The Brady Hoke era was supposed to be a renaissance for Michigan football. For a short while, it looked like it might be.
Yet after three years, a sunrise in Ann Arbor has turned to sunset, and nightfall seems imminent for the Wolverines head coach with a bout against arch rival Ohio State looming this weekend. It wasn’t always this way.
When Hoke, who — at the time — was a relative unknown when it comes to the who’s who book of major college football coaches, was a was tapped in 2011, ESPN and then-FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock wrote the following in defense of the hiring:
“Brady Hoke isn’t the perfect coach for Michigan because I love him like a brother. He’s the perfect coach for Michigan because he’s the perfect coach for Michigan. He’s a better fit than Jim Harbaugh, who has spent the week auctioning himself off to NFL franchises and holding Stanford hostage.”
More from Whitlock here:
“Hoke is no one’s 'compromise' or 'second-tier' coaching candidate. Not if you understand football. Not if you comprehend how he got to the point that he’s even a candidate to be Michigan’s next football coach. Brady Hoke loves hard. He loves his family, his players, his assistant coaches, Ball State football and Michigan football. You think winning 12 games and getting into the BCS conversation is difficult at Stanford? Try doing it at Ball State. Try doing it without a coaching office, after the school president has paid the emotionally unstable women’s basketball coach more than you. Try doing it at the place you love that doesn’t love you back.”
In his first season, Hoke made Whitlock’s piece look almost prophetic; the former Ball State and San Diego State head coach guided Michigan to an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl win. A reascension to college football’s zenith, perhaps, seemed near — or at least closer than it ever did under former director Rich Rodriguez, who was canned after going 15-22 in three miserable seasons.
And perhaps most importantly (and unlike his predecessor), he beat Ohio State and gave the Wolverines their first win against the mighty Buckeyes in almost a decade. That in and of itself seemed enough to etch his name into Michigan lore.
To quote the rapper Drake, Hoke went 0-to-100 real quick.
Fast forward three years to this annual bout that once made him appear to be the savior of Michigan football and you will see, of course, a far different scene where Hoke is 20-19 since a storybook first season.
Hoke is 20-19 since a storybook first season. The Wolverines have regressed over the last three years. Most recently, a dismal 5-6 campaign that’s emblematic of larger problems facing Michigan’s athletic department has casted it into perhaps its greatest nadir as unprecedented turmoil has already claimed athletic director Dave Brandon.
It’s widely expected Hoke will be next.
“They can speculate and do all of that … if we get distracted — and I get distracted — in what we are doing, that is not fair to those 115 kids,” Hoke told reporters Monday at his weekly press conference.
“From that piece alone, I think I have said it, I have never been worried about a job. I am worried about the job we do for those kids."
But the reality is that Saturday's annual clash against sixth-ranked Ohio State might very well be his last time directing the Wolverines.
“I guess I haven't thought about it,” Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said. “But we're anticipating … we'll get the best. Their personnel will play their very best against us and that was as obvious as you can be last year.”
In an highly-emotional game where everything and anything’s a chance to gain a critical edge, perhaps there is no greater motivation for a Michigan team rallying around its embattled coach.
“I don’t know the locker room, but if they do like the coach and how he operates, then yeah they are gonna be out there playing for him and helping him keep his job there,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said.
Whether or not it makes a difference for the 20-point underdogs?
“But then, it could be the opposite. Maybe they just don’t care. You just really don’t know. It’s all kind of the mindset of the players and how they think the whole program is run with the head coach. Which I don’t know. They can use it a few different ways.”
In July, Michigan’s senior captains defended Hoke at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
“Coach Hoke is the greatest coach I’ve ever been with,” fifth-year senior linebacker Jake Ryan told MLive.com. “He’s hard-nosed, he knows what he’s doing and he’s a tough guy. I love him.”
Added senior quarterback Devin Gardner: “Everybody's going to say whatever they want to say. My job is to make sure he's not on the hot seat, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make sure we win football games.”
This late in the season, that’s a pledge that’s too little and too late.
But Saturday’s a chance for Michigan to send Hoke out as a winner in a game that defines the team’s who play in it forever. Motivation doesn't get much greater than that.