Hoke has chance to make history

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke didn't set public expectations for where he thought his team might be at this point. He said as much Monday, saying he has never used "preconceived notions" to judge performance throughout the season.

One thing is certain: With the way Michigan has played thus far under Hoke, this week has become huge. While beating Notre Dame was an early positive barometer to whether Michigan would struggle or survive in Hoke's first season as the Wolverines' head coach, this game means more.

In-state rivalries between public universities, where players often have known each other for years, usually do. But this game, this week, this season, might have a larger significance.

If Hoke and Michigan beat Michigan State on Saturday, the Wolverines could be on the verge of a special season -- something few expected in August.

And Hoke has a chance to leave an early permanent mark on whatever legacy he ends up crafting at Michigan by beating Michigan State in his first year.

That's something Bo Schembechler -- a 23-12 loss in 1969 -- didn't do. Lloyd Carr -- a 28-25 loss in 1995 -- didn't either. Same with Gary Moeller, who lost to Michigan State 28-27 in 1990.

The last coach to beat the Spartans in his debut in the rivalry was Bennie Oosterbaan with a 13-7 win in 1948. Even Oosterbaan, though, lost the first Paul Bunyan Trophy game, 14-6, in 1953.

Hoke actually would become the first Michigan coach ever to win the Paul Bunyan Trophy in his first season.

The barometer of success or failure for a coach at Michigan can be traced back to results against Michigan State -- at least over the past 50 years. Schembechler, Carr and Moeller all had winning records against the Spartans. Bump Elliott and Rich Rodriguez, who both struggled coaching at Michigan, did not.

Not coincidentally, Hoke has modeled a lot of what he has done at Michigan and other places after what he learned from Carr, Moeller and Schembechler while in Ann Arbor as an assistant from 1995 to 2001.

He understands this rivalry and its importance -- especially since Michigan has lost to Michigan State the past three seasons under Rodriguez.

"It means an awful lot," Hoke said. "It means a lot because we represent a great university. We've got great alums out there, and it's a Big Ten game, and it's an important game.

"It's a tremendous rivalry in college football. You can say on a local, state, regional standpoint but also a national standpoint. It's Michigan-Michigan State."

While Hoke also said a win in this game would mean just as much as any other in the context of a season and his team's goal of winning the Big Ten, that isn't entirely true. Legacies and careers are made out of these games.

Michigan coaches, more than any other games, are judged on performances against Michigan State and Ohio State. One is the rival for The Game. The other is the in-state rivalry between programs that have genuine dislike for each other.

For example, Ohio State's John Cooper was widely considered a very good head coach and went 111-43-4 in Columbus from 1988 to 2000. But he was 2-10-1 against Michigan -- something remembered often by those in Columbus. That and an awful bowl record eventually played a role in costing him his job.

"It's part of your legacy," defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said. "When you come to Michigan to play football, your legacy is left with Big Ten championships, Rose Bowls and how you do against your rivals."

Van Bergen was talking about how players are viewed. The same can be said of coaches.

Hoke has a chance to really change the way things are viewed in Michigan for the near future. At 6-0 and ranked 10th in the country, Michigan can take control of the Big Ten Legends division with a win Saturday. It can beat Michigan State for the first time since 2007.

And it can put this mark on Hoke's first season: That he -- and Michigan -- plan to be around for a while.

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