Tuesday, November 22, 2011

MICHIGAN WEEK: WOLVERINES FOUND THEIR 'MICHIGAN MAN' ... IN OHIO

Michigan head coach Brady Hoke
(AP Photo)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Former Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez never fully understood what it was like to be a 'Michigan Man.'

That's probably because he wasn't one.

Rodriguez — a native of West Virginia with zero ties to the program — tried to change the culture in Ann Arbor during his three seasons as the Wolverines' mentor. And what did it get him? A 15-22 overall record, three losses to rival Ohio State by an average margin of 25 points per game and a pink slip.

After the university decided to fire Rodriguez at the end of last season, their goal was to bring in a coach who truly understood the traditions and expectations at Michigan, as well as grasping the great importance of their rivalry with Ohio State.

So where did they look for such a coach? Where they have always had success finding them ... Ohio!

Former Ball State and San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke, a native of Kettering, Ohio, was the man the university decided to go with as the new face of their program prior to this season.

So far, so good.

Hoke has led the Wolverines to a 9-2 record in his first season in Ann Arbor and has done so bringing back that tough, physical, defensive-minded nature that epitomizes a traditional Michigan football team.

"They were showing some of the great classic Michigan-Ohio (State) games and just how hard those guys played," Hoke said. "We had that bad turf and everything else in the stadiums. But it was the physicalness that they played with. It was fun.

"It was football."

Hoke has been around the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry since birth.

Hoke's father, John, played for Woody Hayes at Miami (Oh.) University before the legendary coach took the head coaching job at Ohio State in 1951. The elder Hoke made sure that his son understood just how special that game was at the end of each season.

"My dad had a chance and played for Woody Hayes and loved Coach Hayes," Hoke said. "That game, you're always watching it. I can't tell you how old I was or anything else (when I first saw it), but it's always been a special significance at 12 noon that last Saturday in November or the Saturday before Thanksgiving when it used to be played then.

"You were watching that football game."

Hoke always watched 'The Game' as a Michigan fan, though.

The late, legendary Bo Schembechler played for Hayes at Miami with Hoke's father. Schembechler, also a native of Ohio, went on to become the head coach at Michigan in 1969.

Hoke instantly became a Schembechler follower.

He worked his way up as an assistant at schools like Grand Valley State, Western Michigan, Toledo and Oregon State before becoming a defensive line coach at Michigan under Gary Moeller (another native of Ohio) in 1995.

Hoke would spend the next eight seasons as an assistant at Michigan, helping the team win part of a national championship in 1997. Most importantly, though, he was able to get a hands-on, up close look at the rivalry with Ohio State. He was 5-3 against the Buckeyes as an assistant.

This week, though, will be his first go as Michigan's boss.

"This is a special week," Hoke said. "because you play in the greatest rivalry there is in sports. When you get a chance to play or coach in this game, it's always a fun week."

Hoke also understands how important this game is in the aspect of recruiting. Ohio is a hotbed for high school recruits and the winner usually gets a leg up on the competition when trying to lure athletes to their respective teams.

Michigan hasn't been able to recruit Ohio as well as they would have liked in the past decade. Ohio State, under former head coach Jim Tressel, have won nine of the last 10 games the two schools have met. 

Tressel owned Michigan when it came to recruiting.

However, with Tressel's resignation in May — for withholding information of player violations from the NCAA — and the hardship which has followed this season under interim coach Luke Fickell, the Wolverines have been able to turn the tide a little in Ohio recruiting, snagging such top recruits as offensive lineman Kyle Kalis (Lakewood St. Edward) and defensive end Chris Wormley (Toldeo Whitmer) from the class of 2012.

With former Florida head coach Urban Meyer likely to become the new man in Columbus — possibly as early as next week — Hoke knows they must win if they are going to keep pace with the Buckeyes moving forward.

"I know the quality of football in that state and how it's coached," Hoke said. "It's always an important part of Michigan football, those guys who come play up here in Ann Arbor."

It's strange how quickly things can change in just a year's time.

Last season, Tressel and the Buckeyes were heavy favorites over the Rodriguez-led Wolverines ... and pounded them 37-7 for their seventh consecutive victory in the series.

Now, it's the Wolverines led by Hoke who are considered the favorites against a Tressel-less, Fickell-coached Buckeyes.

"It think it's in life. Things change every day. Babies are born; people die; things happen all the time. It's just how things are," Hoke said.

"The one thing I do know is this is a game played by people who care about their institutions, the guys that are out there, the guys who played before them, and they'll care about either school in the future.

"That's what this game represents. The respect."

It took a 'Michigan Man' to realize that.

One from Ohio.