NCF Nation: Michigan Wolverines
Back in October and November, before Michigan officially had an opening for a head coach, its fans already started daydreaming about the possibility of prying Jim Harbaugh from the NFL.
The evolution of fantasy to reality of Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, each day providing additional drama, ended up being one of the more fascinating coaching storylines of 2014.
Among the eight hires Michigan has made official so far, including strength and conditioning coach Kevin Tolbert, six of them have experience as an NFL coach. Two others who haven’t been announced but are already on the recruiting trail for the Wolverines (running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley and tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh) also come directly from pro locker rooms.
When the full staff assembles in Ann Arbor, Michigan is expected to have 43 total years of NFL coaching experience. The staff will also have at least three members who played in the league for more than a decade. Their combined backgrounds should create some instant credibility with the current Wolverine players and a hard-to-duplicate advantage during the next few weeks of recruiting.
Thursday marked the first day that college coaches could visit prospects on the road since Harbaugh was hired in early January. He and his coaches have less than three weeks to fill out a recruiting class that right now has only six committed members, the lowest number of any Power 5 team. VanHaaren said initial reaction from recruits has all been positive and expects that to continue when prospects start to visit campus this weekend.
A lot of that positivity is thanks to name recognition. Harbaugh is in a unique position among NFL coaches who return to the college game because he wasn’t fired from his job with the San Francisco 49ers; he had success there. High school seniors saw him in the Super Bowl two years ago and most still know about the job he did at Stanford before leaving for the NFL.
“Every recruit knew who Jim Harbaugh was. It was a big splash,” VanHaaren said. "When Michigan hired Brady Hoke four years ago, the first strike again Hoke was that no one really knew who he was. That’s not the case this time around.”
Some of Michigan’s coaches have found a way to incorporate their NFL experience into recruiting pitches. Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, for example, often shows recruits highlight film of star players like Terrell Suggs or Ray Lewis from when he worked as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator. He explains to the recruits that Michigan wants to use them in its defense in some of the same ways. That visualization resonated with many of the players that Mattison has helped bring to Ann Arbor in the last four years.
Recruiting is often seen as a sticking point for coaches jumping from the NFL to the college game. Will they want to put in the energy to court high school kids? Are they adept at evaluating talent so early in the stages of development? Coaching veteran Frank Verducci said that angle is overplayed.
“If you’re personable and you enjoy meeting people that’s half the battle in recruiting,” he said.
Verducci, currently at Northern Iowa, has worked in the NFL, CFL and college football during his 30 years as a coach. In 2009, he joined the Notre Dame staff after more than a decade in the NFL. He said the biggest challenge in returning to recruiting was getting up to speed on the technology kids use to communicate. Most of Michigan’s staff has been away from the college game for less than five years and should have less of a learning curve in setting up their Instagram and Twitter feeds.
Verducci said overall the way you interact with players is a bigger difference between the two jobs than the way you acquire them. He compared to the pro level to more of a democracy and college to a “benevolent dictatorship.”
“You’re much more of a mentor [in college],” he said. “You’re trying to not only show them how to play football, but you’re dealing with everything from freshmen in their first semester away from home to seniors who are getting ready to go into a life and a career without football. You try to mentor and guide those kids much more than a guy in the NFL.”
Ultimately, he said, the same ability to teach, communicate and motivate are what makes a coach successful on any level. An NFL background may give Michigan’s coaches an initial benefit of the doubt among current and prospective players, but they have to continue to earn their credibility like anyone else as time goes on.
Tim Drevno, officially announced as the team’s new offensive coordinator Friday, is known to his former players as a broken record. When he and Harbaugh coached together at Stanford, Drevno was the most impersonated coach in the Cardinal locker room.
"Drevno was an easy target," said former Stanford captain Bo McNally. "He has two or three phrases that he said all the time. I’m sure it was very deliberate. 'Physical' was the word he repeated probably 7,000 times a day. Physical, physical, physical."
Drevno's hire officially fills both coordinator positions on the Michigan staff that is nearing completion. The school confirmed Thursday that D.J. Durkin, another former assistant from that Stanford staff, would run the team's defense.
No one has worked side-by-side with Harbaugh as frequently as Drevno. The duo has teamed up at each stop since Harbaugh became a head coach in 2004. Last season, when Drevno left the NFL to coach the offensive line at USC, was the first time in a decade that they weren't together on the sideline. Drevno has played a big role in establishing the physical approach to offense that has remained a constant at each stop. He said to expect more of the same in Ann Arbor.
"We’re going to try to move people off the ball," he told the school’s website. "We’re going to try to be a physical football team."
