Finally, the University of Michigan made a decision and hired Brady Hoke as their next head football coach.
No Jim Harbaugh?
No Les Miles?
Is this a disaster hire for college football’s all-time wins leader?
It’s possible, but far too early to tell.
There are a lot of different ways you can look at this, and you can make a case that this is an absolute horrendous hire, or that it is a rather sneaky good hire that will pay off tremendously in a couple years.
As college football fans, we should know that you can never immediately write someone off before he’s even coached a single game at a new school.
Sure, we see a lot of hires like this that fail miserably, but we also see a lot that unexpectedly blossom right underneath our noses.
If you hire Nick Saban you know with a great amount of certainty that your program is about to take off, and conversely, if you hire Tyrone Willingham you know just as well that your football team is going to be sunk within a couple of years.
Those are the rare "sure things" in college football, while all of the other hires are just a giant gray area of uncertainty for at least a year or two.
With that said, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the hire and take a look at the three most important topics.
Coach Firing/Hiring Process 101: Failed
You can spin it anyway you want, but Michigan AD David Brandon handled this process about as well as Lindsay Lohan handled drug rehab.
You could say he wanted to be thorough with his evaluation of Rich Rodriguez, that he was still unsure about what to do, and didn’t have the world’s best options, but Brandon still went about this the entire wrong way.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame fans know this process all too well.
No matter what happens behind the scenes, perception is reality and you do not want to put your school in a negative light whenever and wherever possible.
Waiting to fire Rich Rodriguez until after the bowl game?
Dragging on the firing for almost a week in a much too public manner?
Yet another bad decision.
Then we were treated to a series of updates via the "Michigan Jet" flying all over the country, seemingly trying to obtain opinions on prospective coaching candidates and courting Les Miles away from LSU.
It doesn’t matter if none of this or very little of this was actually true (I believe Brandon says the plane was not being used to hire a new coach), what matters is that people think it is true.
Brady Hoke may have been Michigan’s number one choice for their head coaching vacancy, but with everything that went on and how the whole process played out, it sure doesn’t seem that way.
And no matter how you slice it, this falls on Brandon and is not a good sign that he’ll be an effective AD (cue memories of Kevin White for Irish fans).
Is Hoke a Good Coach?
This is a tough question to answer.
On the surface, his hiring is somewhat shocking. There’s something to the point that if Hoke hadn’t of coached at Michigan in the past then he probably wouldn't have even sniffed an opportunity at this job.
However, he has a decent amount of head coaching experience (8 years), but he’s more or less been way out of the national spotlight and free from the pressure that comes with the elite programs in the country.
And it’s not like he’s completely dominated in these ranks like you would expect a coach to do who has just been hired at a top 10 program (see Meyer, Urban).
Hoke is 47-50 overall as a head coach and has compiled just three winning seasons in eight years.
When he took over at Ball State for his first head coaching gig at age 44, the Cardinals had won 6 games the prior season, but it would not be until Hoke’s fifth season in Muncie that he eclipsed that mark (going 7-6 in 2007).
Having four straight losing seasons to start your coaching career is not the most promising beginning ever, and this is surely bothersome to many Michigan fans.
But give Hoke credit for eventually turning Ball State around as it is not an easy task for a program that has little tradition of winning, even for a MAC team.
Hoke was 18-5 in MAC play during his last three seasons at Ball State as his teams went from third in their division, to second, and finally to a first place finish in 2008.
In 2007, Hoke and the Cardinals suffered a couple of 20+ blowout losses, but played Miami of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana close. They were also only defeated by one point in a loss to Nebraska in Lincoln.*
*Stastically, the 2007 Cornhuskers were the worst Nebraska team since 1961, but still.
2008 was Hoke’s true coming out party as the Cardinals ripped off 12 straight victories on their way to the MAC championship game. What’s more, Ball State only played in one really close game all season long (7 point victory over Central Michigan).
They headed into the conference title game ranked No. 12 in the nation and despite 503 yards of offense, Ball State was defeated 42-24 by Buffalo.
Hoke didn’t stay around for the bowl game and instead found greener pastures out west by taking the San Diego State job.
His first year in the Mountain West was not pretty as Hoke’s Aztecs went 4-8 with victories coming over only the dregs of college football (Southern Utah, New Mexico State, New Mexico, and Colorado State).
