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The End of Hoke-a-Mania

December 3, 2014

I know I’ve taken a significant hiatus from writing here.  If you want to attribute it to the fact that Michigan football just wasn’t all that exciting to write about, there is probably some truth to that.  But also things like real-life got in the way.

However, Michigan has fired Brady Hoke, and obviously I have some thoughts on the subject that I wanted to share.  So here they are.

If you had told me in January of 2011 we’d be looking for another coach in 4 years, I would have been skeptical.  If you had told me in January of 2012 we’d be looking for another coach in 3 years, I would have thought you were crazy.  Brady Hoke “walked” into Ann Arbor like a breath of fresh air for a program that had spent the previous 3 years with a coach who clearly could coach, but never really “got” Michigan.  Brady said all the right things in his press conference, and his “This is Michigan” statement became a rallying cry that fans were thrilled to embrace.  Even if he wasn’t a big name, he seemingly checked all of the boxes.  He had Michigan ties, loved the school, and even though his record as a head coach wasn’t stellar, he had a history of success at more than one stop.

That first year was truly a honeymoon, with an exciting win over Notre Dame and a victory over Ohio State paving the way to an 11-2 record to only the 3rd BCS bowl win for Michigan since 1993.  For a fan base coming off of a three year 15-22 stretch, it was like manna from heaven.  In January 2012, it wasn’t a question of if Brady would win Big Ten Titles at Michigan, but rather how many.  Even after a 2012 campaign that finished 8-5, things still felt to be on solid ground.  The 5 losses were either on the road or at neutral sites and included three teams (Alabama, OSU and Notre Dame) that would go unbeaten.  We were still going to be ok.

And then the wheels fell off.  The 2013 season was plagued by close wins over average and below average teams and losses to good teams.  The highlights were a moral victory over OSU and a home win against a Notre Dame team that only won 8 games.  It was officially time to start to question the direction of the team and the program.  But given the strong start the first two years, it was possible that 2013 was an aberration.

It wasn’t.  If the wheels fell off in 2013, the engine and transmission fell off in 2014.  A 5-7 record with home losses to Maryland, Utah, Minnesota and a road loss to Rutgers are just unacceptable.  Brady Hoke’s record at Michigan will finish at 31-20, finishing 1-2 in bowl games, a combined 4-8 against Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame, and no conference titles.  He is a by all accounts a wonderful person, a great representative of the University, and a positive role model.  However, he did not win enough football games and Michigan had to fire him. Unlike Rich Rod four years ago, where there was a somewhat legitimate argument for keeping him, I’m not sure anybody other than Brady’s staff is making a case for him to stay.

So what went wrong?  How did we get from “This is Michigan” and a Sugar Bowl Win to fired in just 3 short years?

To begin with, there were probably signs along the way that some of this was smoke and mirrors.  Brady’s signature wins in the first two seasons included an almost miracle win against Notre Dame, a narrow victory over a 6-6 Ohio State team, a narrow victory in the Sugar Bowl in which Michigan was almost outgained by a 2-1 margin, and a home victory over a 7-6 MSU team in which Michigan did not score a touchdown.  We all wanted to believe Brady was the solution because he was winning, but Brady’s 4 “signature” wins were all 1 play each away from being significant losses.

Another factor to consider is that Denard Robinson may have hid many of our warts.  With Denard as a starter, Brady was 17-4 and 14-16 without him.  To be fair, it may actually be related to a number of players graduating and moving on rather than just Denard, but he was the catalyst for much of our success.  Regardless, the farther we got from the Rich Rod regime, the worse the record got.

In the end though, in ways different from Rich Rod, Brady just wasn’t capable of winning at this level.  Rich Rod had his revolving door of defensive coordinators that lead to some of the worst defenses in Michigan history.  Brady was a tad more loyal, but had his problems in developing an offensive identity, an offensive line, and probably most importantly, a quarterback.  While both the offensive line and the offensive identity progressed this year, Devin Gardner regressed to a point where he needed to be replaced, but there was no viable alternative.  Whether it was the switch to wide receiver and then back to quarterback, injuries, playing behind an offensive line last year that left him shellshocked, or defenses figuring him out, Gardner never looked as good in 2013 or 2014 as he did in 2012. Back then, I thought he looked like a shoe-in for a Heisman candidate in a couple of years.  Instead, he took a steady decline backwards, and not surprisingly, so did the team.

