Most Michigan fans get good vibes from head football coach Brady Hoke. From his first press conference — following on the heels of Rich Rodriguez’s tenure, which was marked by infighting and antagonism between fans, coaches, players, and various anonymous media sources — he has universally come across as friendly, respectful, and a little mischievous. Hoke clearly loves the school and its team as much as their fans do. In a college-coaching world of mercenaries and jerkwads and all-around backbiting, just getting everyone to acknowledge you are a functioning, decent human being is a significant achievement.
His achievements on the field ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of either. The other thing that characterized the Rodriguez years — and the late Lloyd Carr years — was losing. Hoke has gone a very respectable 24-8, and his teams have broken several ignominious streaks. Michigan beat Michigan State last season for the first time in five years.
They whomped Ohio State for the first time in eight years.
In two and a half seasons, Hoke’s teams haven’t lost a home game. His teams play solid defense and are occasionally spectacular on offense. He’s recruited a lot of top talent to Ann Arbor, with more on the way in future classes. Also, look at the guy! He’s just a big ol’ teddy bear out there!
Well, a loud, raspy-voiced teddy bear. Brady Hoke is all about constant, high-volume positivity. Players seem to love playing for him. “He is us, we are him,” said offensive lineman David Molk after the team won the 2011 Sugar Bowl.
Hoke got Tom Brady — whom Hoke recruited when he was an assistant coach in the ’90s — to come in and visit his alma mater’s team for the first time in years. Watch this video and try not to get FIRED UP.
When Rodriguez was canned, many people thought Denard Robinson would transfer to play for a program more suited to his talents. Robinson stayed with Hoke and Michigan, and won 19 games in his final two seasons.
If two of the greatest Michigan players of all time think Brady Hoke is the man, who are we to argue? Brady Hoke gets you PUMPED UP to run into brick walls. And there is the beginning of the problem.
Because Hoke’s philosophy is that every football team should spend 60 minutes a game knocking the crap out of a brick wall. In his dreams, he sees 80-yard drives comprising 20 consecutive handoffs to a 240-pound running back.
But Michigan does not, at the moment, have powerful backs or powerful linemen. And Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges call plays as if they do. Which is how things like backup tailback Vincent Smith getting more carries than Denard Robinson against Alabama happen:
And how things like Fitzgerald Touissant running up the middle for no gain repeatedly in overtime against Penn State last Saturday happen:
Michigan has been successful in the past few years when it takes advantage of its excellent receivers and running QBs in shotgun formations. But Hoke and Borges (below) treat the shotgun like a special dessert, to be enjoyed only as a delightful change-of-pace treat from one’s normal diet.
And that normal diet tastes a lot like being tackled in the backfield for a three-yard loss on 2nd and 11.
Or calling only a single play for Denard Robinson in the fourth quarter of last year’s Ohio State game as Michigan blew a first-half lead. I will now light myself on fire. (PICTURED BELOW: what happens when you give Denard the ball.)
It tastes like never, ever throwing short passes to the outside. Look at this! It’s from this weekend’s Penn State game when Michigan just needed to get a few yards to set up an easy field goal. There is actually, literally, no defender within nine yards of the slot receiver. They ran it into the line for one yard.
So the reason Hoke is so frustrating, so frequently strangle-able, is not that he’s a bad coach — it’s that he’s so close to being a great coach but seems to give away more than half of the team’s biggest games because he’s stubbornly trying to make a point.
It’s good to know who you are. It’s good to have a plan. But when that plan isn’t working, change the plan! When life give you lemons, make lemonade — don’t insist on making orange juice just because that’s what Bo Schembechler did. “But coach, these are lemons.” “ORANGE JUICE.”
Hoke wants his players to be tough and relentless. But you can be tough and relentless while passing from the shotgun. That’s how Tom Brady has accumulated a good number of his 342 career touchdown passes and three Super Bowl rings.
Hoke wants his players to understand that no individual is more important than the team. But you can prioritize teamwork while recognizing that some players — for the good of the team — need to take on extraordinary roles, like the way Charles Woodson played on defense, special teams, and offense for Michigan’s undefeated 1997 national championship team. (Remember that? That was awesome.)
This season’s team is lucky to only have one loss, and the second half’s schedule is a lot tougher than the Akrons and UConns they squeaked by in the last month. But none of the games are unwinnable, and Michigan gets to play Ohio State in Ann Arbor.
In the even longer term, Michigan for the most part has the pieces in place for sustained awesomeness. But does the guy in charge have the humility and self-awareness to balance his big-picture ideas about football with the realities of the games and teams in front of him? Only Brady Hoke knows the answer.
Time to get ‘er done, Brady. We’re all pulling for you. And we are definitely pulling for you to not give us permanent vocal cord damage from shouting at the television about playcalling.
CORRECTION: Tom Brady may not have addressed the Michigan football team on previous return trips to campus. An earlier version of this story implied he had. (11/7/13)