Brady Hoke is struggling, but his integrity should not be indicted
This summer, I sat in Brady Hoke’s office to discuss the state of his Michigan football program. Hoke was optimistic, which seems silly now, because Michigan is 2-3, and it is a faux 2-3 at that. Michigan is 0-3 against the only competitive teams on its schedule. (No offense, Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio).) Hoke has done a lousy job of coaching this team. For those who think he should be fired: I can’t argue with you. But put that aside for a moment. We will get back to it, I promise.
Hoke was talking about the university where he works, and what it means to him to be a coach. He mentioned the story of former Wolverines lineman Will Heininger, who has openly discussed his battle with depression since his career ended. And he talked, repeatedly, about the research into concussions being done at the University of Michigan.
I told him that I thought equipment would improve dramatically in 10 or 15 years, making the game safer.
And Hoke said, with hope in his voice, “It may not take that long.”
Well, here we are, two months later. Michigan quarterback Shane Morris got hit in the head, stayed in the game, came out, and later returned to the game briefly. ESPN announcers called it “appalling” and “terrible,” and this is it, the final proof for some people that Brady Hoke is a Neanderthal coach who doesn’t care about the health of his players. Hey, we have video!
This is quite a revelation, because I have talked to various people around the University of Michigan and people who have known Hoke for decades. Those people have watched Hoke up close and talked to dozens of others who know him well. And I have never heard anybody speak poorly of Hoke as a person.
I don’t know, maybe they’re all lying to me and lying to each other. Maybe Hoke kept mentioning that concussion program as a giant ruse because he really doesn’t care about his players’ health at all and he wanted to fool me, but come on. How can he really be that smart? He is a Neanderthal, remember?
Hoke held a press conference Monday, and that was sort of a debacle too, but put that aside for a moment. We will get back to that, too. I promise. Hey, we will be here a while.
Hoke said something true and relevant at his press conference, before the debacle kicked in. He said:
“I’m a football coach. I don’t think we’re doing that very well, but that’s what I do.”
He is right: That is his job. And he has done it poorly for the last two years. Hoke is in year four of his regime, and while he still has a very young team, it should be a much better young team. That is his fault. Maybe Michigan can turn the season around, but at this point, it’s hard to see how, unless the Big Ten declares half of its players ineligible.
Michigan looks predictable and disorganized. The team has been so bad that any extenuating circumstances seem irrelevant. Yes, quarterback Devin Gardner looks so desperate to win that he started pressing, and he has played poorly. But don’t blame Gardner for that. Blame Hoke. By year four, a coach must have a quarterback and system that work well together.
Michigan is learning a new offense, thanks to new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. But who hires the coaches? Who is in charge of the team? Hoke. So that’s his fault, too.
Hoke is 9-9 since the start of last year. You don’t have to be a football historian to know that won’t fly at Michigan.
And when you wonder why Morris went back in the game, you have every reason to think the coach is too slow to react in games. It was not Hoke’s first baffling decision of the season. Against Notre Dame, he inexplicably left his starters in the game in the second half of a blowout loss, but didn’t hurry up the offense. What was THAT? Either the game is still in doubt or it isn’t.
So yeah, Hoke looks like the wrong coach for a program of Michigan’s caliber. After Michigan hired Hoke, I thought he would succeed by recruiting well (which he has done), hiring the right assistants (that’s in doubt) and getting guys to play hard for him. But whatever he has done, it isn’t enough. Say that 1,000 times and you will be right the 1,001st time.
But it is absolutely laughable to hear all these people jump on him for playing an injured player without doing even a cursory check into the circumstances. Yes, Hoke messed up. But he did not knowingly play a player who had a concussion. Through a string of events and bad communication, which Michigan finally detailed in a statement released early Tuesday morning, Hoke put a player in the game who should not have been.
In the statement, Michigan said Morris had a “probable mild concussion”. He also had a high ankle sprain. Hoke and Nussmeier both stand on the sidelines during games. They said they watched the flight of Morris’ pass, so they didn’t see him get hit in the helmet, and Morris never said anything about head trauma but did mention the ankle, and the medical staff, which is in charge of these decisions, never pulled him from the game.
Should Michigan have checked Morris more thoroughly? Yes. Does the whole scene reek of confusion and poor organization? It sure looks that way. But the notion that Hoke and the medical staff have created an entire culture of silence regarding concussions? There is simply no basis for that.
