Latest fiasco forces Hoke to talk academics before football

Before Brady Hoke could get to the running game at Wednesday's press conference, he had to defend his effort to graduate players.

Jerry Lai

ANN ARBOR — Firing Dave Brandon was supposed to fix the communication issues that have caused so much drama in the Michigan athletic program.

Unfortunately, president Mark Schlissel seems to have taken up right where Brandon left off.

As a result, instead of focusing on his team’s narrow win over Northwestern, Schlissel’s comments and subsequent apology meant that Brady Hoke had to talk about academics on Wednesday before he could get to football.

"We take academics very seriously," he said in his opening statement Wednesday. "We try to recruit the best football players who are also the best student athletes."

Before he could get to the running game, which has perked up in the last two weeks, he had to defend, of all things, his effort to graduate players. According to Hoke, every senior that has played out his eligibility since he replaced Rich Rodriguez has graduated.

"We’ve always believed that this is a truly academic university," he said. "You can only play for so long, but a Michigan degree lasts forever."

Hoke’s claims are backed up by the NCAA, which ranks Michigan’s football program with a 975 score on its Academic Progress Rate measurement — the highest the Wolverines have ever scored, and the fifth-best in the Big Ten.

He also pointed out that Michigan has stopped recruiting players for academic reasons — hardly a surprise. Equally unsurprisingly, he declined to give any specific examples.

So, it seems self-evident that, despite his record on the field, Hoke is doing a good job getting his players an education. Given that, why was it even an issue on Wednesday? 

To answer that, you have to go back to Monday, when Schlissel talked to a Faculty Senate committee about his oft-spoken concerns about the relationship between athletics and academics at Michigan. During his speech, he talked about the football team’s low graduation rates in previous years, without mentioning that they happened under a different coach.

"These past two years have gotten better, but before that, the graduation rates were terrible, with football somewhere in the 50s and 60s when our total six-year rate at the University is somewhere near 90 percent, so that’s a challenge," he said. "The thing you have to keep in mind is there’s football and there’s everything else. 

"There are 930 or so recruited athletes and 115 of them play football, and most of those teams actually have great graduation rates, and it’s just where you’d expect we struggle."

Those comments drew some attention and led to the latest round of the newest Michigan tradition — the public apology. On Tuesday, in a statement published on the university website, Schlissel announced that he had called Hoke to apologize for his comments.

"I talked with Coach Brady Hoke today to apologize for not providing this full picture in my earlier remarks, and I asked him to convey that to his team," he said in the statement. "From my first conversation with Brady, it was clear that he views himself as a teacher and mentor of the young men in his charge, and I respect that greatly."

Hoke confirmed Wednesday that he had spoken with Schlissel, but didn’t give any details.

Once again, though, Michigan has managed to get people talking about it for the wrong reasons, and they can’t blame Brandon this time.