Even if the offensive woes had righted themselves, there were still too many head scratching timeouts, lack of timeouts, substitutions and of course Concussion Gate to really continue to believe in Brady Hoke.  For me, when Brady refused to put Devin Gardner in at halftime of the Minnesota game, despite how poorly Shane Morris had played, it was apparent to me that he was either too stubborn or too unaware to win at Michigan.  Ever since then, we’ve just been playing out the hand.

All of that being said, Brady deserves credit for keeping the team together when it was clear the ship was sinking.  Michigan never mailed it in, never gave up, and even went down to Columbus and gave a good showing when they could’ve just rolled over.  Brady always did his best for Michigan, and while I support him being let go, I’m never happy to see someone lose their job.  And in this case it is especially difficult knowing that this was Brady’s dream job and the top of the mountain for him.

What’s Next? 

So now, we search for a new coach for the 3rd time in 7 years.  By all accounts, Interim AD Jim Hackett will be hiring the new coach and then sticking around for awhile.  This will be his call.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that there is a pretty successful former Michigan quarterback who is also a pretty successful NFL coach in San Francisco that many would like to see get the job.  Jim Harbaugh is likely Plan A, B, and C for Michigan.  Michigan will do everything they can to get him to come home to Ann Arbor.  But just because Michigan wants him and because Jim is a former player for Bo doesn’t mean he’s coming to Ann Arbor.  There are several obstacles in the way that first need to be managed.

  1. To begin with, Jim still has a job as the 49ers head coach.  All signs point to that not being the case sometime in the next 30-45 days, but the rumor is that Jim would prefer to stay as the 49ers head coach and won’t voluntarily leave.
  2. Even if the 49ers don’t want Jim, they won’t necessarily fire him. Ideally they would like to trade him to another NFL team and receive draft picks in return.  The Oakland Raiders and New York Jets have already expressed interest and there will be other suitors once the NFL coaching carousel starts.  This way, the Niners can also control where he coaches next (if its in the NFL) and they won’t have to pay him the remainder of his contract.  The challenge here is that Jim would have to approve a trade and likely have to sign a contract extension with the new team.  Something he is unlikely to do unless he really wants to coach there and believes the team can win a Super Bowl relatively soon.
  3. If the 49ers decide they want to part ways with Jim, and he doesn’t find any viable NFL alternatives, that is when Michigan likely comes into play.  Its possible Michigan could jump ahead of other NFL teams in matter of preference regardless of which teams are interested, but it appears Jim wants to see what options are available before giving Michigan an answer.
  4. The other scenario that could play out here is that Jim goes directly to the 49ers and tells them that he wants to coach Michigan.  They let him out of his contract at that point and the deal is done.  That will require Jim to act proactively for the Michigan job, something that will  only happen if he decides that he doesn’t want to pass up what might be his only chance to coach at Michigan.  Unlike Les Miles and Brady Hoke, by many accounts Jim looks at Michigan as a place he would like to coach, but not necessarily his final destination.

Jim Harbaugh absolutely is a candidate for the Michigan job, and will be pursued heavily.  But the ball rests in his court.  And barring something strange, Michigan fans will likely have to be patient to wait until the end of the 49ers season for Jim to make a decision.  Four years ago we were in the same situation, and despite saying yes to the job on more than one occasion, Jim eventually took the 49ers job.  That could very well happen again.

Other Candidates 

If Jim Harbaugh does leave Michigan at the altar again, who might end up as the coach?  Here is a list of who Michigan will likely reach out to, who will not make the list, and even a couple out of the box ideas.

