Hoke can fix Michigan
Michigan coach can cure Wolverines by casting them in his own image
Let's start with transparency. I personally love Brady Hoke. He played football at Ball State a decade before me. He was the third-leading tackler on one of the greatest Ball State teams in history. Five years ago, he coached one of the greatest teams in Ball State history.
I jumped on the Brady Hoke bandwagon in 2003 when he left an assistant job at Michigan to be the head coach at our alma mater. During his six years at Ball State, we were close. I regularly attended practices and games. I had a six-year, all-access pass to watch him evolve from inexperienced rookie head coach to one of the country's best by the time he pushed the 2008 Cardinals to a top-15 ranking and 12 straight regular-season victories.
When it comes to Hoke, I'm invested and biased. After his two successful seasons at San Diego State, I publicly campaigned for him to replace Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. I worked in Ann Arbor for two years, covering Michigan football and basketball in the early 1990s. My Ball State head coach, Paul Schudel, was a hard-core Michigan Man, a Bo Schembechler loyalist. Schudel preached the gospel of Bo and was the first to hatch the Ball State-to-Michigan dream. I know the program. That's why I believed Hoke, hired by Michigan in 2011, was a better fit than Jim Harbaugh.
As disappointing as Michigan's performance at Michigan State was on Saturday, as troubling as Michigan's six victories this season have been and recognizing my low expectations for the rest of this season, I've lost none of my faith in Brady Hoke. None. I still believe he is the right coach for the Wolverines.
That does not mean Hoke is blameless and free of error. He is not. What it means is Hoke is self-aware and humble enough to correct course. I've seen him do it firsthand.
Let me offer one more piece of transparency before I detail Hoke's errors. I have not spoken to Hoke this season. I've been busy with my own career and my move back to ESPN. In addition, early in the season, after watching the Notre Dame game, it was my sense this season would be a disaster. Michigan's offensive and defensive lines looked mid-major. Low mid-major. You can't correct the line deficiencies exposed in the Notre Dame game during the season. It takes an offseason of strength and conditioning work and a full spring practice to address what was obvious in a lucky victory over the Irish.
I have purposely not spoken with Hoke because I don't want any kid on the Michigan football team to think my opinions are shared by Hoke. They're my opinions gathered from afar, observing the Wolverines on television and reading what they say and what is said about them in the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
This Michigan team is soft and has low character. It does not reflect the values that have defined Hoke throughout his head-coaching career. The Michigan State train wreck was predictable. Every flaw on this Wolverines team was laid bare in East Lansing. Michigan State's strengths (high character and toughness) are Michigan's weaknesses. Hoke's team was beaten by his mirror coaching image, Mark Dantonio, who took a bunch of three-star grinders with chips on their shoulders and demolished Hoke's collection of recruiting all-stars.
Brady Hoke, lost in the riches of Michigan, has momentarily lost who he is.
Hoke walked on at Ball State. No one wanted him. He turned himself into a starting linebacker on the 1978 Ball State team that finished 10-1. He was the captain of the 1980 squad.
As coach at Ball State, he didn't have an office. The school barely supported the football program. He took a bunch of kids few programs wanted, won a dozen games, and produced a crop of players that included three NFL offensive linemen, an NFL tight end, an NFL quarterback, and a receiver who would've played in the league if not for a neck injury. At San Diego State, he did the exact same thing, and the Aztecs didn't even have their own stadium.
Brady Hoke is an underdog. He has an attitude, a chip. He's self-made. He always has something to prove. It's one of the reasons he connects with Tom Brady, a kid Hoke recruited to Michigan, a QB who plays with a massive chip in the NFL.
For three straight years, Hoke has been a recruiting star, landing high-profile recruits from all across the country, swiping talent from Ohio State and other blue-chip programs. Hoke might get the No. 1 class in 2014.
He's five-star struck. On the recruiting trail, he has sacrificed character, grit and maturity for ratings stars. His top recruit in 2013, freshman running back Derrick Green, reported to camp 20 pounds overweight. Green is soft. On Saturday, the 245-pounder dove at the ankles of a blitzing linebacker and whiffed. Green barely plays.
Freshman QB Shane Morris started out as a five-star recruit, backed up to four-star, and is now viewed as a guy who is a bit quirky and immature.
In 2012, Michigan fans were giddy when five-star lineman Kyle Kalis, a native of Ohio, decommitted from Ohio State, chose Michigan, and told Ohio State fans to come see him if they had a problem. As a redshirt freshman this season, Kalis cracked the starting lineup and has been subsequently benched. Another high-profile lineman, David Dawson, violated Hoke's no-visits policy by taking a trip to Florida after verbally committing to Michigan. Hoke backed down and let Dawson recommit to Michigan.
That's not Brady Hoke. He's winning recruiting wars and losing the atmosphere, chemistry and environment that allow his staff to efficiently develop skill, toughness, purpose and unshakable resolve to properly represent Michigan.
I see a team that looks more like Taylor Lewan than Brady Hoke. Lewan is the Jadeveon Clowney of the Big Ten, the pampered superstar who's doing his school a favor by suiting up this season.
Clowney, the South Carolina defensive end, has taken all the heat this season for being a college superstar who's unwilling to play hard while waiting to collect NFL millions. In comparison to Lewan's performance and effort, Clowney looks like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor.
No one talks about offensive linemen because most sports fans cannot properly evaluate their play. Lewan plays my position. He's been embarrassing. The ridiculous and selfish unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he received in Saturday's game is indicative of his play all season. He's resorted to cheap shots and bullying because he failed to adequately prepare to have a dominant senior season.
He's coasting. He turned down NFL millions last April to return for his senior season. You can see the entitlement and arrogance every time he lines up. He's Michigan's captain. He's slumming in Ann Arbor for one more season, and he thinks everyone in maize and blue should be thankful to be in his presence.
Brady Hoke and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier have learned a difficult lesson this season. When a kid is good enough to go pro, when NFL dollar signs are constantly dancing in a kid's head, when groupies and agents are advising everyone around the kid, you're better off pushing the kid out of the nest and into the draft or some agent-run academy where he can train.
It's hard to get 100 kids to go all-in with what the coaching staff is preaching when your best player, the one holding the NFL lottery ticket, can't mentally go all-in because he's being tugged in too many directions by forces outside the coaching staff's control.
Michigan's offensive line has exceptional young talent. It's underachieving because of a lack of proper leadership. Lewan is the group's leader, but he has set a horrible example. He ran his mouth before Saturday's game, promising the Wolverines wouldn't get bullied again by the Spartans. After the game, Lewan had to apologize for blatantly twisting the face mask of a Spartan and drawing a flag.
This season has been a nightmare. Michigan's victories have been impossible to enjoy. The climate within the program has baited quarterback Devin Gardner's immaturity. He struggles to walk the 60-minute tightrope QBs are required to walk. Frustration tempts him to make bad decisions. The pounding he took Saturday caused him to fall to the ground a yard short of an easy first down on a critical third-down play. It was the epitome of softness and revealed just how thoroughly the Spartans beat the fight out of the Wolverines.
There's nothing wrong with Michigan's schemes. Firing offensive coordinator Al Borges won't fix what's wrong with the Wolverines. Hoke doesn't need to parade the sidelines wearing a headset.
Brady Hoke needs to spend the offseason building a football team that reflects who he is. He'll do it, and Michigan fans will never again see the kind of gutless performance they watched on Saturday. They'll see a team that rivals Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes, a team capable of competing at the highest level.
I don't have any doubt.