Dave Brandon stood in a tunnel in the Superdome following what was then the biggest football win of his tenure as Michigan’s athletic director. Brandon was happy the Wolverines had just beaten Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl following the 2011 season, but he didn’t seem entirely satisfied. He envisioned so much more in the future.
“Our expectations are to win the Big Ten championship,” Brandon said early on the morning of Jan. 4, 2012. “That’s what we’re about, and that’s what we set out to do at the beginning of every season. We didn’t do that this year. We came close. Had a great season. Had a BCS bowl championship. That’s terrific. But we’re here to win the Big Ten championship. We have other goals out there to achieve.”
Brandon wasn’t done, either. “We’ve had a bumpy three years, but we’re Michigan,” he said. “We’re supposed to be playing on the big stage. We’re supposed to be playing against formidable competition. We’re supposed to be in the national hunt. For years and years and years, that was Michigan. That’s what we want Michigan to be in the future.”
Welcome to the future, where none of Brandon’s expectations have been met. Since going to the Sugar Bowl in coach Brady Hoke’s debut season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have regressed. They are 5-8 since the start of Big Ten play last season. That record drops to 3-8 against teams from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame. The Wolverines will open Big Ten play on Saturday against Minnesota in a Big House populated at least partially by fans who received tickets with the purchase of two 20-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola.
Brandon had some very distinct ideas about what Michigan football should be, but the reality doesn’t square with his vision. So, what now?
The cynical answer is to simply fire Hoke and his staff and start over. The Wolverines don’t appear to be making any offensive progress, and that unit is dragging down an otherwise decent defense. In a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 6 and a 26-10 loss to Utah last Saturday, Michigan’s offense didn’t cross the opposing 25-yard line. All the Wolverines’ victories on the recruiting trail have not translated to victories on the field. The offensive line remains a problem, and Hoke said this week he has no plans to tweak a group that should share blame with oft-maligned quarterback Devin Gardner.
The Pollyanna answer is to hope Hoke and company can turn things around. The defense is still holding strong. Even though the Wolverines’ two losses came by an average of 23.5 points, the defense allowed fewer than 300 yards in the Notre Dame and Utah games. The Wolverines are 0-0 in the Big Ten. They can still win the conference title, just like anyone else in the league. Maybe Shane Morris is the answer at quarterback. Or maybe getting yanked in favor of Morris will help Gardner refocus and throw fewer interceptions.
It seems the former is more likely to happen than the latter, and strange as it may sound, this belief has as much to do with that Coke promotion -- which Michigan officials swear they didn’t give final approval to -- as the losses to the Fighting Irish and the Utes. College football is a business. Brandon, the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza, was hired for this very reason. Athletic departments have budgets, and one of the three largest contributors to those budgets (the other two are donations and television money) is football home game revenue. If a school budgets expecting 110,000 souls in the stadium at an average of $70 a ticket (I’m guesstimating here) and suddenly it’s getting 103,000 for seven home games, that’s $3.4 million less than expected. If that average attendance figure were to drop to 100,000, that $3.4 million hit becomes a $4.9 million hit. If a school can recoup a little by giving away some tickets with Cokes and those people buy overpriced concessions, that’s helpful for the bottom line.
Fortunately, Michigan’s athletic department remains robust. The Wolverines are projecting a $5.1 million surplus for the current fiscal year based on $151 million in revenue and $145.9 million in expenses. But if attendance doesn’t rally, those surpluses could turn into deficits. Then Michigan would have to start cutting costs to balance the budget. Besides, the real drop comes when the donations begin to fall along with the attendance, and they usually do.
There are two ways to put butts in the seats and keep people writing checks. The first is to win consistently. The second is to generate excitement. If the consistent winning doesn’t start soon, it will be time to generate some excitement. Brandon’s staff tried to do this by proposing fireworks shows tied to the Miami (Ohio) and Penn State games, but Michigan regents shot that plan out of the sky in July. The best way to generate excitement, however, is to fire the current coach and hire Nick Saban (Alabama), Urban Meyer (Florida, Ohio State) or someone of that ilk. That way, fans will stuff the stadium for the spring game and then keep on packing it throughout the fall.
But if Michigan football plans to stay mediocre, it can expect attendance to fall to a level commensurate with its recent success. It can expect leading maize-and-blue tastemakers like MGoBlog.com’s Brian Cook to keep trotting out Henri the Otter of Ennui. Henri is the perfect mascot for the 2014 Michigan Man -- esoteric enough that the unwashed won’t get the joke, but still devastatingly accurate.
