a family issue?
“Yeah. I think it’s a family issue.”
For a public university, Michigan is notoriously (and some would say illegally) private. Hoke was trapped; his bosses told him not to comment on the case, but the media wanted to know where his kicker was. “Family issue” was the phrase he chose. The university’s handling of the Gibbons case merits close scrutiny. Some important questions remain unanswered. But it defies logic that Hoke intentionally played a kicker against the wishes of his administration.
Asked if it bothers him that people think he covered up such a serious crime, Hoke said, “When I go to sleep at night, I know the truth. I know my integrity.”
He wants to keep every player in the program, to offer second chances to everybody. But that’s often a convenient excuse for coaches to keep talent around. Hoke understands the school comes first. That’s why he says, “You want to save all of them and you do your damnedest to help them, teach them, educate them. But you’re not going to be able to do it for everybody. Sometimes there are some that are more hardheaded than you are. Sometimes you can’t do it. And those are the things that break your heart.”
A week before Hoke said that, wide receiver Csont’e York had punched a man outside an Ann Arbor bar and broke his jaw in three places. On Monday, Hoke kicked York off the team. His official statement did not say that doing so broke his heart, but it was implied.
After a 7-6 season at a place like Michigan, it can be hard to find a fan who supports the head coach. But one exists. His name is Ted Spencer. He is the admissions director at the school.
It is common for coaches to tussle with their admissions directors; many coaches believe that 4.4 speed is an acceptable substitute for a 4.0 GPA. Michigan is no stranger to those tussles, though they are usually kept private. But Spencer says Hoke is different.
“He is looking for kids who will both academically be successful and whose character is strong enough to participate in Big Ten sports and represent the university very well,” Spencer says. “I’m very pleased with the kind of young men he is bringing to us. I give him an A-plus in that area.
“I don’t think Michigan can do any better than Brady Hoke. He really is the kind of person you want your kids to play for.”
He is, he really is, and no, that doesn’t mean he can go 7-6 every year. Hoke knows that. He has no illusions. But it does mean that Michigan will probably give him every chance to succeed, no matter what fans or analysts think.
College football has changed so much over the course of the last decade that it is almost unrecognizable. Hoke believes his ways still work. Maybe we should all hope he is right.