The Turnaround Specialist
Getting named conference coach of the year once is an achievement. Twice is a trend. Three times puts a man in rarified air alongside some of his most exemplary peers. Brady Hoke is on the lip of that very exclusive cup, earning the Maxwell Football Club’s Collegiate College Coach of the Year for 2011.
Hoke is currently riding one of the most impressive runs for a college head coach in recent memory, earning league coach of the year three times in just four years. And, most remarkably, with three different programs. It mattered little whether the campus was located in Muncie, San Diego or Ann Arbor; Hoke’s presence was going to have a positive impact on the final product. Under his direction, Ball State won a school-record 12 games in 2008, and made its first-ever appearance in the AP Top 25. Two years later, he guided directionless San Diego State to its first bowl game in more than a decade. Last fall, Hoke’s career really began to take flight.
In order to truly appreciate what Hoke accomplished in his debut at Michigan in 2011, it’s important to first recall the state of the program when he arrived. The Wolverines were 15-22 in the three years preceding his hiring, losing three straight to Ohio State, sinking in the Big Ten pecking order and generally losing sight of what made Michigan Michigan for so many generations. The program had reached a low-point in its history, a ditch so seemingly deep that it would take years from which to emerge. The culture of losing needed to be changed. Systems on both sides of the ball had to be scrapped. The Big House basically needed an exorcism.
“From Day 1, Coach Hoke brought a far tougher and more physical mentality to the program,” said senior starting DT Ryan Van Bergen, who was actually a Lloyd Carr recruit five years earlier. “We must have had the most demanding camp in the country, because we weren’t even allowed to start drills until he was satisfied with our physicality in practice. It’s obvious to the players that this is his dream job, and the mood around the program hasn’t been this positive in years.”
Hoke and his assistants, an artfully assembled staff, did more than just restore the pride in Michigan football. They practically did it overnight, soaring well past expectations in 2011. From the squad that went 7-6 in 2010, including season-ending blowout losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Mississippi State, emerged a new and improved edition that capped the year with its first 11-win campaign in five years, its first defeat of the Buckeyes in eight years and its first BCS bowl win, a rousing Sugar Bowl defeat of Virginia Tech, in 12 years.
“Last year was obviously a team effort,” offered Hoke. “On both sides of the ball, Greg (defensive coordinator Greg Mattsion) and Al (offensive coordinator Al Borges) never had any egos. It was never Al’s offense or Greg’s defense. It was Michigan’s offense and Michigan’s defense. Al did an outstanding job of installing a pro-style offense, while maximizing the talents of Denard (QB Denard Robinson). And from a fundamental and technique side, I don’t know if there’s a better guy than Greg.”
The commitment to the kind of play that would have made Bo Schembechler proud paid instant dividends, especially on defense. The maize and blue sieve that ranked 110th nationally and yielded 35 points a game in 2010 finished 17th a year ago, while allowing a mere 17 points a game. One new attitude plus two shrewd hires, Borges and Mattison, had the smash-mouth, suddenly resilient Wolverines turning back the clock as if it was the 1970s again. In less than a year, warp speed considering the reclamation project that needed to be done, Hoke & Co. had summarily rerouted the direction and the expectations of a stumbling program. The turnaround specialist was at it again, injecting new life where malaise and despair had set in.
“For us, success has always hinged on the leadership of our seniors, especially the fifth-year guys,” said Hoke. “We work hard for those guys to reach their goals in their final year. We hold seminars, and we meet with the kids every Thursday and Sunday to discuss the importance of commitment, accountability and trust in one another.”
For Hoke, his objective has always been about getting results. Nothing too fancy. Nothing too exotic. His secret sauce has been a simple, time-tested one that puts extra weight on the basics. If you stand out at the fundamentals, such as tackling and blocking, and play with a non-stop motor, he just might have a job for you. Even better, his philosophies and his handling of the kids have been extremely well received wherever he’s been. A player’s coach who can also be a disciplinarian, Hoke has always excelled at recruiting. He has a knack for evaluating talent, connecting with prospects and their parents and building for the future with a strong farm system. It’s one of the many reasons folks close to the program feel that 2011 was only the beginning of something big in Ann Arbor.
The players were essentially the same, yet the results in 2011 were dramatically different at Michigan. By definition, that’s a textbook case of a great coaching job. Furthermore, Hoke ended up being a transformational figure at a program where it’s impossible to operate without a constant crush of media attention. This man was not the first choice for UM a little over a year ago, especially among fans who were seeking a bigger splash. He was, however, the best choice for the future of the Wolverines, as last season’s rather improbable results would attest. Now, the locals can’t wait to see what Hoke can deliver once he gets a chance to really dig his heels in, and get a couple of his recruiting classes on campus.