Home Run Hires 

  • Bob Stoops, Oklahoma – Second to only Harbaugh, Stoops would be a home run hire.  He has had a decade plus of success at Oklahoma, which is why he might be ready to leave.  The Sooners are good but not great, and both sides might think the grass is greener on the other side by making a change.  His name keeps coming up as a Plan B alternative to Harbaugh, so I think Michigan will at least pick up the phone.  I think Stoops would listen too.
  • Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints – Seems farfetched, and it probably is.  But Payton is a huge Michigan fan, as is his son. They’ve attended games at the Big House and the Final Four decked out in their Michigan gear.  I don’t think he’ll hang up on Michigan right away, but its doubtful he leaves a great NFL job to take the Michigan job.
  • Mark Richt, Georgia – Like Stoops, Richt has enjoyed great success at Georgia, though the highs haven’t been quite as high.  Several Georgia fans and donors would like to see him move on.  He’d be a great choice or Michigan – he’s accomplished and is well respected.  But unless Georgia forces him out, he’s unlikely to come.

Ground Rule Doubles 

  • David Shaw, Stanford – If you can’t get Jim Harbaugh, his protege might be the next best thing.  Shaw has kept the train chugging along in Palo Alto since Jim left, going 41-12 in the last four years.  He’s young, a great recruiter, and could handle the academic/athletic balance in Ann Arbor.  The only problem is that he’s a Stanford grad himself and might not be willing to leave his alma mater behind.
  • Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – Fitzgerald has been mentioned before, and though he hasn’t been a stellar coach at Northwestern, its still Northwestern.  He’s made them respectable, and could do more with more talent.  He was more attractive 4 years ago, but still should get a look. He may be happy to stay at Northwestern though.
  • Steve Addazio, Boston College – The former Temple coach and current Boston College coach seems to be on a lot of lists.  Perhaps because he works for potential permanent AD candidate Brad Bates.  Addazio has done “ok” at BC, but isn’t a proven champion.  He’d take the job for sure, just not sure Michigan would call him.
  • Butch Jones, Tennessee – The former CMU, Cincinnati and current Vol coach would be a pretty solid choice.  He has strong ties to the midwest, knows Michigan in particular, and though he hasn’t set the world on fire in Knoxville just yet, has been successful everywhere else he has been. He’ll likely make the short list, and Michigan could do worse.
  • Bret Bielema, Arkanasas – Bielema knows the Big Ten and was successful here.  But he just got to Arkansas – would he jump back to the Big Ten after enjoying SEC life?  Maybe.
  • Greg Schiano, Unemployed – Schiano almost got the job 7 years ago (and maybe even accepted before reneging), but wasn’t really in the  mix 4 years ago.  He’s a very good coach without a home right now.  He’s on the list, but probably a little farther down and is someone Michigan would consider after they’v exhausted other options.
  • Mark Stoops, Kentucky – Bob Stoops younger brother doesn’t bring as much acclaim, but he’s a proven coach with a reputation as a great recruiter.  He was a little more likely earlier this year before Kentucky lost 6 of their last 8, but he could very well be considered.

Never Say Never Candidates

  • John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens – Like Sean Payton, its unlikely a Super Bowl Winning Coach of a very good NFL franchise would leave for college, but John, like his brother, has strong ties to Michigan.  Earlier this year the timing may have seemed better given the Ray Rice scandal.  Now, John is very unlikely to make the jump.  But if Jim says no, he might consider it.
  • Les Miles, LSU – Seven years ago Les was rumored to have accepted the gig though its more likely he was never officially offered it.  Four years ago he wasn’t really considered.  Now, he might be Michigan’s insurance policy.  A guy who desperately wants the job, but for whatever reasons isn’t likely to be on Michigan’s list.  But if they can’t get another name they like, they might have no choice.  But its’ doubtful.

Way Outside of the Box 

  • Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana Lafayette – The former North Alabama coach and current leader of the Rajun Cajuns is a proven winner, in position to win 9 games and a bowl game for the 4th year in a row.  At North Alabama he regularly won 10+ games and advanced to the Division II semifinals three times.  With no midwest ties he’s unlikely to get a look, but remember the name.  He’ll be a winner somewhere.
  • PJ Fleck, Western Michigan – A 34 year old wunderkind in his first head coaching gig, Fleck took the Broncos from 1-11 in his first year to 8-4 this year.  He’s young, hungry and already in-state.  Probably a little too green for Michigan at this point, but if Pat Narduzzi leaves East Lansing before Dantonio retires, Fleck might be across the sideline for quite a few years.

What’s Next

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