Drevno takes over an offensive line that returns all five starters this season. The line improved in 2014 after a historically poor performance the previous season, but the Wolverines still finished dead last in total offense among Big Ten teams.
The roster at Michigan is already designed for the run-first mentality that Drevno says he wants to employ. Along with the five returning linemen, the Wolverines return several promising running backs (including USC transfer Ty Isaac, who did not play last season) and talented tight end Jake Butt.
Tight ends were Drevno’s first specialty at Stanford. The Cardinal offense came to depend on them, often using two or three of them at a time to assert their will on opposing defenses while keeping their passing options open. Four of Stanford’s tight ends from that era -- Coby Fleener, Konrad Reuland, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- played in the NFL. He then moved on to the the entire offensive line where he laid the groundwork for All-Americans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin.
Drevno hasn’t overseen an entire offense since leaving the University of San Diego. He was the Toreros' offensive coordinator the year before Harbaugh arrived, and held on to that title until they moved to Stanford. At San Diego, Drevno’s offenses led the nation in total yardage twice, and helped the team to back-to-back Division I-AA national championships.
The Torrance, California, native couldn’t pass up an opportunity to coach at nearby USC last season, but jumped at the chance to join forces with Harbaugh again this season. He a "Jim Harbaugh guy."
"A Jim Harbaugh guy is a loyal guy, wants to work hard, is about the team, the team, the team," he said, echoing Bo Schembechler’s famous mantra.
They like their repetitive coaches around here in Ann Arbor, and it looks like they just landed another one.
Durkin, who reunites with Jim Harbaugh as Michigan’s new defensive coordinator this month, was not yet 30 years old when Harbaugh hired him to run special teams and coach the defensive ends at Stanford in 2007. Those two units would eventually become pillars of strength in the Cardinal’s overhaul from a 1-11 team to 12-1 Orange Bowl champs. The results, players say, were a testament to Durkin’s incredible attention to detail and a passion for football that was matched only by their head coach.
“When that meeting is over and we’re all walking out there, that’s the point before the game that I was most amped up,” said Bo McNally, a two-time captain who contributed regularly on special teams while starting at safety for the Cardinal.
McNally, who coached briefly after his career ended in 2009, has worked closely with several of the coaches Harbaugh has asked to join him at Michigan. He said the common thread among them is their passion for winning.
Michigan, as of Thursday morning, has yet to formally announce any member of Harbaugh’s coaching staff. The university goes through a thorough vetting process for all new hires before making them official. A few coaches, including Durkin and expected offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, are already working to fill out this year’s crop of recruits.
Harbaugh hasn’t veered far from the familiar during the first week of assembling a staff at Michigan. Durkin and Drevno both worked for Harbaugh at Stanford. Drevno followed him to the 49ers before returning to the college game as a USC line coach in 2014. He played a big role in helping to instill the tough, physical identity that still persists at Stanford.
Drevno, McNally says, was perhaps the most impersonated coach in Stanford’s locker room. Just as loud as Harbaugh and Durkin, he kept his message to players as simple as possible. He would yell, “physical, physical, physical” hundreds of times during the course of most two-hour practices.
“Drevno was an easy target because he has two or three phrases that he said all the time,” McNally said. “I’m sure it was very deliberate. 'Physical' was the word he repeated probably 7,000 times a day.”
Durkin left Stanford in 2010 to join Urban Meyer at Florida. Meyer was his first boss when he started as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green in 2001. Durkin stayed with the Gators through this year’s bowl game, when he served as interim head coach.
Both of Michigan’s expected coordinators are relatively young (Drevno is 45; Durkin is 36) and both are on a path to be head coaches in the future.
“If you were to say, ‘Hey Bo, 10 years from now you need to pick out a young coach who’s going to be the next national championship caliber head coach,” McNally said. “D.J. Durkin is the one name that I would tell you.”
Those close to Harbaugh say he seeks out assistants who aspire to eventually run their own team. Tyrone Wheatley, who reportedly interviewed for a job at Michigan this week, fits into that category as well. The former Big Ten rushing leader and NFL veteran began his coaching career as the head coach of the high school program where he once set Michigan state records. He has since coached for Ohio Northern, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and most recently for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL.
McNally met Wheatley at Syracuse when he was a graduate assistant and Wheatley coached running backs. Wheatley is noticeably calmer than the men he could join on Michigan's staff, but McNally said he has a knack for relating well to players.
On Jan. 15, the new Michigan staff will get its first chance to hit the road in search of prospects. By then, Harbaugh will likely have selected most of his assistant coaches and support staff.
Harbaugh has a strong track record of renovating downtrodden football teams. He turned a Stanford team that was 1-11 in 2006 into 12-1 Orange Bowl champs in 2010 before he left for the NFL. He doubled the San Francisco 49ers' winning percentage during his four seasons there, taking his team to the NFC Championship Game in his first three seasons.
