Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke approaches the 2014 football season with a lot of questions to answer. While I think most fans can agree that his seat is somewhat warming up, it might be a bit much to say that he's entering the season on the proverbial "hot seat," as some have gone so far as to say.
If you'd have asked me a year ago if Hoke was on the hot seat, I would have said that was ludicrous. If you'd have asked me what Brady Hoke has to do to get on the hot seat, I wouldn't even have really known where to start. None of us was really in a "predicting doom" type of mode back then, but even so, if you told me that Michigan's rushing offense in 2013 would be the second-worst in the Big Ten and that would lead to Michigan going 7-6, I might have looked at the "hot seat" comment and say that might just do it.
So here we are. Brady Hoke is kind of, sort of on the hot seat. You wouldn't really think so if you asked the guy Brady Hoke answers to, i.e. Dave Brandon, who still seems to have all the confidence in the world that he's the right coach, both in the short term and the long term. Many if not most of Hoke's strongest supporters still haven't given up on him. But man, you read some of the comments on threads and articles here at Maize n' Brew, or across the college football blogosphere, and it becomes pretty clear that Hoke has just about used up every ounce of goodwill with the fan base.
Generally that's to be expected when Michigan's head football coach loses painfully to the team's rivals, doesn't even sniff a berth in the Big Ten championship game, and gets blown out by a 7-5 Big XII team in a mid-level bowl game. It should come as no surprise that people who believed Brady Hoke was taking the program to new heights have now completely lost faith in him, or that other fan bases are having fun taking shots. Despite losing four of the last five to Michigan, Notre Dame fans nonetheless hur-hur that Hoke is clearly the Michigan version of Charlie Weis. This, of course, makes no sense, and even certain rivals say so. Although 2013 was a disappointment, Hoke didn't go 3-9 as Weis did in his third year (although the recruiting off-season sure felt like it), he wasn't shut out in any games (which is kind of surprising given how 'unwatchable' the offense was at times), and he still posted a winning season and made a trip to a bowl.
Hoke has been at this stage before as a head coach. He's been in charge of a struggling football team and has rolled up his sleeves to dig them out of the hole. Even though Michigan under Hoke has not been as bad as were his worst teams at Ball State or San Diego State, he's weathered the storm when the program seemed to be at its floor. A season like Michigan's 7-6 run where the offense struggled mightily wasn't entirely unexpected, truth be told -- but it was expected more in 2011, not 2013. And that's where the concerns come in. That's why everybody is throwing around term "hot seat" and pining for Jim Harbaugh (again). After going 11-2 in year one, a very competitive 8-5 in year two, it's not hard to see how going a barely competitive 7-6, when everyone expected Michigan to go closer to 9-3 or 10-2, would come off as an utter disaster.
Blame Hoke, blame Al Borges, blame Rich Rodriguez's lack of offensive line recruiting from a few years ago, blame offensive line coach Darrell Funk, blame redshirt freshmen offensive linemen for coming in with many stars attached to their recruiting profiles only to look like scrubs on a MAC team, blame the quarterback for throwing interceptions, blame the running backs for being out of shape or not magically finding holes to run through, blame anyone. There's plenty to go around. Hell, blame me while you're at it.
I'm not saying you shouldn't be critical of Hoke. No coach at any level is completely above reproach, even after long, successful tenures, as both Lloyd Carr and Mack Brown discovered late. Even seemingly untouchable guys like Bill Belichick, Urban Meyer, and Nick Saban, the latter of which drew boos from fans for hiring Lane Kiffin, feel the heat sometimes. Hoke's arrival in Ann Arbor as the new head coach was met with some skepticism (even around here), but in general the population listened to what he said and couldn't help but like him. Now the things that he did when he first came in are seen as stupid and annoying. If you think coaches' mannerisms are mocked when they win, just imagine how bad it gets when they lose.
How much of this has Hoke brought on himself? Even though some of Hoke's die-hard supporters might writhe at me asking that, I think it's a fair question. I have no problem admitting that I was critical of some of the things Rich Rodriguez did both on and off the field, which I did quite a bit before I started blogging for Maize n' Brew, and I'd be a hypocrite (or more of one) if I didn't caustically apply the same scrutiny to Hoke. Though many people might blame Michigan's football alumni for not giving Rodriguez enough support, there were some instances where Rodriguez didn't help himself by doing certain things in press conferences and making certain decisions that turned out to be faux pas. The same can be said of Hoke.
Brady Hoke's team that went 7-6 in his third year was certainly far from what he must have imagined it would be, and even farther from what he promised. He came into Ann Arbor, faced down the skeptics, the almuni, and the media, and quickly set the tone for his program: that Michigan would be excellent simply because it was Michigan (fergodsakes), that the expectation for Michigan would be a Big Ten championship every year, that recruiting would be re-established in the states of Michigan and Ohio, and that his program would take the rivalries with Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Michigan State very seriously. Where rivals saw a man fitting in perfectly with Michigan's purported blind arrogance, fans saw Hoke as supremely confident, right where he belonged, and primed for success. At the very least, many believed he would be well on his way to achieving all four of his bold statements by his third year.