Yet, Hoke’s reputation went through the roof with this year’s performance as San Diego State finished 9-4, perhaps the Aztecs best season over the past 20 or 30 years.
In addition to roughing up Navy in their bowl game (that should elicit immediate respect from Notre Dame fans), San Diego State lost to Missouri, BYU, TCU and Utah by a combined 15 points.
That is one heck of a turnaround.
So while Brady Hoke doesn’t have a stellar resume and isn’t a glitzy name, he was likely one of the better coaches outside of the BCS conferences until his hiring by Michigan.
The thing I’d be worried about if I was a Michigan fan was that his success took a little bit too long at Ball State, and that he’s only had two great coaching seasons out of eight attempts.
Hoke’s 2010 season at San Diego State is very impressive for sure, but let’s remember that Tyrone Willingham led Stanford to their first Pac-10 title in 29 years and a berth in the Rose Bowl for one season too. Sometimes you have to take these big seasons with a grain of salt.
I’d also wonder if Hoke’s success in those two seasons was more the product of a couple standout players competing among mediocre competition, and less to do with coaching.
Was Hoke’s successful two-year run at Ball State more attributable to quarterback Nate Davis who tallied 7,258 passing yards, 56 touchdowns to only 14 interceptions, and 549 rushing yards to go along with 10 more touchdowns on the ground?
In his first season at San Diego State, Hoke’s team was an abysmal 116th nationally in running the ball and only totaled 940 yards on the ground with a poor 2.87 yards per carry average.
This past season San Diego State benefited from a breakout season from true freshman running back Ronnie Hillman who finished with 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns, both good for tenth best in the country.
Is this a product of Hoke being a great up and coming coach and better-than-you-think recruiter?
Or is he more of a middling and average coach who was been lucky enough to strike lightning in a bottle during a couple of seasons?
Time will tell if he has what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of college football.
Looking to the Future
It’s been a humorous, sad, and fascinating couple of weeks as all of this drama has unfolded within the Michigan program.
"Rodriguez finally got this offense humming, you can’t fire him!"
"Rich Rod is done, it’s three years later and his entire tenure has been a complete mess."
"Jim Harbaugh will be our next coach, he’ll take us back to glory! And if not, Les Miles will come back to his alma mater."
"Brady Hoke? Noooooooooo!!!"
"Hoke really knows this university, he loves Ann Arbor. His players love him and look at all of the former UM players supporting him. He’s a great hire!"
Honestly, we’ve seen these types of up and down emotions and bickering for years at Notre Dame as the Irish have searched and searched for the right coach, complete with the fans trying to get behind every new hire that came along.
The only difference is Notre Dame has been through this five times in the recent past while this is only Michigan’s second go-around, so we Golden Domers understand this process pretty well.
I’ve tried my best to paint a positive picture of Brady Hoke, and like I said, there is always the possibility that he will take Michigan back to the days of beating Ohio State, winning Big Ten titles and being a factor in the BCS championship discussion.
Nevertheless, Hoke has a huge mountain to climb in Ann Arbor and he looks, feels and sounds like a transition hire.
Especially considering the way Michigan has been obsessed with hiring "one of their own," the constant over-gushing with Hoke from within Ann Arbor’s old guard, and the sense that this has Lloyd Carr’s (Hoke was an assistant under Carr from 1995-2001) fingerprints all over it.
I mean, not a lot of people were thrilled with his hiring, and when fans are saying, "After watching his press conference and listening to comments from former players, I think Hoke is a perfect fit," it’s not exactly a huge vote of confidence.
It all seems to be more of a backlash from Rich Rodriguez more than anything. It’s great that Hoke loves Michigan, truly wanted to come to Ann Arbor and endears himself to the Lloyd Carr faction that still permeates (or is it dominates?) the campus, but that doesn’t make him a great football coach, or make up for his rather thin resume.
He’ll most likely be one of two or three coaches who rebuild, get the program back on track, and return the football to its traditional roots in strong defense and well balanced offense.
I think deep down most realistic Michigan fans know and accept this.
Right now they are supporting Hoke as any good fan should and are hoping for the best, but the best scenario for the Wolverines is hoping that Hoke is the only transition coach and that the program doesn’t have to suffer through this process for another decade-plus.