To lay the foundation for the same type of turnaround with the Wolverines, Harbaugh’s priorities in the first weeks on the job will be assembling a coaching staff, filling out a sparse recruiting class and assessing the roster he inherits.
Harbaugh has developed a wide network of potential assistant coaches during his 11 years as a head coach on the West Coast. Five members of his staff at Stanford are currently head coaches for FBS programs. A sixth, D.J. Durkin, is Florida’s interim head coach for the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.
“We're in the process right now,” Harbaugh said Tuesday about his hunt for assistants. “Can't tell you that it's going to move fast or slow, but hopefully it will move right. And that's what we'll strive for. Measure twice and cut once.”
Assistants who remain from the Brady Hoke era at Michigan did not know their fate as of Monday afternoon, but in most cases, incoming coaches will keep at least one coach from the former staff in order to keep some continuity. One potential candidate for that role would be Hoke’s former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who coached with Jim’s father, Jack, and brother, John, at previous stops in his career. Mattison, 65, might also decide to call it a career after 37 years on the sidelines.
One of Harbaugh's greatest strengths at Stanford and with the 49ers was the ability to surround himself with smart football people. The goal will be to assemble a similar staff as soon as possible in Ann Arbor. Ideally for Michigan, the staff would be in place by Jan. 15, when the current recruiting dead period comes to a close.
Michigan’s recruiting class dissipated to six committed prospects during the tumultuous final months of 2014. The team has a relatively small amount of scholarships to fill this season – 16 or 17 spots – but still a lot of work to do in the month that remains before National Signing Day, the first Wednesday in February.
Harbaugh spoke with all six pledges Tuesday and started reaching out to other prospects. His hiring is the biggest recruiting splash of the year by a large margin. Many of the nation’s top players are gathered at national all-star games, and the buzz around Michigan is building at those events. In Orlando, ESPN.com’s Mitch Sherman reports that several top prospects are considering the Wolverines based solely on their new coach.
At his previous job with the 49ers, Harbaugh didn’t have to worry about recruiting. That doesn’t mean he isn’t comfortable in the role. He corralled an impressive amount of talent at Stanford with more stringent academic requirements. His first foray into coaching came when he recruited as a volunteer assistant on his father’s Western Kentucky staff.
Harbaugh was an NFL starting quarterback at that time, and a phone call from him carried a lot of weight. It’s only heavier now. He is one of the few-- possibly the only -- coach Michigan could have hired that will have as much immediate clout on the recruiting trail as Urban Meyer has at rival Ohio State. This late in the cycle, though, Harbaugh’s full effect might not really be felt until the 2016 recruiting class is signed.
Michigan’s staff can’t meet with any prospects on the road for another two-plus weeks because of the dead period. Until then, they will reach out to potential targets on the phone or through social media.
Harbaugh will get his first chance to meet his new team in person on Jan. 6. Players are scheduled to return from their semester break and will begin winter conditioning the following week.
Harbaugh is a former quarterback who recruited eventual No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck at Stanford and re-routed the 49ers when inserted Colin Kaepernick into their lineup. Michigan’s Shane Morris, who started one game as a sophomore in 2014, said he was “ecstatic” about the opportunity to work with Harbaugh.
The rest of the offense returns mostly intact, including an improved offensive line and a handful of options at running back. The personnel for Hoke’s offensive system translates well to what Harbaugh has done at previous stops. Despite finding a lot of success with the pistol formation in San Francisco, Harbaugh’s offense is still based on the power-run game and a pro-style approach.
Defensively, Harbaugh’s staff must replace three of its top players in the front seven. Team MVP Jake Ryan and leading pass-rushers Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer are all gone. Hoke left his successor good depth overall on that side of the ball.
When the jet carrying Jim Harbaugh touched down at the Detroit Metro Airport the previous night, it started a 24-hour celebration the likes of which Ann Arbor has not seen in a long time. Harbaugh, the former Wolverine coach’s kid and star quarterback, was coming home for a third time. Billboards on the highway from Detroit to campus thanked him for returning. The unofficial welcoming party came up just short of lining his path with palm fronds.
“The Messiah has arrived,” one middle-aged fan yelled as he tucked a bag of new Michigan merchandise under his arm and stepped into the cold evening air at the end of a hope-filled day.
Expectation are high, Mount Everest high, but not in a “you'd better win or else” kind of way. The fans who came for Harbaugh’s coronation had no interest in talking about future victories. There was no hopeful chatter about national championships. Only reporters mentioned the rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan State. The coach’s return was a victory in itself. Michigan was Michigan again, they said, and the good will inevitably follow.
