New coach Hoke can seemingly do no wrong as Michigan's man
Suppose you're a recent University of Michigan graduate. You arrived on the Ann Arbor campus four years ago ready to watch a historically successful program that had been to three of the past four Rose Bowls. You justifiably assumed you'd be enjoying more of the same.
Instead, your first game as a freshman was Appalachian State's historic 2007 upset of the Wolverines. By the time you'd earned your degree, you'd witnessed far worse football indignities: two losing seasons, an NCAA investigation, four lopsided defeats to Ohio State and the worst defense in the program's 132-year history.
And then, just as soon as you graduated, the Summer of Hoke began.
Brady Hoke has yet to coach his first game at Michigan, but so far he can seemingly do no wrong. Over the past several months, the Wolverines' maize-and-blue-bleeding coach has won over a whole bunch of initial skeptics by hiring an acclaimed coaching staff and dominating the recruiting trail. Unlike doomed predecessor Rich Rodriguez, who engendered a whirl of controversy before he ever coached a game at Michigan, the former Lloyd Carr assistant has said all the right things at all the right press conferences and alumni functions.
"He's very passionate about everything that is Michigan," said senior defensive lineman Mike Martin. "He embodies it."
While Hoke has been busy spreading the gospel, Ohio State -- a school Hoke holds in such contempt he refuses to call it by its full name (always "Ohio") or wear the color red ("It's been over a decade, at least," he said) -- has become enmeshed in an increasingly ugly scandal. Jim Tressel, the man who made an annual habit of humiliating Michigan by winning nine of 10 meetings, suffered a humiliating downfall, and it's already having a tangible effect on the rivalry.
"I can't go [to Ohio State] and take penalties for something I never did," Kalis told ESPN. As for why he chose Michigan, Kalis said: "[Hoke] is the type of guy I want to play for. [He] has an incredible amount of passion." And then for the dagger: "I believe the Michigan-Ohio border is now open. I think you're going to see eight or nine guys from the state of Ohio going over to Michigan this year."
Normally this wouldn't seem like big news. Recruits commit and de-commit all the time, and Signing Day is still nearly seven months away. And while Kalis is highly rated, he's a four-star lineman, not a five-star quarterback.
Yet news of his decision struck a nerve, perhaps because it epitomized the two programs' drastically divergent paths since the last time they played actual football games.
So far, five four-star Ohio prospects -- Kalis, defensive ends Pharaoh Brown and Tom Strobel, safety Jarrod Wilson and linebacker Joe Bolden -- have committed to the Wolverines, more than in Michigan's past three classes combined. So have four three-star Ohio prospects.
Michigan already has 20 commitments for 2012, more than half of whom garnered four-star ratings from 247Sports.com and Rivals.com. They include three of the top five in-state players (cornerback Terry Richardson and linebackers James Ross and Royce Jenkins-Stone) and a top 10 prospect from California (tackle Erik Magnuson).
These commitments aren't etched in stone -- Richardson and Jenkins-Stone have said they still plan to take other visits -- but they've generated attention.
"Brady Hoke right now looks like he was probably the best hire last [offseason]," said SuperPrep Publisher Allen Wallace. "Because of his knowledge of what Michigan needs, he's going after great prospects and getting a lot of them, especially in the Midwest. He looks like a perfect fit right now."
"Right now" are the key words in that last sentence. Right now, the former Ball State and San Diego State coach is 0-0 at Michigan. Mini-victories like Kalis' commitment help distract Wolverines fans from the fact that they haven't actually won a football game against Ohio State since 2003, but there's no guarantee that streak will end in 2011. Frankly, there's no guarantee Hoke's first Michigan squad will improve much on last season's 7-6 record.
The last time we saw the Wolverines play football, they lost 52-14 to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. In what would be the final dagger for Rodriguez, Bulldogs quarterback Chris Relf shredded Michigan's woefully overmatched secondary like so many before him. It marked the ninth time in 13 games the Wolverines allowed at least 34 points.
Hoke couldn't have landed a more qualified candidate to facilitate a defensive resurrection than coordinator Greg Mattison, who spent the past two seasons as the Baltimore Ravens' coordinator and served as the defensive line coach for Florida's 2006 national title team. Just as important to Hoke, he and Mattison coached together in Ann Arbor in the mid-90s.
"It was something that was meant to be," Hoke said in a recent interview. "Obviously his résumé speaks for itself, but what makes him special is how he teaches and how kids respond."
But Mattison can only do so much, initially. He'll have a nice core of veterans up front (defensive linemen Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen), and veteran cornerback Troy Woolfolk will be making his much-needed return from an ankle injury that sidelined him last season. In general, however, it will take more than one offseason to overcome the mass attrition and inexperience that plagued Rodriguez's defenses.
"There's some development," said Hoke. "But we have a lot of work to do."
Then there's the concern that has wracked some Wolverines followers from the day Hoke was hired. Amid the turmoil of the past three seasons, the one shining light was Denard Robinson. The scintillating quarterback exploded onto the scene last year with a 502-yard day against Notre Dame the second week of the season and broke the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,702). He was the perfect fit for Rodriguez's shotgun-spread offense.
But Hoke is a more rugged, pro-style guy, who likes his quarterback under center. His chosen offensive coordinator, Al Borges, is a West Coast Offense disciple who mentored former Auburn star Jason Campbell and current San Diego State standout Ryan Lindley. Hoke has begun the potentially delicate process of installing a more traditional offense without completely neutering Robinson's new-age abilities.
Robinson, operating largely under center, did not look particularly comfortable in Michigan's spring game, going 5-of-14 for 70 yards. He did, however, break off one of his trademark 55-yard runs on the very first play -- out of the shotgun.
"We obviously want to be a physical football team," said Hoke. "We want to have a guy that will be behind the quarterback in the I-back in a pro-style offense, but there will be some things we do that are special to Denard's skill set."
Hoke's first Michigan squad will likely be a work-in-progress. That could prove frustrating to some fans who have already been put through three years of growing pains under Rodriguez. Ultimately, however, the Wolverines' overall record won't matter nearly as much as their performance on one particular day: Nov. 26.
Coordinator hires and recruiting commitments can't create the kind of enthusiasm Michigan fans would enjoy if they finally end their drought against the hated Buckeyes. But another loss -- this time to an (unofficially) interim coach (Luke Fickell) -- would be yet another reminder of the long-standing gap Hoke is tasked with closing.
If he's getting any kick out of "Ohio's" current problems, he's not saying so publicly.
"I've known Jim a long time," Hoke said. "He's a good man. He helped a lot of kids. You don't want to see any things that hurt college football. But I don't have much to say about it. We've got enough things to worry about here."
Save the worrying for September, coach. It's July. You're undefeated. The bad vibes have moved from Ann Arbor to Columbus, and the commitments keep rolling in.
Most fans can't wait for the season to arrive. For Michigan's, though, the Summer of Hoke can't last long enough.