Instead, Hoke is now 1-2 against Ohio State, and 1-2 against Michigan State. His Wolverines have never had the opportunity to compete for a conference championship. Depending on how you see it, they haven't even come close, although for his first two years Michigan was edged out by Nebraska and Michigan State. In year three, when everyone expected Michigan to at least represent the former Legends Division, the Wolverines fell apart offensively for most of the season, were destroyed by Michigan State, and then fell apart defensively at the end of the season. The calls for his head have already started.
If you have read any of the stuff I've typically written, you know that I tend to give coaches the benefit of the doubt when they have a proven track record. I stuck by Al Borges when everyone else jumped ship. Though there is no written proof of this, I stuck by Rich Rodriguez up until the Ohio State game of 2010 happened (although, like many, I sensed the end after the Penn State game). I personally like Brady Hoke and do not want him fired -- largely because it would mean another head coaching search and that's not what Michigan needs right now -- but even I have to admit that Hoke doesn't seem to be the guy that I initially thought him to be. At best I thought he'd end up with similar success as Les Miles at LSU, or somewhere around Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, maybe a little better. Right now Hoke is projecting to look more like Kirk Ferentz -- and while that's far better than where Rodriguez seemed to be going in his third year, it's not exactly Heaven for Michigan fans.
In early 2012, Hoke talked about life after the 1997 season and how complacent the 1998 squad was, how he realized he had to re-teach everything, and how he promised himself something like that would never happen again. Hoke had amazing success in 2011 and the following years showed teams that both could not sustain momentum and lost it easily, which looks an awful lot like teams that get complacent. Perhaps Hoke thought he was untouchable and felt like he could settle in and coast through his tenure. Perhaps everyone underestimated the lack of offensive line issues. Perhaps Al Borges was just terrible and had no idea what he was doing. Perhaps Hoke just isn't strong-willed enough as a head coach. Perhaps he's everything the skeptics feared he would be.
The 2014 season is a chance -- possibly Hoke's last chance -- to prove everybody wrong. Despite a bit of a recruiting dropoff, where Michigan will now have to regain much of its momentum from playing well on the field, he did make necessary changes to re-instill some energy into the program by replacing Al Borges with Doug Nussmeier. Word from early spring practices is that the players are responding well to Nussmeier's new schemes because they are even more simplified, and with more of a commitment to running inside zone, offensive line coach Darrell Funk should mesh better than he did with Borges, since Funk loves the inside zone running scheme. Michigan has offensive linemen who are no longer freshmen, many of whom have critical game experience. Most importantly, the Wolverines should have all the motivation in the world needed to at least get to Indianapolis so that their beloved head coach can keep his job.
Nothing is guaranteed, though. As much as Hoke might hee and haw that The Expectation of the Program (The EXPECTATION) is to Win The Big Ten Championship, he can't be surprised when people have a negative reaction after he and his team fail to meet their own, self-stated expectation, after they themselves led us to believe it was going to happen. True, there is always pressure that goes along with a head coaching job that is the caliber of Michigan -- as any Notre Dame, Texas, or Ohio State fans will tell you, it's the same for them -- but to a certain extent Hoke has talked his way into a pit of criticism, with his boasts, bluffs, and blusters about Michigan. We appreciate your passion, Coach Hoke, but now it's time to walk the walk.
I still believe in Brady Hoke. The optimist in me can't help it. Unlike some folks out there, I don't believe that it's too late. I don't buy into all the negative things that every third person I bump into says -- how Hoke is doomed because he can't develop players, how Michigan will get nowhere so long as they don't run the spread, how the program will be stuck between mediocrity and terrible either because it deserves it or because they won't move forward into modern times. I still believe Hoke can build Michigan into exactly what he wants it to be. That doesn't mean I haven't had my faith shaken in him at times, or that I'm really, really starting to question whether or not he can get it done.
It seems like at some point every Big Ten coach faces that crucial juncture of a season where the rubber meets the road. Bo Pelini faced it pretty much in 2012, when a Nebraska blog said that the game against Michigan was the biggest of his career. (Pelini ended up going to the Big Ten championship.) Kirk Ferentz faced it -- for the second, or third time -- at Iowa in 2013, when Iowa football fans said that he had to go all-in with his coordinators and show some grit. (Iowa fans now consider the 2013 season to be a rousing success.) The point: both Pelini and Ferentz stared down mounting criticism and either met or exceeded expectations in their respective 'watershed' seasons, both did enough to quiet down all the criticism and save their jobs. This year, it's Hoke's turn.
And if Hoke is going to talk about expectations, he has to start meeting them.