Be honest here: Michigan is playing terrible football, and people are piling on because that’s what we do. Reason gives way to hysteria. Opinions that add fuel to the consensus are repeated a million times.
So when Michigan’s 1991 Heisman winner Desmond Howard says he doesn’t think the players want to be great, everybody jumps on it and many assume it is true. But Howard had Michigan sixth in the country in the preseason. Why did he rank the Wolverines so high if the players don’t want to be great?
When former Michigan quarterback Michael Taylor goes on a bitter rant about the program, it gets repeated everywhere, even though Michigan has hundreds of former players. There will always be a few bitter ones. But when other former players call radio shows to say Taylor is wrong about Hoke, those stories don’t travel very far.
When the athletic department struggles to fill the stadium, people mock the easily ridiculed athletic director, Dave Brandon. Hey, Brandon prides himself on being such a marketing wizard, and look at what a failure he is!
Brandon is a self-promoter who suffers from Smartest Man in the Room syndrome, and he deserves some ridicule. But while you’re on the topic of ticket promotions, you might want to point out that Michigan Stadium is the biggest in the country, and the program is trying to keep a four-decade streak of 100,000 fans going, and programs almost everywhere are struggling to sell tickets. Michigan is fighting a national trend brought on largely by high-definition television. It has affected almost everybody.
Just look down the road in East Lansing, where Michigan State has the best athletic director and coach combination it has ever had: Mark Hollis and Mark Dantonio. When the Spartans clinched a spot in last year’s Big Ten title game against Minnesota, they did not sell out their 75,000-seat stadium. They went on to win the Rose Bowl, but this past weekend, their homecoming game against Wyoming was not sold out. Is that supposed to embarrass Hollis and Dantonio?
Brandon has brought a lot of this on himself. One thing you can say about Dave Brandon: He is always there when he needs you. You can find him on the football sidelines, especially if you operate a TV camera, and you will see him hanging around his basketball team’s locker room when it wins NCAA tournament games.
But this week, when his football coach badly needed some help addressing a mushrooming public-relations disaster, Brandon was nowhere to be found until he released that statement just before 1 a.m.
So Hoke tried to explain his actions Saturday, and he didn’t do it very well. He referred to a statement from the medical staff that was never released, though Brandon did release his statement. That is institutional incompetence; somebody obviously told Hoke the statement was coming, and it got held up. Brandon is no stranger to press conferences. He could have defended his coach’s integrity, or provided him with the most basic media-relations help, but he didn’t.
Hoke is right: He coaches football, and he isn’t doing that very well right now. People speculate about firing him IMMEDIATELY because Michigan deserves BETTER in ALL-CAPS and this is all OUTRAGEOUS, but the fact is, the players are still playing hard for him, they still like him, and this is college sports. Can’t Michigan let the season play out, even if it will probably end poorly? Would that really be such a tragedy?
Entering this season, Hoke probably only needed seven or eight wins to keep his job. That’s because Michigan values stability, and values coaches who follow rules, take academics seriously and treat their players well. Michigan was sure it had that kind of guy. Michigan still has that kind of guy, no matter what you think you saw on that Shane Morris video.
It just so happens that that guy is doing a lousy job and he may not get to even seven wins. That is his fault. Completely. If it gets him fired, then that’s part of the deal.
But I had to laugh when I saw that immediate speculation centers on the Harbaugh brothers: the 49ers’ Jim (a Michigan graduate) and the Ravens’ John (an Ann Arbor native). Many of the same fans who are shredding Hoke for how he handled Morris would do cartwheels if Jim Harbaugh or John Harbaugh replaced him.
Well, guess what? Jim Harbaugh once told me Hoke is “a phenomenal coach, and good person.” John Harbaugh, who shared an office with Hoke when they were grunts at Western Michigan in the 1980s, once told me, “Everybody that’s ever met him likes him and respects him.” So don’t pretend Hoke is morally unfit for Michigan while the Harbaugh brothers (whom I like and respect) are worthy. The Harbaughs are just better coaches. That’s all.
Hoke looked a little angry when people started questioning his integrity Monday. He called it “unwarranted.” Hoke really doesn’t mind if people question his coaching. It is part of the job. But his integrity, that’s personal. That is who he is. If he made a big mistake with Morris, at least give him this: It was an honest mistake. Hoke is a good man who is losing way too many games, and that is why his job is in peril. We should really just leave it at that.