“The prodigal son has returned,” said freshman Michael Schiavone. “It’s a turning point for Michigan athletics.”
Schiavone and two of his classmates returned to campus during their semester break this week to celebrate. They dressed in Harbaugh effigy -- complete with khakis, Sharpie necklaces and headsets -- to watch the Wolverines’ basketball team beat Illinois 73-65 in overtime. The game included a 13-point comeback in the second half and cemented the feeling that Michigan couldn’t lose today. The loudest cheers of the day came when Harbaugh addressed the crowd at halftime.
“I was halfway between tears and laughter the whole time,” said Bill Crane, a 1976 Michigan grad and member of the alumni band.
Most of the giddy students who returned for Tuesday’s game wore their khakis in honor of Harbaugh’s well-known wardrobe. Even the basketball team's star guard Caris LeVert wore his Dockers to the arena. “Big, big Harbaugh fan,” he said, after helping the Wolverines seal a win in overtime.
Optimistic vibes radiated out across town. The Brown Jug teemed with thirsty customers clad in maize and blue after the game. The only mention of the thrilling overtime win was to point out how fitting it was on the day of Captain Comeback’s return.
Down the street at The M Den, Michigan’s official retail partner, customers lined up at the cashier counter seven or eight deep for most of the day. Co-owner Scott Hirth said traffic in his stores and online spiked Tuesday in what is usually one of the worst weeks of the year for retail shops.
Hours earlier on campus, Schiavone and his headset-wearing buddies were among the many fans jockeying for position outside of the nearby Junge Family Champions Center. They stood in the cold and pressed their faces against the glass in hopes of catching a glimpse of the new coach as he walked into his first news conference.
Inside in the warmth, a capacity crowd of media, university bigwigs and former Michigan coaches and players crammed into the large conference room to listen to Harbaugh talk about what he called his “homecoming.” Former coaches Lloyd Carr, Jerry Hanlon and Gary Moeller attended. Bo Schembechler's widow flew in from Denver. Dozens of former and current players lined the back of the room.
Harbaugh told them he has looked at his coaching career to this point as a real estate developer. He finds a fixer-upper, flips it, then moves on the next project.
“You build a home and hopefully it's a great cathedral,” he said. “Then afterwards, they go tell you to build another one. I would really like to live in one permanently. That's what I'm very hopeful for here.”
On Tuesday, Michigan fans did their best to tell Harbaugh there was no need to build a new home in Ann Arbor. He already had one waiting for him.
The season of high-end buyouts has kicked into gear as Will Muschamp, Bo Pelini and now Brady Hoke have been fired.
Hoke's dismissal on Tuesday includes a $3 million buyout. Pelini walked away with $7.65 million, and Muschamp will be paid $6.3 million.
Here's a fuller picture of each coach's total compensation during his tenure:
In Hoke's four seasons at Michigan, the school invested $17.34 million in him.
Salary: $8.6 million
Total deferred compensation paid: $3 million
Buyout: $3 million (would have been reduced to $2 million if he had been fired after Jan. 1)
Stay bonus (awarded after first 3 years): $1.5 million
Bowl bonuses: $240,000
Hoke was paid $1.05 million in deferred compensation for his first three years, but due to being fired without cause, he will get additional deferred compensation from this season, 2015 and 2016 worth $1.95 million. Michigan also paid a $1 million buyout to San Diego State to hire Hoke in 2011.
So that leaves Michigan with a current total cost of $559,354 for each of his 31 wins. The average could decrease, however, if Hoke takes a job during the 25-month buyout period.
Pelini was more successful than Hoke and had a lower salary than Hoke for some seasons. Nebraska's total investment over seven years was $25.85 million.
Salary: $16.75 million
Bonuses: $1.45 million
Buyout: $7.65 million
Pelini's compensation for each of his 66 wins was $391.667.
The positive for Nebraska is that the buyout, which is paid out over 51 months, will also be reduced if Pelini finds a job, in accordance with his new salary.
The most costly coach is Florida's Will Muschamp, because his contract does not allow Florida to pay less if he finds another job. Counting the $6.3 million nonrefundable bonus, Florida's total investment in Muschamp comes out to $19.3 million.
Salary: $11.36 million
Bonuses: $1.64 million
Buyout: $6.3 million
For his 28 wins, that comes out to a cost of $689,286 per victory.
Couldn't maintain early success
Michigan won 16 of its first 20 games under Hoke, including the 2012 Sugar Bowl (2011 season), but the Wolverines are 15-16 in 31 games since then.
Michigan won its first 19 home games under Hoke but has gone 4-5 at the Big House since, including a 4-3 mark at home this season.
Couldn't beat the rivals
Hoke -– like Rich Rodriguez before him -- struggled against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, going 2-6 against those schools (Rodriguez was 0-6). Those were games won regularly under Lloyd Carr, Gary Moeller and Bo Schembechler (who were a combined 16-7-1 against the Spartans and Buckeyes). Hoke became the third coach in program history to lose at least three times in the first four meetings with Ohio State.
Michigan lost each of its two trophy games -- to Michigan State (Paul Bunyan Trophy) and Minnesota (Little Brown Jug) -- in the same season for the first time since 1967.
Could have kept Rodriguez?
Rodriguez was fired after three seasons at Michigan in 2010 despite his record improving each season. After a year off, Rodriguez was hired at Arizona in 2012, and the Wildcats have had the better record since, posting a .684 winning percentage to Michigan's .526. Rodriguez has six wins against AP-ranked teams in that span. Hoke had one.
The difference was most stark this season: Arizona will play for the Pac-12 title Friday, and Michigan fell short of bowl eligibility.
Why the Wolverines struggled
Michigan had the worst turnover margin in the Big Ten this season at -16. That tied for fourth-worst in the nation.
The Wolverines ranked 88th in offensive efficiency this season; their offense was about two points per game worse than that of an average FBS team. In 2013, Michigan ranked 47th in offensive efficiency and contributed about six points per game to the team's scoring margin more than an overage offensive unit would.
And the fans stopped coming
Michigan’s streak of 16 years leading the nation in average attendance was snapped this season by Ohio State. The Wolverines last failed to lead the nation in attendance in 1997 (Tennessee), the only time in the previous 40 seasons Michigan was not tops in the country.
No. 6 Ohio State ended its regular season -- and likely Brady Hoke's tenure at Michigan -- in what might end up being a pyrrhic 42-28 victory against the Wolverines in Columbus.
The Buckeyes (11-1) scored 21 unanswered points to avoid a rivalry upset before Michigan scored the last touchdown of the game. The win came at a great cost, though. J.T. Barrett, at the tail end of the most productive season ever for a Buckeyes quarterback, needed a cart and an Aircast to make it off the field after his leg was twisted awkwardly beneath a defender on the first play of the fourth quarter. He scored two rushing touchdowns and threw for another before leaving the game.
Game ball goes to: Even though he missed the fourth quarter, Barrett still stood out as the game's top performer. His 25-yard scramble for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half kept Michigan from taking a lead into the locker room. He set up his second rushing score with a perfect deep ball to Devin Smith. His cool demeanor after the injury mirrored the calm that he provided for an Ohio State team that could have stumbled further when its first starting quarterback was hurt in the preseason.
What it means: For the Buckeyes, a trip to Indianapolis, and perhaps beyond, awaits. The offense will have to prove it can be prolific without Barrett to keep playoff chances alive. For Michigan, the loss makes its decision on whether or not to keep Hoke an easier one. Hoke's win totals have fallen in each of the past three seasons, and this group finishes 5-7.
Playoff implication: Ohio State remains in the playoff conversation, but its stock will likely decrease after Barrett's injury. Ohio State's offense clearly won't be the same if its Heisman candidate is unable to play. The committee will have to take that under consideration if it has to choose between the Buckeyes and a Big 12 team or a second SEC school.
Best play: With five minutes to play, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer decided to go for the kill. He called sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott's number on a fourth-down play. Michigan's defense bit on some backfield misdirection, which gave Elliott the space he needed to bust a long run. Forty-four yards later, the Buckeyes had a two-score lead.
What's next: Ohio State advances to the Big Ten championship game next Saturday with its playoff hopes intact for now. Michigan will get a jump on what promises to be a busy offseason. The Wolverines will be searching for a new athletic director and more than likely a new football coach.
Playing his final game at the Big House as a Michigan linebacker will be a moment to remember, as will the pregame curtain call in front of his family and more than 100,000 other onlookers. The chance to clinch bowl eligibility by beating Maryland for the team’s sixth win this season is nice, too. But that is not what Ryan has been waiting for. No, this weekend he’s finally getting a new suit.
Since turning a few heads at Big Ten media days in Chicago this summer, Ryan has been beseeching his father to help him upgrade his wardrobe.
"He’s asked me to call my suit person like six times in the last two months. It’s nonstop," said Tim Ryan, who lent Jake the plaid, maize-ish and blue sport coat and matching gold tie that he wore to represent the Wolverines in Chicago.
Jake stuffed the jacket’s pocket with a silk blue handkerchief, pinned a Block M to his lapel and then canvassed the gathered media to see if he was the sharpest-dressed player in town. He held his own. At the very least, this GQ-styled, well-coiffed version of Ryan was a far cry from the long-haired sophomore who emerged as one of the conference’s most promising young defenders two years earlier.
