Hoke haunted by 1998 letdown

Losing first two games the season after the '97 title shaped coaching style

Updated: March 27, 2012, 1:19 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In trying to understand why Brady Hoke coaches the way he does, where all that energy and consistency comes from with every player he coaches, it is important not to look at where he succeeded but rather where Hoke believes he failed.

As a head coach at Ball State, it took longer for Hoke to rebuild the Cardinals than it did at his subsequent jobs at San Diego State and then Michigan. Hoke learned a lot from his first head coaching job, as does every first-time head coach.

But Hoke's consistency goes back deeper than Muncie, Ind.

It started in his current home of Ann Arbor the season after Michigan won a national championship. Those first two games of the 1998 season, when the Wolverines were beaten soundly by Notre Dame, 36-20, and then by Syracuse, 38-28, still bother him almost 14 years later.

"I didn't coach them hard enough," Hoke said. "Didn't coach them. They assumed they knew how to play the game of football."

Hoke had an experienced defensive line group back in 1998, including three returning starters in Rob Renes, James Hall and Josh Williams along with co-captain Juaquin Feazell and other experienced linemen such as Eric Wilson.

He figured those guys knew the basics, that they didn't need to be pushed quite as hard. It is a lesson he carries now, as he treats working with this spring's group of unseasoned linemen just like he did last season's veteran core of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen.

"I don't know if it ever changes how you coach," Hoke said. "I think you make a real mistake, and I did it here in 1998, having three returning starters back from a national championship team, I didn't do a good job as a coach of sticking with the basics and the progression that you want and an expectation that you need to have.

"I promised myself since then I wouldn't do it again."

His players from 1998, though, do not share his assessment.

Even now, 14 years later, neither Feazell nor Renes said Hoke changed how he coached from 1997 to 1998. They instead pointed to losing key defensive leaders like Charles Woodson and Glen Steele and facing two extremely talented teams.

Notre Dame finished 9-3 that season -- and Syracuse had a quarterback in Donovan McNabb who was among the best players in college football who came in off a close loss to eventual national champion Tennessee the week before.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Vincent Laforet/Getty ImagesSyracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb overwhelmed the Michigan defense in the second game of the 1998 season, leading the Orange to a 38-28 victory.
McNabb, the eventual No. 2 pick in the 1999 NFL draft, and Syracuse ran variations of the triple-option to go along with McNabb's powerful arm.

"We got it handed to us by Syracuse. At home. I don't deny that. We did get it handed to us and again against Notre Dame," Feazell said. "Against Notre Dame my senior year, we ran out of gas. We had the lead at halftime and went in at halftime and had a couple guys with issues, a guy on IV. When we came back in the second half, we just ran out of gas against them.

"When we played against Syracuse, they put together a package that we may have not been as prepared for. McNabb was a special type of quarterback, and that was not something we saw regularly and some of us never saw it anyway."

After that Syracuse game, Hoke said he realized what he felt he had done. He felt he hadn't prepared his players well enough. He said he let them become complacent -- something he says now was on him.

It was then he said he would never change how he coached ever again, no matter what type of talent he had back or inexperience he might be looking at. It was a lesson for a then-young coach to learn along the way.

It isn't an opinion universally shared, but Renes could understand why Hoke feels like that.

"His expectation for himself as a position coach, and his expectation now as a head coach, I would dare guess his expectation for us in our positions -- while the role may change -- the expectation is high in all of those positions," Renes said. "I think the first person that they have worked on and still work on, and if things don't go well and you don't have success, the first place you have to look is in the mirror.

"I think he models that, lives by that. I don't think Coach Hoke would be alone in that assessment. I think all of our coaches, whether it be appropriate or not, had a level of self-criticism just like us as players. We had to watch that film and ask ourselves whether or not we were doing things."

After the loss to Syracuse, the Wolverines did reassess.

Michigan won its next eight games before losing to Ohio State, 31-16, eventually earning a share of the Big Ten title and beating Arkansas in the Florida Citrus Bowl.

"We knew what we had, knew what type of players we had and goals we had," Feazell said. "That doesn't change week to week. We had a goal of winning the Big Ten, and we knew that we didn't put forth our best effort and it was the family all together that had that mind frame.

"We knew we had a better team than 0-2."

Michigan did -- and for Hoke, the lesson of not letting himself allow his players feel complacent still resonates today.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter