Michigan down, but not out
The Wolverines learned from their past and have big plans for the future
As Michigan's athletic director, Dave Brandon attends many events where Big Ten championship rings are displayed. He sees them on mantles and in plastic cases. He sees them on the fingers of former Wolverines players -- and not just the living ones.
"I've been to funerals of student-athletes who played here decades and decades ago and have rings on their fingers," Brandon said.
But the past five graduating classes of Michigan football players won't be taking Big Ten championship rings to their graves or anywhere else. They don't have any.
The Wolverines haven't won a league title in 2004, their longest drought since a lull between 1950-64. They're just 39-33 in league play during the span with four losing conference records since 2008. Michigan had winning records in the Big Ten from 1968-2007, a run that included seven unbeaten seasons and 17 with just one loss.
Coach Brady Hoke, who won three Big Ten championship rings as a Michigan assistant, often says that any Michigan season without a league title cannot be labeled a success. Hoke's first team in 2011 won 11 games and a Sugar Bowl title, but he considered the season a failure because Wisconsin won the Big Ten. The Wolverines haven't even reached the league championship game, launched in 2011, despite being in a different division than Ohio State.
The struggles can be traced, in least in part, to subpar recruiting at the end of Lloyd Carr's tenure, a system overhaul and attrition under Rich Rodriguez, and a roster that, despite Hoke's major recruiting gains, remains very young. Of Michigan's 83 scholarship players, 57 have freshman or sophomore eligibility.
As the years pass, though, the angst builds for a program anxious to bring back old times.
"You can rationalize everything, but Michigan should never go 10 years without a Big Ten title in any sport," Brandon said. "We're Michigan. We have higher expectations than that."
There are lessons Michigan can draw from its last Big Ten championship team as it tries to reach those heights this season. The first occurs on the practice field.
"There was a lot of confidence and competitiveness in practice," Marlin Jackson, a former two-time All-America cornerback at Michigan, recalled of the 2004 squad. "Practice was almost more competitive than the games. It got really heated."
Another important takeaway, given the youth on the current roster, is how Michigan's veterans picked up its all-freshman offensive backfield, quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart.
Henne, named the starter just before the season opener, went on to tie a team record with 25 touchdown passes. Hart led the Big Ten and set a Michigan freshman record with 1,455 rush yards.
'I just want this season to be tolerable'
Brian Cook couldn't stand watching Michigan last season.
The founder of the popular Michigan blog, MGoBlog.com, Cook lived through "The horror," his label for Michigan's loss to Appalachian State in 2007, and the Rich Rodriguez era. But this was worse.
"Last year was the worst year of football I've ever seen," Cook said. "It was so unbelievably painful and miserable. They rushed for negative yards in consecutive games [Michigan State and Nebraska] and that's never happened before.
"I just want this season to be tolerable. That's where I'm at."
Tolerable might not be enough for many Michigan fans, especially almost a decade removed from a Big Ten title. As author John U. Bacon said, "You cannot get 110,000 people interested in 7-6."
But Cook is realistic about the 2014 season, noting a "low-variance schedule" - easy for Michigan to finish 8-4 or 9-3, harder to go 10-2 or 7-5. He sees the talent level improving through recruiting. This year's defense could be vintage Michigan, and if new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier works his magic, the offense should stabilize.
While Wolverines coach Brady Hoke judges success at Michigan on Big Ten championships, Cook calls the metric "a little bit less realistic" with a bigger league and one with no co-championships (of Michigan's 42 Big Ten titles, 26 are shared). It's not a make-or-break season for Hoke, who is still dealing with the effects from what Cook calls two bad coaching transitions, but there's plenty at stake.
"Michigan's recruiting seems indestructible," Cook said. "Does [the season] have significance in that realm? Probably not. But in terms of viability to believe Hoke can actually build a program that can beat not only Ohio State but now Michigan State, yeah, it's a big deal.
"I want to see forward progress, both literally and figuratively."
-- Adam Rittenberg
Leadership was an issue in 2013, and Hoke and older players like defensive end Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner made teambuilding - from coaches to players to support staff -- a top priority in the offseason.