"I like dressing nice," Ryan said months later. "I do, I’ll admit that. I’ve always thought I’ve gotta have some style."
Ryan’s style took a sharp turn 19 months ago, shortly after the lowest point of his football career. Eight days removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Ryan chopped off and donated 10 inches of the shoulder-length blond hair that had been his calling card during the first half of his Michigan career.
This was a fresh start, he told his family, a symbolic reminder that he would have to remake himself to get where he wanted to go. It was the first step in a tumultuous year and a half -- one that included a painful and patience-testing rehab, a position change and a senior season besmirched by disappointing losses and distractions. As it draws to a close, that path has transformed Ryan into a more polished professional, in football and fashion.
A family affair
The Ryans are a football family. Tim played wide receiver at Wake Forest. Jake’s cousin John was a defensive end at Notre Dame, and Jake's older brother, Connor, was a receiver at Ball State. Their younger brother, Zack, is a starting linebacker at Ball State, and the youngest of the four Ryan boys seems destined to follow them when he finishes high school. It’s what the Ryans do. They play for Chuck Kyle’s St. Ignatius football powerhouse in Cleveland and then find a college to continue their career.
In high school, Jake needed to forge an identity he could call his own. He picked a surfer’s wardrobe and adopted the laid-back personality to match. His inspiration was his West Coast cousin Mikey. Ten years older, Mikey was the epitome of cool in the eyes of his younger cousins.
Mikey used product to slick back his hair as a teenager, so 7-year-old Jake slapped globs of gel in his hair until his father nixed that idea. Mikey wore Vans, so Jake searched Cleveland for whatever psychedelic-colored, floral-patterned shoes he could find. Mikey was a surfer. There were no waves anywhere near Ohio, so Jake learned to snowboard.
When Jake injured his hand during a playoff run in his senior year at St. Ignatius, he opted to wrap it in a neon pink cast. He visited Ball State a few weeks later on a recruiting trip, which meant Connor had to explain to his teammates that the goofball prospect with the pink cast was actually his little brother.
"He always wanted to be different," Connor said. "He’s starting to [learn] a little bit more from me I would say. He’s getting a little bit better fashion sense, definitely starting to get the hang of it."
Jake’s style on the football field was equally unique.
"Unorthodox," he said. "That’s what they’re calling it now, I guess."
He finds the ball by instinct, he says, more than following a premeditated path or assignment. His coaches at St. Ignatius stuck him at safety during his first week with the varsity team, but Ryan had trouble understanding why they wanted him to move backward when the ball was in front of him. Midway through double sessions they moved him to linebacker, and his coaches say he "just started wrecking guys."
"I still tell him that when he messes up," Hoke said. "I probably should have done a little more homework on him."
It worked out for Hoke, who inherited Ryan when he took the Michigan job and played him as an outside linebacker and defensive end during their first two years together. As a redshirt sophomore, Ryan led the Wolverines' defense in tackles (88), tackles for loss (16) and sacks (4.5).
The following winter Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told Ryan they wanted to move him to inside linebacker so opposing offenses couldn’t run away from him. Ryan, a budding star on the edge, was skeptical. Mattison, the former linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, handed him a stack of Ray Lewis film to explain the new role, and Ryan was sold. He would soon be the new centerpiece of the Michigan defense. A few weeks later, he tore his ACL.
Rehab was miserable. Patience was a virtue Ryan had not yet acquired. He vowed to get through the process as quickly as possible. If NFL star Adrian Peterson could get back on the field six months after ACL surgery, so could he. Ryan cut every distraction that might slow him down, including his hair.
Ryan became a fixture in the Michigan training room and tried to help his teammates with their assignments during practice. He learned he could never be a coach. It turns out telling someone to do something over and over is a lot more frustrating than trying to do something over and over.
He sought advice from teammates past and present who had gone through a similar injury, including Michigan fullback Joe Kerridge, who tore his ACL as a high school senior. Kerridge told him surgery wasn’t a death sentence. Stay with your recovery program and you’ll be back, he said.
"He attacked everything with the workouts and the rehab," said Kerridge, who has lived with Ryan for the past three years. "I think the knee really tested him. He excelled through it and he really matured. He learned what he had to do to be a great football player."
Teammates recognized Ryan’s diligence and selected him to be a team captain even though he spent all of training camp on the sideline. The new leadership position made Ryan more conscious of all the eyes that were on him and pushed him to continue to evolve into the more professional version of his free-spirited self. He started speaking up more often when needed. He became a regular volunteer at the university’s children’s hospital. And of course, he made sure he looked sharp whenever he knew he would be going in front of a camera.
