Brady Hoke, Michigan Face Make-Or-Break Season
By Brad Vonck
As Brady Hoke enters his fourth year as the head coach at the University of Michigan, his main focus is to make sure it is not his last year coaching the Maize and Blue. The Wolverines are coming off two disappointing seasons, which have placed the former Ball State head coach squarely on the hot seat in Ann Arbor.
Hoke was asked directly about the pressure he faces entering this season at this summer’s Big Ten Media Day.
“The only pressure is every day preparing those guys for life after football,” Hoke said. “Competition, hard work and all that, that's part of it. But socially and academically, that's a big part of it. So when you talk about that, that's the only pressure as a coach that I've ever felt — making sure we're doing it for the student-athletes.”
While it’s impressive that all 69 of Hoke’s seniors during his tenure have graduated, one cannot ignore or be shocked by his deflection of a question that hints that he is well-aware that the writing is on the wall. Hoke and the Wolverines must win often in 2014, or Michigan’s 136th squad may be under new leadership for the 2015 season.
Expectations are high in Ann Arbor, but that is nothing new for a program with the most wins in FBS history at 910, and counting.
However, it was actually Hoke’s success in his rookie campaign in 2011 that brought Michigan’s program back from the brink and revived annual expectations for success. Hoke’s 11-2 campaign and Sugar Bowl win in 2011 followed the final season of Rich Rodriquez’s campaign as Wolverines head coach.
Unfortunately, the 2012 and 2013 seasons were full of disappointment for Hoke and the Wolverines, beginning in 2012 with the 41-14 beat-down Michigan received from Alabama, the reigning 2011 BCS champions. What followed in 2012 was an 8-5 record (6-2 in the Big Ten) for Michigan, with additional losses in key matchups versus Notre Dame, Ohio State, and South Carolina in the 2013 Outback Bowl. All of those losses were by margins of seven points or less.
The 2013 season was another step back for Hoke as the Wolverines finished 7-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten). The Wolverines’ drop in performance against Big Ten competition alone was enough to have Michigan fans asking questions about the direction of the program. Also, while the non-conference schedule did not seem challenging outside of Notre Dame, the Wolverines only narrowly defeated both Akron (5-7 in 2013, 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference) and Connecticut (3–9 in 2013, 3–5 in the American Athletic Conference) by a margin of four points or less.
Comparing Hoke’s record during his first three seasons at Michigan (26–13 from 2011-2013) to some of the Wolverines’ past head coaches, puts his tenure in tough company.
Gary Moeller was 28-5-3 from 1990-1992 and had wins in both the 1991 Gator Bowl and 1993 Rose Bowl, as well as an additional Rose Bowl appearance in 1992.
Lloyd Carr went 29-8 from 1995-1997 and finished his third campaign as head coach with a perfect season and national title in 1998.
Rodriguez was only head coach of Michigan for three seasons (2008-2010) and finished with a record of 15-22. In that time, there was only one bowl appearance — a 52-14 Gabor Bowl loss to Mississippi State in 2011 as 2008 was the first season in 33 years that a Wolverines squad did not qualify for postseason play.
Hoke clearly has had more success in his reign as Michigan’s head coach than his predecessor Rodriguez, despite losses in the 2013 Outback Bowl and 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. However, partially thanks to the 2011 season, Michigan fans enjoy pretending that the years between Carr’s last game as head coach and Hoke’s first never actually happened. With former coaches like Carr, Moeller and late legends Bo Schembechler and Fielding Yost, it is not surprising that high expectations have been the norm for Wolverines since the early 1900s. It is by Michigan's success of the past that Hoke’s performance has been judged in Ann Arbor, and that is why Hoke’s fourth season is so crucial.
The 135th season of Michigan football could be a turning point for the program, and it definitely will be for the coaching career of Hoke. The coach has shown this offseason that he is comfortable making big moves, and it paid off in the signing of Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator and Jabrill Peppers as 247Sports.com's 20th-ranked recruiting class’ key acquisition.
Hoke also says that he expects redshirt senior quarterback Devin Gardner to start over sophomore Shane Morris when the season begins on Aug. 30. The lack of making a move at quarterback, for now, is Hoke’s biggest move of the offseason in a way. If Hoke stays the course with Gardner, and the Wolverines win big, the payoff would be enormous. In that scenario, Michigan football is successful, Hoke has job security, and Morris has had another year of grooming under Gardner and Nussmeier. If Gardner struggles and Morris finishes the season strong or respectable, that’s still a win for the Wolverines and Hoke. Naturally, the scariest scenario for Hoke is if the wheels fall off. If Gardner struggles and Morris isn’t prepared, it would be an obvious end to the Hoke era in Ann Arbor.
Like many coaches who have had their time on the hot seat, all speculation will fade as the season unfolds on the field. Hoke has shown he can win, but can he win often and with his own recruits? The Wolverine faithful would like to see consistent success if he plans on a long tenure with the Maize and Blue.