In a lot of ways Michigan and Notre Dame are very much the same: both have a great winning tradition, tons of pageantry, and a vocal and sometimes unrealistic fan base. It may take another few years for the Wolverine fan base to fully understand this, but the expectations at Michigan are not what they used to be, nor should they be.
What the Brady Hoke hire will most importantly do is test the patience of the Michigan fan base and alumni. They are now staring at a coach who probably isn’t "the guy" to return them to glory, but if they’re lucky he might turn into a solid coach if given enough time.
How much time will he get?
It would be shocking if Michigan does much damage (8 or 9+ wins, a handful of upsets, beating Ohio State) over the next two seasons, and you have to wonder what this team is going to look like with Denard Robinson, Vincent Smith, Michael Shaw, Roy Roundtree, Darryl Stonum, Junior Hemingway, and Martavious Odoms no longer on campus right when Michigan should be coming out of the rebuilding stages of the Hoke-era.
Assuming Robinson doesn’t transfer, the transition away from Rich Rodriguez’s offense should not too painful, but Hoke still has to develop other young players (Gardner, Touissant, etc.) and bring in bigger and stronger players to fit his system.
So while the Michigan offense has playmakers right now and could be dangerous, there are still question marks lingering with this coaching transition. And this isn’t even bringing up the defense and the amount of high-level recruiting Hoke will have to do on that side of the ball just to get the Wolverines back to respectability.
Is Hoke capable of bringing in 12 or 15 impact defensive players over the next couple recruiting cycles so that Michigan can turn the corner in 2013 and 2014, and start competing for Big Ten titles and beating Ohio State?
Like many new unproven coaches stepping into a big-time program, this will be a huge challenge for Hoke. Can he win early enough to attract recruits? If Michigan struggles next season, will his recruiting prowess be able to bring in a top 15 class no matter what?
When discussing the reasons why Les Miles shouldn’t take the Michigan job last week, the turn around in recruiting that would need to take place was a big reason and giant red flag.
It’s not that Michigan had recruited poorly under Rich Rodriguez, but the program was hit with the perfect storm of football program disaster: transfers, injuries, and poor player development.
All of this has resulted in the worst Michigan defense in school history (107th in scoring, 110th in total, 112th in passing) and a lack of playmaking ability like no other time in the past.
Michigan had one defensive player on the Big Ten All-Conference Team in defensive tackle Mike Martin (2nd team).
Improved coaching and a focus on defense will surely help, but to crawl out of this hole Michigan has to recruit better players and their current 39th ranked recruiting class is not helping matters.
That puts even more pressure on Hoke to put together an even better 2012 class over the next 12 months, way more pressure than Rich Rodriguez ever faced when he took over in 2008.
So while I think it’s a lot more likely we’ll see 5 and 6-win seasons in comparison to 9 or 10-win seasons in Ann Arbor for the near future, I don’t think that necessarily means that Hoke is a terrible hire or that Wolverine fans need to start pulling their hair out.
No one except the very elite of proven coaches (Saban, Stoops, etc.) was going to come into this situation and turn the clock back to 1996 within three years for Michigan.
However, what Hoke can do is instill more toughness, bring the defense back to respectability, smooth the offensive transition, and inject some much needed life into the recruiting scene.
Most of all, Hoke has the opportunity to make the Michigan job appealing once again, and even if he’s struggling to win a lot games two or three years down the road, I bet he will be judged most by the shape the program is in whenever he hands it off to the next coach.
The good thing for Hoke is that the 2011 schedule is relatively easy for Michigan standards: Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan and San Diego State (this game will be interesting, no?) out of conference, five straight home games to start the season, and only four road games.
Six or seven wins should be considered a valiant effort, while four or five wins with additional losses to say, Northwestern or Illinois, can’t be looked at as complete doom.
In regards to what this all means for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, I will put it like this:
It is time to start beating Michigan on a regular basis.
Notre Dame has only won three games in a row in this series once before when Lou Holtz led the Irish to four straight victories from 1987 to 1990, and if the Irish want to get back to a consistent high level of play, defeating a rebuilding Michigan program has to be part of that evolution.
At the risk of sounding arrogant and over-confident, a rising Brian Kelly coached-Notre Dame team with as much talent as there is on both sides of the ball, should beat Michigan for at least the next two or three years.
Will that happen?
We’ll find that out, as well as what Michigan looks like under Brady Hoke, when Notre Dame travels to Ann Arbor next season in the first ever night game at the Big House.