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Hoke faces team he left in 2010

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Houston Nutt woke up Sunday morning during the week of the 2008 Arkansas-Mississippi game and by the time he started breaking down film of the Razorbacks, he knew this was going to be different.

The players on the tape used to be his players. That used to be his team. Less than a year after he resigned, Nutt was at Mississippi, preparing to face the same guys he once convinced to come to Fayetteville to play for him.

As much as he tried to downplay it -- as coaches who have gone through the somewhat rare situation of playing their old team in their first season with their new team always seem to do -- he couldn't. This wasn't the same as any other week.

There was more invested. While Michigan football coach Brady Hoke said it wasn't going to be much different than any other week for him when San Diego State comes to Ann Arbor on Saturday, the reality is he just might not realize it yet.

Or doesn't want to admit it.

"He won't realize it," Nutt said. "But he'll wake up, and it'll be the most difficult week because of all the ties. Being in those living rooms, you try to play it off and go nonchalant about it during the week, but when that thing kicks off and you look across the sideline, you know the numbers, you know the faces.

"You say it's just another game, another kick, but it's more than that. It's a little bit deeper than you think."

Of course, coaches and situations are different. Nutt resigned from Arkansas and went to Ole Miss. Tyrone Willingham had willingly left Stanford when he went to Notre Dame, a yearly opponent, before the 2002 season. Then he was fired from Notre Dame and ended up at Washington in 2005, when the Irish were scheduled to head to Seattle.

Like Nutt, North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien stayed in-conference when he left Boston College for the Wolfpack. Virginia's Mike London had to open his career as the Cavaliers' head coach by facing the team he left, FCS school Richmond.

Hoke left San Diego State in the middle of January for Michigan, his dream job and a place he said he'd have walked to from San Diego.

One thing remains constant. It is an emotional experience.

"Personally, it was very difficult when I had to go back to Boston," O'Brien said. "I had run out of every tunnel there is at Boston College to get on to the field because I'm with the home and visitors now. But you had a relationship with all those kids and even some of my coaches coached there.

"When you know people on both teams, it's a tough situation, but Matt Ryan beat our brains in and we went home."

How smooth or difficult it could be is a result of the delicacy of the situation. When Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan left Wisconsin-Milwaukee to go to the state's flagship school in Madison, he got his team together and explained it was part of the business. All but a couple of players understood, Ryan said.

Hoke couldn't do that. When he decided to leave San Diego State for Michigan, his players were home on break between classes. Unable to call a team meeting, he sent a mass text message.

He had little choice.

"You can never do it the right way," Hoke said. "They're on break, so no one was there. You know some of the guys in San Diego, and you send a text because you can't get them all together. There was a time element in everything, obviously.

"We had a full team meeting when I left Ball State, my alma mater, that was hard to leave and hard to leave those kids. So we were fortunate enough to be able to do that. We couldn't do it out there."

When Hoke arrived at Michigan, he said he approached Wolverines athletic director Dave Brandon to try and buy out of the game. It was too far down the road in scheduling for that to happen, so the game remained.

Hoke wanted to buy out the game not because of emotional factors, but because San Diego State is a talented team. It'll also be a talented team with an extra bit of emotion.

For however much players and coaches might downplay the notion publicly, there is pride involved. For players on the jilted team, it is about proving something to your old coach. For the coach, it is about controlling your emotions and wanting to win a game where people will naturally judge whether the right move was made based on the game's outcome.

"While you're on the field, you want that win a little more than the other ones," said Chris Frome, who played for Notre Dame both in 2002 and 2005. "You know, you want to be able to surprise your coach, you want to be able to outplay your old coach on the field. What better feeling is that?"

Frome remembered the intensity of that week -- and that his head coach in 2005, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis -- played into the storyline. But he also told the players behind the scenes that it wasn't about the players versus the coach. And he gave his players suggestions on what to say to the media when the inevitable questions about facing Willingham came.

It was to treat it like any other game. The players and coaches knew otherwise.

"We definitely addressed it," Frome said. "It's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If you don't say anything, you don't know what some guys are going to say."

Saturday can't come fast enough on these weeks. The questions end. The sooner the game starts, the sooner it ends. And when a coach in the midst of the game, they are so wrapped up in trying to win that the added emotional part of it momentarily subsides.

Then again, that relief might be the best part.

"Very much so," Ryan said.

And socialization between the former coach and players, even briefly, can help the situation. After the 2005 Notre Dame-Washington game, players lined up at midfield inside Husky Stadium to have brief chats with Willingham that some said later brought closure to the entire situation.

In Fayetteville, what happened after the game stood out to Nutt more than anything during it. Then again, he had won in his return, 23-21.

"It felt good to win, the first two years, felt really good," Nutt said. "After the game, what was emotional was the players that you recruited, we had a long line of guys coming by.

"We talked longer than any other time I can remember after a ballgame with all the players that you recruited."

Whether that happens Saturday or not is still unknown. One thing is certain -- it'll be different than anything Hoke has gone through before.

You Guys Look Familiar

Brady Hoke will become the sixth active FBS coach to face his former team in his first season with his new one when Michigan plays host to San Diego State on Saturday.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.