"He knows that he can be one of the faces of the team," said his brother Connor. "I think he wants to resemble that 'Michigan man.' When you’re asking to grab some nice suits or dress a little nicer or watch your language, whatever it may be, I think that’s him growing up."
Ryan reached his goal of making it back on the field in six months, but the eight games he played during the 2013 season were humbling. He didn’t fully trust his knee yet, and he didn’t have the speed to keep up with his instincts. The coaching staff kept him at outside linebacker for the rest of the season so as not to overload him with adjusting to a new position while trying to get healthy.
The hurdles came in quick succession from there.
When Ryan felt comfortable with his knee, he set about learning to fend off lineman and see the game from a new angle as an inside linebacker. His first game in the middle, a blowout win against Appalachian State to open the 2014 season, allowed him to settle in.
As Ryan got better at his new job, the program around him seemed to get worse. Michigan lost four of its next five, and off-the-field turmoil spiraled out of control. Ryan continued to hone his image while learning how to ignore the negative public feedback.
"You always learn more from losing than winning," he said. "You learn how to stick together. You learn how to mold a team. I think you do need to go through some situations that put you down to learn a lot of things. It prepares you to be a man."
A resilient leader
This is not the senior season Ryan imagined. It has, though, helped him grow into the resilient face of a team that, if nothing else, continues to show up no matter what punches fate throws its way.
Michigan has won three of its past four during a more forgiving stretch in its schedule. A victory on Senior Day would keep the Wolverines from a losing record and salvage a bowl trip.
Ryan is the team’s top defender again. He is 10 tackles shy of reaching 100 on the season. He has had six games this season with at least 10 stops. Only nine players in the history of Michigan football have had more double-digit performances in a single season. He is one of 15 linebackers in the country still in the running for this year’s Butkus Award, and most experts expect Ryan will be picked in the third or fourth round of the NFL draft in the spring.
Before the team’s most recent game, a 10-9 win at Northwestern, Ryan made a deal with his father. If he made 13 tackles and intercepted a pass against the Wildcats, he would earn a trip to the tailor for a new suit. Ryan had never picked off a pass before in his career, but he finished with an interception and 11 tackles. Close enough.
The campus newspaper has provided excellent coverage throughout this tumultuous time in Ann Arbor -- and on Saturday, it served its readers once more. As rival Michigan State began to pour it on against the Wolverines, the paper's Twitter feed asked its followers if it was time to bail on the tweets.
Ten minutes later, they had their answer.
RT if you want us to keep tweeting this game. Favorite if you'd rather we just stop.— Mich. Daily Sports (@theblockm) October 25, 2014
Your sentiments have been acknowledged. We'll send you the final score when we have it. pic.twitter.com/XBstm7ShqY— Mich. Daily Sports (@theblockm) October 25, 2014
Michigan State gets to keep the Paul Bunyan trophy and bragging rights for another season.
The Spartans (7-1) beat in-state rival Michigan 35-11 on Saturday in a performance that looked like an absent-minded bulldozer slowly rolling over an injured animal. It wasn't particularly fast or flashy, but the end result -- a flattened Wolverine team -- never seemed to be in doubt.
Connor Cook and the country's third best scoring offense didn't dazzle. Cook (12-of-22 for 227 yards) connected with Tony Lippett on a 70-yard scoring play on a day that was otherwise relatively slow. His counterpart, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, threw two interceptions and fumbled once to kill any real chance his team might have had of hanging around.
Michigan drops to 3-5 with the loss and 1-6 against one of its biggest rivals since Lloyd Carr retired seven years ago.
How the game was won: The formula for success in East Lansing didn't change much from Michigan State's win a year ago. The Spartans held Michigan to fewer than 200 total yards of offense. The Wolverines rushing attack produced zero yards in the first half and continued its steady implosion in the game's final 30 minutes. Michigan State's offense wasn't at its best Saturday, but it didn't need to be.
Game ball goes to: Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford had three rushing touchdowns and 195 all-purpose yards. He trudged his way through most of his 33 carries until breaking loose late in the first half. He contributed 48 of the 73 yards on an efficient scoring drive that helped the Spartans close the half with a 14-3 lead. Langford has quietly rushed for at least 100 yards in five straight games.
What it means: Was this the last straw for Brady Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor? You could make the argument it’s just adding to a haystack that engulfed the camel long ago. Michigan will have to win its next three to become bowl eligible before the regular-season finale against Ohio State.
Playoff implications: Michigan State remains a contender with a survive-and-advance victory, though it didn’t stack up many style points against the Wolverines. Crazy things can happen in rivalry games, and the Spartans managed to avoid any season-stunting mishaps. Heading into November, they’re still contenders.