Hoke sees "competition across the board" for the first time in his Michigan head-coaching tenure. But Michigan players are looking for something else, an intangible that their predecessors possessed.
"Ten years ago, the guys came out with real enthusiasm, not fake enthusiasm," Clark said. "That's the problem with some of these teams nowadays, they show fake enthusiasm."
Did recent Michigan teams? "In the past [we did], but we can't do anything about the past," Clark said. "We can only think about the future."
Whether it's real enthusiasm, as Clark calls it, or mystique, Michigan held an edge on its opponents.
"We didn't think we were better than anyone," Jackson said. "The fact that we were aware of the past and the tradition and all we were living up to, we went out there and played at that level."
Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller recalls having older Boilers players talk to his teams about handling the stage at Michigan Stadium. It didn't work.
In 1999, Tiller took a 4-0 Purdue team led by junior quarterback Drew Brees to Ann Arbor, Michigan, certain the Boilers would win at the Big House for the first time since 1966. Nobody dropped a ball during warmups, not even the third-string receivers. Purdue ended up dropping Brees' first seven pass attempts, and Michigan thumped the Boilers 38-12.
"That used to psyche out some teams," Tiller said. "Some teams used to think Michigan would have a two-touchdown lead before the ball was ever kicked off."
Things changed eight years later, when Appalachian State, an FCS (then Division I-AA) team, beat Michigan at Michigan to open the season. Then, in 2009, Purdue ended its Big House losing streak, as a team Tiller called average beat a subpar Michigan squad.
"The mystique of the Big House is gone," Tiller said. "More teams are going in there and playing just like they're anybody else. At one time there was so much made about the Big House in the national media that there wasn't a kid in college football, if you said, 'Big House,' they didn't know what stadium you were talking about. Today they might think you're talking about Texas or something. So that part of it's changed."
A Big Ten coach recently told ESPN.com that he would rather face Michigan than Minnesota this season.
Opponents no longer fear Michigan, but how do the Wolverines view themselves? Hoke doesn't see entitlement on his team and will ward it off it creeps in, but he wants his players to be prideful. The fourth-year coach is, if nothing else, a true believer in Michigan's tradition.
It's why he mentions Michigan's records for Big Ten titles and all-time wins whenever possible. It's why he labels his teams after their Michigan versions (Michigan plays its 135th season this fall, so Hoke is coaching Team 135).
Asked whether Michigan can intimidate opponents, Hoke said, "Time's changed a little bit, but that's part of it. It's part of an attitude you want to have. You understand when you come down that tunnel, you've got to make your own traditions and your own legacies as a team."
After Hoke's first season, it looked like Michigan's wait for a title soon would end. But the Wolverines' wins total has dropped in each of the past two years.
Brandon calls outside speculation about Hoke's job status "crap" and "baloney," while admitting last season was a significant disappointment.
"This transition that we're making in terms of style of play, which drives the style of recruiting, people all want to believe you can wave a magic wand and have that all happen quickly," he said. "It doesn't happen quickly.
"This is an important year because clearly we want to take a step forward and show significant progress."
How big of a step can Michigan expect? Hoke has more of his recruits in the fold, from classes ESPN rated 18th, sixth and seventh nationally the past three seasons.
But Michigan has challenges with its offensive line and a run game Hoke wants to restore to punishing standards. The Wolverines, who have struggled on the road under Hoke, also visit both Ohio State and Michigan State. They have just one win against Ohio State since 2003 and just one win against Michigan State since 2007.
"It just takes time," said Erik Campbell, a former Michigan wide receiver and safety who coached Wolverines receivers from 1995-2007. "They're winning, they've made bowl games but they haven't won the Big Ten. That's different [than] at other programs.
"Your measuring stick is the Big Ten title."
Jackson, who played five seasons for the Colts and still lives in Indianapolis, attended the inaugural Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. He loved the event and envisions the day when Indy is covered in Maize and Blue on the first weekend of December.
"Michigan fans," he said, "are thirsting for that."
Especially after a dry spell no one envisioned a decade ago. The only thing better than reaching Indianapolis would be winning a championship and securing another ring to be worn for life, or perhaps even in death.
"That's our aspiration, that's our expectation, that's our legacy," Brandon said. "We should never give up on that."
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