Ennui is precisely the problem at the moment. While Hoke should not concern himself with the interest level of the fan base, he should be quite concerned with the success of the team that makes that emotional thermometer rise and fall. It doesn’t help that when Hoke speaks publicly about his team, he rarely acknowledges any concrete problems or describes specific steps he and the staff are taking to fix them. He says stuff like this from Monday’s press conference: “What they do have is they have a great belief in each other. They have a great belief in the program. They come out and compete and challenge each other every day. This will be a good football team.”
The generalities offered in the first three sentences don’t inspire much confidence. The declarative statement in the fourth might if so much of the on-field evidence didn’t point to the contrary.
It also doesn’t help when Hoke makes statements like this one in his fourth year at the helm: “We’re building a program with a great foundation, and that’s important. From the academic side to the athletic side. That is important, the foundation that we have.” By now, the foundation had better be poured. Hoke should be putting in countertops and crown molding.
These statements don’t help Hoke. They make it sound as if he doesn’t have a plan. But this interpretation is unfair. Hoke is not the kind of coach who rips his players or assistants in public. He believes things should stay in-house. So, instead of acknowledging what everyone can see on Saturdays, Hoke speaks in platitudes. He does this not because he wants to enrage fans, but because he is a nice person and a boss who respects his subordinates enough to keep the dirty laundry indoors.
You will never hear a press conference from Hoke that resembles this tour de force from South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier after last week’s ugly 48-34 win at Vanderbilt. Of course, Spurrier has six SEC titles and a national title, and has turned the Gamecocks from perennial losers into perennial winners. Maybe his style produces better results.
Brandon clearly expects Michigan to become a perennial winner again, but the question is how long he’ll wait to pull the plug if the Wolverines continue to struggle. At this point it’s difficult to see a day when Michigan regularly competes for national titles again. Could Michigan even hire anyone who would produce the results Brandon purports to expect?
Yes, it can. We won’t go over names now. There will plenty of time for that if the Wolverines lose some more games, and Hoke still may yet pull off a miracle. But before giving into Henri’s ennui, try this little exercise, Michigan fans. Read each quote below and try to determine which schools the speakers are referencing and when they made the statements.
• Quote 1: “Several coaches say the program is micromanaged and that it will take a strong personality to be a consistent winner in [college town].
• Quote 2: “A lot of coaches say, ‘I’m not sure I need that headache right now because the perception of [school] doesn't fit the reality of [school] right now.’ If you’re an 18-year-old kid, all you've ever known is turmoil among [school] coaches.”
• Quote 3: “The front of the jersey may still say [school] but in name only. That program is nowhere right now.”
This exercise is a trick. These statements were all made in the same month (December 2006) and are all about the same program. Tony Barnhart wrote the first one in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Pat Forde said the second one in an interview with the Birmingham News. Jim Rome said the third one on his show. That’s right, less than eight years ago, the popular opinion was that Alabama would struggle to recapture its past glory. What is Bama’s record the past five seasons? Oh, just 60-7 with three national championships.
There is a high probability similar statements will be made about Michigan this season. It will be up to Brandon to determine whether we’re nodding at them or laughing about them in eight years.
• Texas Tech at Oklahoma State: Mike Smith will coach his first game as Texas Tech’s defensive coordinator against an Oklahoma State offense still sorting out its own identity in quarterback Daxx Garman’s second start. If the Red Raiders can avoid giving up 438 rushing yards -- as they did to Arkansas in Matt Wallerstedt’s final game before his dismissal -- that’s a step in the right direction. Still, Cowboys backs Des Roland and Tyreek Hill probably can’t wait to get the ball in their hands.
• UCLA at Arizona State: Bruins coach Jim Mora said quarterback Brett Hundley (elbow) will be a game-time decision. Arizona State coach Todd Graham will have no such option with quarterback Taylor Kelly (foot), who is out. Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans caught up with Kelly’s replacement, Mike Bercovici, in this week’s edition of The Inside Read.
• Wyoming at Michigan State: Spartans coach Mark Dantonio told reporters this week the Cowboys are “probably more like us than anybody we've played.” One reason? When Wyoming coach Craig Bohl was at North Dakota State, he and his offensive assistants visited East Lansing to trade notes with Dantonio and staff.
• Tennessee at Georgia: Volunteers linebacker A.J. Johnson, a native of Gainesville, Ga., will return home and try to outdo his 2012 performance between the hedges. In that game Johnson made 11 tackles and returned a fumble for a touchdown as the Vols put a scare into the eventual SEC East champ before falling 51-44. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt isn’t sure Johnson should play on Saturday. He wishes the senior were already playing on Sundays. “Really, I thought he should have turned pro last year,” Richt joked at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I don’t know why he came back, but he’s back and doing a great job.”
