Michigan Football at a Crossroads

By Kyle Rowland on July 7, 2014 at 8:30a

It’s been quite some time since a group of conqu’ring heroes dashed into Michigan Stadium and leaped to touch the M Club banner. If another season of mediocrity occurs in 2014, Brady Hoke could be out as head coach and Michigan’s once-proud football program could be reeling.

After stumbling through three years of Rich Rodriguez, which yielded a horrendous 15-22 record and three blowout losses to Ohio State, the Wolverines believed they hit the jackpot in hiring Brady Hoke. The Ohio-born Michigan Man understood the culture in Ann Arbor and immediately made friends with his jabs at the Buckeyes.

The first season only added to his popularity.

All the misery washed away in 2011 when Michigan finished 11-2, won the Sugar Bowl and defeated Ohio State for the first time since 2003. But the upward trajectory lasted all of one season. Michigan is 15-11 overall the past two seasons – 9-7 in the Big Ten – with consecutive losses to the hated Buckeyes and an 0-2 record in bowl games.

In three seasons, Hoke is 26-13 with one win over Ohio State, one BCS victory and zero Big Ten titles. According to the head coach himself, those three seasons equal failure.

Said Hoke: “The goal is always to win the Big Ten Championship, and when you don’t, you’ve failed. Then you’ve got to go back to work.”

And it’s not just on-field issues Hoke and the Wolverines are dealing with. There’s a federal investigation into the university’s handling of former punter Brendan Gibbons and an alleged rape. The alleged incident took place in November 2009, but no action was taken against Gibbons until December 2013, when he was “permanently separated” from the university.

Then there’s the attendance issue. For 39 of the past 40 years – and the last 16 – Michigan Stadium has been the nation’s attendance leader. But that could change in 2014. Not only could Michigan be surpassed for the attendance title, but Ohio State is the team that could overtake them.

At the heart of the Wolverines’ issue is the student body. Michigan only expects to sell between 12,000 and 13,000 student season tickets this season, compared to 21,000 in 2012 and 19,000 in 2013, according to the Toledo Blade. A perfect storm has caused the decline – rising ticket prices, a deteriorating product on the field and a putrid home schedule.

Tickets to every Michigan home game can be found for under $30 apiece on the secondary market. Blocks of seats, up to 99 tickets per group, can be purchased through the university for every home game. The Penn State game is limited to 55 tickets. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s student ticket sales and renewal rates from the public are skyrocketing.

Bestselling author John U. Bacon, a noted Michigan football historian, recently wrote a blistering article on athletic director Dave Brandon’s miscalculations relating to the fan experience. Bacon wrote, “TV networks loved showing blimp shots of the sold-out Big House – one of the iconic sights in college football. Now they don’t show any.”

Coaching is a results-oriented business, a fact college football coaches are aware of when they agree to a contract. Gibbons’ alleged transgressions might be overlooked if Michigan was winning. But the microscope becomes more intense when games are lost. Poor attendance, which leads to business losses, only adds to the intense win-now pressure.

The first domino to fall in what could possibly be a win-or-else season for Hoke was the firing of embattled offensive coordinator Al Borges and hiring of Doug Nussmeier, who came from Alabama. Even though the Wolverines struggled mightily on offense last season, Borges’ ouster came as a surprise to many – almost as equally as Hoke’s ability to bring Nussmeier to Ann Arbor.

“Michigan is a program I’ve always had deep respect for, and I’m looking forward to getting started in Ann Arbor and being a part of the great tradition there,” Nussmeier said.

That grand tradition is at a crossroads. If another pedestrian season means Hoke is out, Michigan would be looking for its third head coach since Lloyd Carr retired following the 2007 season. Some Michigan supporters have a dream vision of disgruntled 49ers head coach and former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh returning to his alma mater. It’s interesting to ponder.

The here and now is Hoke, though. He’ll have a talented but unproven roster to work with. The offensive and defensive lines present the biggest question marks, not uncommon with most teams in college football. Jake Ryan and Blake Countess return on defense, which should enhance the unit, and quarterback Devin Gardner gives the offense a dynamic playmaker who will touch the ball every play.

“I think Devin had a pretty good spring,” Hoke said. “He (became) more consistent on a daily basis, I guess is the best way to put it.”

Consistency from Hoke is what the powers that be at Michigan would like to see more of – and not eight-win seasons. The Wolverines are used to 10 wins, conference championships and Rose Bowls. But in this era of commonplace finishes, the Wolverines may as well be Fresno State.

“I think we’re finally there,” Hoke said about establishing depth, not being linked to Fresno State. “With this cycle of recruiting, I think (the players we’ve brought in now) fit the model of what we want to do from an offensive and defensive standpoint, and I think our numbers really reflect that.”

If only the wins and losses reflected progress. 

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