Michigan fans love Brady Hoke. Absolutely love him.
Before the Wolverines’ game with Akron, a skywriter penciled Hoke’s name into the sky over Michigan Stadium. Later, Hoke received an ovation from the crowd for providing students with donuts before the game’s noon kickoff.
He is a “Michigan man”, who returned home to save the program after the nightmarish Rich Rodriguez disaster and, over his first two seasons, delivered a BCS bowl bid and wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame. His recruiting has stood toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer in Columbus … and just about any other coach in the country.
There is no question — none whatsoever — that Michigan is better off with Hoke at the helm than it was prior to his arrival.
But Saturday was a wake-up call to Hoke, the Michigan program and all the Maize and Blue faithful expecting Big Ten championships and national title runs. The Wolverines are far from a perfect product at the moment. And by raising the expectations around Ann Arbor, Hoke made performances like Michigan’s nail-biting 28-24 win over a hapless Akron program completely unacceptable.
“They played harder than we did. They played more error free than we did,” Hoke said. “You can’t win championships that way.”
Senior captain Taylor Lewan, who eschewed the 2013 NFL Draft to return for his final season, agreed: “We didn’t prepare as a team, that is truly embarrassing for the University of Michigan that we came out like that. It’s not fair to the fans, it’s not fair to the people associated to this program. It’s not fair to the players on this team that aren’t playing.”
Hoke’s nowhere near the hot seat. He’s going to be the head coach at Michigan for as long as he wants to be, barring some unforeseen collapse — one that his incredible work on the recruiting trail should stave off for years to come. So don’t take this as anything more than what it is: an understanding, for all parties involved, that Michigan can ill-afford pathetic showings like it had against Akron if it wants to be considered a national power again.
On the same afternoon that Michigan was barely holding off a team that had three wins over the past three seasons and hadn’t downed a Big Ten foe in more than a century, Ohio State was romping past Cal despite starting its backup QB. Now, the Bears are a long way from the Oregons and Alabamas of the world, but certainly the Wolverines should take notice of that Buckeyes’ performance. That’s what title contenders are supposed to do — pummel an overmatched foe, home or away, then move on to the next game.
The Buckeyes had their own close calls during a 12-0 2012 season: Cal, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue all pushed them to their limits (as did Wisconsin and Michigan). Teams are going to have off games, afternoons when they’re not as emotionally ready. The really elite teams push through those afternoons, then use the lessons learned to make themselves better.
Hoke’s test now is making sure that happens. To take the frustration and shock of Michigan’s “embarrassing” show and turn it into a way to get better.
Since arriving back on campus, Hoke has preached that his program needs to strive for Big Ten titles and beyond. Up until Akron pushed the Wolverines to the very limit, just about every Michigan fan tagged along for that ride, totally confident that Hoke would get his team where he wanted it to go.
Even though the Wolverines have struggled away from home and against top-flight competition in Hoke’s brief tenure, the Zips cast the first real doubt into the minds of the Maize and Blue faithful that Hoke regarding Hoke being destined to succeed.
There remain far more positives than negatives in place for the Wolverines, many of them there because of Hoke’s efforts. He knows — and Michigan fans will not hesitate to remind him — that performances like Saturday’s simply will not cut it.