• Florida State at NC State: Two years ago I made a prediction about this game and wound up having to make this video. I was also reminded that I look like a fat Ray Liotta, which is mean and also completely accurate. I’m not making any further predictions about this game unless contractually obligated. (So, you’ll see one later today when our staff picks are published.)
• Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas): We’ve already seen Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill play against an SEC opponent. He passed that test at South Carolina with flying colors. What we haven’t seen is the Aggies' defense face a team determined to ram the ball down its throat. That’s what Arkansas will do. Texas A&M handled the tailback duo of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. Now it must face the trio of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall.
• Texas at Kansas: The Austin American-Statesman reported this week that Charlie Strong is drug testing the Longhorns much more frequently than Mack Brown did. Meanwhile, Strong dismissed offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle. That brings the total number of players dismissed under Strong to nine. As we discussed a few weeks ago, Strong is ripping the program down to the studs before he rebuilds. Still, the rebuild would be no excuse for losing to Kansas.
• Stanford at Washington: We finally get to see Chris Petersen coaching a power-conference team in a league game. He’ll coach a bunch of players still smarting over last year’s narrow loss in Palo Alto, but the Cardinal are already in an 0-1 Pac-12 hole and unlikely to overlook the Huskies.
• Missouri at South Carolina: This seemed like a blockbuster until Indiana shocked Mizzou last week. South Carolina can claim the inside track to an SEC East title with a win, but just as it was unwise to judge the Gamecocks solely on their loss to Texas A&M, it would be foolish to judge the Tigers solely on their loss to the Hoosiers. Defensive end Markus Golden (hamstring) should be back for Missouri, and if he can be as disruptive as Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett was against the Gamecocks, he should slow South Carolina’s offense.
• North Carolina at Clemson: The Tigers must mentally recover from their justthisclose trip to Tallahassee, or Florida State will beat them twice. The fact that this is the first game of the Deshaun Watson era should help them turn the page. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, must overcome the utter humiliation they suffered in a 70-41 loss at East Carolina last Saturday. If they can’t, the ACC season is going to feel very, very long.
• Memphis at Ole Miss: This isn’t just another creampuff for Ole Miss before the Rebels face Alabama next week. Coach Justin Fuente has the Tigers playing very well. Just ask UCLA.
• Duke at Miami: This one is tough to predict because the Blue Devils’ schedule has been fairly light so far. But if Duke treats the Hurricanes as rudely as it did in the fourth quarter last year in Durham, it could set up a game at Georgia Tech on Oct. 11 that could provide a lot of clarity in the ACC Coastal Division.
• Baylor at Iowa State: Bears receivers Antwan Goodley (quadriceps) and Corey Coleman (hamstring) should be healthy enough to return to the lineup this week. Because Baylor (59.3 points a game, 654.3 yards a game) didn’t have enough offensive weapons.
• Notre Dame vs. Syracuse (in East Rutherford, N.J.): Brian Kelly said this week that academic hearings for the five Notre Dame players suspended in August could conclude by the end of next week. That won’t have any effect on this game, but the return of senior safety and captain Austin Collinsworth (knee) should bolster a thin position for the Fighting Irish.
• Oregon State at USC: If Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion stays healthy, he’ll likely pass former Trojans star Matt Barkley as the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer this season. It just may take a tad longer than expected. The Oregonian reported this week that after Pac-12 stat keepers corrected a bookkeeping error, Barkley had an extra 53 yards tacked on to his total. So, Mannion, who is in third place with 11,339 passing yards, now needs to throw for 989 more to top Barkley.
Vintage video of the week
Arkansas and Texas A&M will face off Saturday to see where they stand in the SEC West. But before the Razorbacks left for the SEC prior to the 1992 season, the Hogs and Aggies regularly played meaningful games as members of the Southwest Conference. In ‘89 they met at Kyle Field with first place in the league on the line. Arkansas escaped with a 23-22 win, clinching its second straight conference title. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks snapped A&M’s 19-game conference home winning streak.
On the menu
Want a great cure for ennui? Drive a few hundred yards from Michigan Stadium and grab some jerky at Biercamp. You can’t go wrong with the Biercamp Original beef jerky, the Sriracha pork jerky or the Tasso bacon jerky. Pick up a venison smoke stick while you’re at it and try to forget that the price of admission to a Michigan game is now two Cokes and a smile.