After Saturday’s embarrassment in East Lansing, we’re all asking: Is this merely the inevitable rough patch for any coach digging out of the hole left by late-era Carr and Rodriguez? Or was the MSU game Hoke’s “turning point game,” as MGrowOld asked yesterday – a sign that under Hoke, a CEO-style coach with no reputation as an X’s and O’s innovator, Michigan is doomed to perpetual 8-4 mediocrity no matter how well he recruits?
I sure as hell don’t know the answers, but perhaps it might be useful to look at the criteria set forth by the man who’s paid big bucks to ultimately answer these questions: Dave Brandon. When he fired Rich Rodriguez, Brandon laid out his reasons for that decision, and what his expectations would be for the next Michigan coach. So let’s revisit his comments:
Brandon said Michigan’s coach
“has to be able to compete at the highest level. The expectations here are extraordinarily high … That puts a coach in a position where they have to have the ability to stand up to that pressure and perform against it. We play difficult schedules. The Big Ten is a challenging conference. It’s a smash-mouth conference with big teams … you saw how difficult it has been [under Rich Rodriguez] for us to go nose-to-nose with the big guys in this conference.
We have what I call the "benchmark competitors" as part of my review here at Michigan. It’s important that we win all our games; and it’s important that we are competitive for all of our games. But I look at Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, and any bowl opponents – as my coach [i.e., Bo] used to call those, "red-letter games." If you want to be successful at Michigan, you better win more than your share of those red-letter games. And those red-letter games over the last three seasons, we’ve been 3 and 15. And we have to have a coach who’s able to come in and put us in a position where we can compete with those programs, because they’re good.
Later at that press conference, Brandon said that “first and foremost,” winning the Big Ten Championship and going to the Rose Bowl “every year” is the goal of the Michigan football program. He said if you do that,
all kinds of good things are gonna happen nationally [...] If you defeat the people you need to do to do that – and I would say with the advent of Nebraska starting next year, the high bar has just been raised – if you can effectively win the Big Ten Championship and win that trip to the Rose Bowl, in my opinion, if you’re the coach you’re doing a great job, if you’re the fans you’re happy…”
Three years in, we’re still without a Big Ten Championship or Rose Bowl, and Michigan fans are … not happy. But let’s take a closer look at Michigan’s results in these “red-letter games” under Brady Hoke, and see things through Dave Brandon’s eyes. I’m including all the teams he mentioned above, and given his comment about Nebraska, it seems safe to add them to his list of “benchmark competitors”:
Notre Dame (home) – W
Michigan St. (road) – L
Iowa (road) – L
Nebraska (home) – W
Ohio St. (home) – W
Virginia Tech (bowl – neutral site) – W
Total in “red-letter games”: 4-2
Alabama (neutral) – L
Notre Dame (road) – L
Michigan St. (home) – W
Nebraska (road) – L
Iowa (home) – W
Ohio St. (road) – L
S. Carolina (bowl - neutral) – L
Total in “red-letter games”: 2-5
Notre Dame (home) – W
Penn St. (road) – L
Michigan St. (road) – L
Nebraska (home) – TBD
Iowa (road) – TBD
Ohio St. (home) – TBD
Bowl – TBD
Total in “red-letter games”: 1-2, with four such games remaining
Brady Hoke in “red-letter” games to date:
Neutral site: 1-2
Of course lots of factors affect these results, from home vs. road, to luck, both good (Tressel’s resignation; the Glanda catch in the 2012 Sugar Bowl) and bad (scheduling Alabama; the non-call on Iowa’s end-zone pass interference in 2011; Denard’s boo-boo at Nebraska). But while 7-9 (with a chance to at least even things up before the end of year 3) is certainly better than Rodriguez’s 3-15, by any fair measure Brady Hoke has yet to win “more than his fair share of red-letter games” -- and the utter failure to win any of them on the road is really disturbing. The four such games left on this year’s schedule (assuming a bowl game) will tell us, and Dave Brandon, a lot. (Finishing year three at 11-9 w/a win over OSU looks a lot better than 7-13 or 8-12.)
Brandon also said his evaluation and decision to fire Rodriguez was based on six fundamental “performance measures”: “Performance in competition; recruiting and retention; academic performance; leadership; university image as it relates to our players; university image as it relates to our coaches.”
No one can complain about Hoke’s recruiting and retention, or the kids’ academic performance. He’s bringing in top-notch recruiting classes full of solid kids who are unlikely to flame out because of academics or character issues. Regarding “University image as it relates to players/ coaches” – presumably Brandon means things like how off-field incidents are handled, how Michigan players and coaches represent the program “in the community” etc. Again, no one can fault Hoke here – he’s disciplined guys the right way when they’ve made mistakes (e.g., Frank Clark, Fitz Toussaint), and sent packing the ones who couldn’t get their act together after multiple chances to shape up (Darryl Stonum, possibly Will Hagerup).
So if you’re Dave Brandon, Hoke is meeting a lot of his benchmarks quite well. Now your evaluation gets down to “performance in competition” and “leadership.”
Saturday was, to put it mildly, a significant data point in the negative column for Brady Hoke, and as shown above, his record so far in “red-letter games” is not anything you can describe as winning “more than his fair share.”
Finally, “leadership.” Brandon never explained this, but I assume he meant things like: Does this guy seem to have the program going in the right direction? Do the players respond to him? Does he inspire confidence? Does he make good personnel decisions re: his staff? Do his words match his actions?
One can’t read Brandon’s mind, but today we hear that after watching MSU film with the coaches on Sunday, Brandon says Hoke is still “the right guy” to lead the program.
When a head coach is under fire, you can only play the “this is my guy, and he’s the right guy” card once. Given Hoke’s recruiting success and the positive vibe he’s built around the program since 2011, there’s little doubt Brandon gives Hoke at least four years, and probably five – heck, maybe even his entire six-year contract – before definitively deciding whether he is the long-term answer as Michigan’s head coach. But judging by Dave Brandon’s own criteria, especially that of “red-letter games” against “benchmark competitors,” I’m far less confident than I was three months ago that Brady Hoke is the coach who will get Michigan back to the standard everyone (Brandon and Hoke included) expects.
Anyway, as we all sift through Saturday's wreckage and judge Coach Hoke's performance, it's useful to remember the criteria being used by the only guy whose opinion really matters -- his boss.