Best play: Lippett's ninth touchdown reception of the season delivered a knockout punch to Michigan midway through the third quarter. Cook threw a back-shoulder dart to Lippett, who spun Michigan safety Delano Hill in a circle. One quick stop-and-start move gave the senior receiver a clear path down the sideline. The one-play drive gave the Spartans a 28-3 lead.
What's next: The Spartans get a week off to prepare for the Big Ten’s biggest matchup before the championship game. They host Ohio State on Nov. 8 with first place in the East Division likely on the line. Michigan returns home next weekend to take on an Indiana team that is coming off its bye week.
Before Saturday's in-state rivalry matchup between Michigan and Michigan State, a banner was spotted in the East Lansing sky.
So, this is flying over Spartan stadium. pic.twitter.com/KZlouM7McI— Eric Upchurch (@EUpchurchPhoto) October 25, 2014
As students poured in to prepare for the game, it became apparent that #KeepBradyHoke was a coordinated effort. The front row of the student section literally spelled it out for us.
Here's a look, straight from Michigan State football's official Twitter account.
Brash move, "Little Brother." The Spartans are 17-point favorites, the biggest spread they've ever had against the Wolverines.
Just how thorough is that Michigan State domination?
Even the iconic block "M" on Michigan's campus has been painted green.
Yes, it appears some MSU fans decided they would sneak into Ann Arbor overnight and not only cover the "M" in green paint, but also add the letters "S" and "U" to the end of it. According to the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, the block "M" has been in place since 1953 and is highly visible to students walking to and from classes.
As if walking to an early-morning class wasn't bad enough already...
The standout individual effort by Funchess gave the Wolverines their longest completion of the year and the longest play of any kind since a season-opening drubbing of Appalachian State. As much trouble as Michigan’s offense has had with turnovers and finding a steady run game this season, it’s had an equally difficult time coming up with the type of big plays that can mask those inconsistencies.
Michigan’s bye week after seven straight games provided Hoke and his 3-4 team with an overdue opportunity to get healthy and evaluate themselves. Beating Penn State the previous Saturday allowed him to go through that process with less pressure and fewer questions about his future.
With in-state rival Michigan State next on the schedule and Ohio State looming a month later, the recalibrations Hoke and his staff make this week have the potential to save their jobs in Ann Arbor or provide the final nail in the coffin of their Michigan coaching careers. This week Hoke is attempting to land on the right side of the fine line that separates making improvements and overwhelming your team by tinkering too much.
“At times you say, ‘We need to add this,’ and then you add too much. Then you have a real problem,” Hoke said. “For us, it’s going back to what we want to be identity-wise, and we want to run the football.”
The run, Michigan hopes, will set up its dynamic offensive players with more chances to produce game-changing plays. Through seven games, the Wolverines have picked up 30 or more yards on a single play six times, fewer than all but four teams in the bowl subdivision this season. The only offensive category where they’ve struggled more is in turnover margin, where they rank dead last.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said big chunk gains usually come from exploiting an opponent’s weakest points or putting your best playmakers in a position to excel. Three of those long plays came from sophomore running back Derrick Green, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. The onus in Green’s absence falls even more squarely on the shoulders of Funchess and Gardner, the senior quarterback who has looked like more of an offensive threat in his two most recent games.
“I get the ball every play so it’s pretty much all my responsibility,” Gardner said. “Even if it’s a big run play for our running backs, I’ve got to hand it to them. I feel like I’m a big part of that.”
Gardner has the potential to create a few of those plays with his feet, but his best bet is to connect with his favorite target, the 6-foot-5 Funchess. He leads the team with 36 receptions and four touchdowns, but three of those came against Appalachian State.
Funchess battled a leg injury during most of September, making his highlight-reel return to the end zone against Penn State a beacon of hope that more spectacular efforts might be coming now that he’s healthy. Nussmeier knows Michigan has to find ways to get the ball in his hands.
“We’re always looking for ways to [create good match-ups],” he said. “Without giving away too much scheme stuff, we evaluated that very hard during the bye week and looked at ways to do that better.”
The Spartans, for all of their prowess on defense, have been burned by the long ball several times this season. They’ve surrendered at least 30 yards on 19 different plays this season, which ranks them 103rd in the nation in that category. The miscues have come against competition that ranges from Oregon to Eastern Michigan.
Michigan enters Saturday’s rivalry game as a double-digit underdog. The line against the Buckeyes later this season should be equally lopsided. The Wolverines likely need to win at least one of those games if Hoke is going to return in 2015. One tried-and-true way to pull off an upset -- especially with a defense that has held its own this season -- is with a few big plays.