Rough journey forges leaders

Players say struggles under Rodriguez helped bond them for future

Updated: July 27, 2012, 4:02 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

CHICAGO -- Brady Hoke has done this often enough now that it is somewhat familiar. Three places he has come in as a head coach -- Ball State, San Diego State and Michigan -- and three times he has had to take a group of players who were not his own, whom he didn't recruit and barely knew, and turn them into believers of his teachings.

There is no timetable for it, no certainty it will happen. It is just a leap of faith. A hope that the message Hoke tried to deliver would permeate into the players he was hired to coach.

Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes, like at Michigan last season, it happens fast.

"It's all different," Hoke said. "Every situation is different. You have 12 inside linebackers and they are all going to be different and all going to react to certain things differently, to their coach and what's going on.

"I don't think you could ever put a measure on it because it'll start with your leadership and how fast those guys who are your leadership components on your football team, how fast they come together as a group."

Now, that leadership is gone and Hoke has to find new leaders to replace David Molk, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The ones who have stepped into their places had a similar legacy to their predecessors but also just as many ties to their former coach.

Coincidentally, they are ones who had perhaps some of the strongest ties to Rich Rodriguez.

Rodriguez may be gone from Michigan, having been fired almost 18 months ago, but his legacy with the Wolverines might be altered by what those players do this season. As Michigan prepares to be a favorite in the Big Ten for the first time in five years, those who are leading the Wolverines committed to Rodriguez.

The face of the program, Denard Robinson, likely wouldn't have been at Michigan if not for the former coach. One of the defensive leaders, Jordan Kovacs, was a walk-on whom Rodriguez gave a chance. Its most NFL-ready player, left tackle Taylor Lewan, said Rodriguez's recruiting ability drew him to Michigan.

They arrived at Michigan as freshmen, but they didn't have the success they thought they would. Through those struggles, they discovered more about themselves than they figure they would have had they merely continued Michigan's lengthy run of consistent success.

So being a favorite -- part of where Michigan is now can be traced to the failings the Wolverines had then.

"Going through the mud and the pain and unfortunate situations, that kind of helped find who you are," Robinson said. "I think that kind of helped me find what kind of team we are, what kind of characteristics you have as a man.

"I was watching little things, and when you struggle that's when you find out what kind of man you are and what kind of man the person next to you is. That's how we found out what kind of team we were. We were a determined team last year."

That isn't going away this season. Michigan has long said its goal is to win the Big Ten every season, and the Wolverines, despite an 11-win season and an Allstate Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, insist part of their season was a failure last year because they didn't even play in the first Big Ten championship game, let alone win it.

Of course, failure with this bunch can be measured in levels. Michigan made a bowl last season. The Wolverines won more than they lost and started to recover some of the confidence that disappeared in prior seasons.

Much of that came from going 5-7 in 2009 and then 7-6 in 2010 under Rodriguez. And then seeing the man who believed in them enough to bring them to Ann Arbor, Mich., fired.

"We would have loved to be Big Ten champions those years but those couple years of struggles made us hungrier than ever," Kovacs said. "That's what is going to contribute to our success this year as it did last year. Having not been very successful, we're going to be striving for that success and really hungry to be a Big Ten champion.

"That's what this program has been about, and we've been deprived of it the past couple of years."

And they give both of their college coaches credit as a combination of both of them led to Michigan returning to its previous lofty status.

"I wouldn't change anything at all. It's like the butterfly effect," Lewan said. "If you change one thing, a bunch of different things are going to happen.

"I wouldn't be in the position I was without [then-strength coach] Mike Barwis or Coach Rod. At the same time, I wouldn't have the growth I did in the past year without Coach Hoke, Aaron Wellman and Darrell Funk."

Michigan may not have succeeded under Rodriguez. But with a combination of different factors, those he brought in stayed at Michigan, learned a new system and are now trying to lead a bunch of new players back to the top of the Big Ten.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter