Hoke turning Michigan around
Friday night, the journey to replace Bo Schembechler, pass on the values taught by Lloyd Carr and reconnect the Wolverines to their proud history, carried Brady Hoke and Team 132 inside an empty Big House.
It was close to 10 p.m. The lights atop and surrounding college football’s biggest stadium were beaming. The Wolverines had wrapped up a grueling, physical training camp earlier in the day. Hoke, Michigan’s somewhat-surprising, first-year football coach wanted the 100-plus players who comprise Michigan’s 132nd team to bond with their past.
He marched the Wolverines five minutes, from Schembechler Hall to the lone tunnel that leads directly into Michigan Stadium.
“There’s only one way in and one way out of the Big House,” Hoke told his players.
The massive video screens perched high above each end zone came to life, a 10-minute highlight video featuring the school’s three Heisman Trophy winners — Tom Harmon, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson — and Anthony Carter, Tom Brady, Brian Griese, etc. greeted Team 132.
This moment, the visualization of greatness, the reminder of the tradition the players and coaches are charged to uphold, was something Hoke learned from Carr, his mentor, the man most responsible for burning a love of Michigan football inside Hoke’s heart.
They watched the video. Hoke said a few more words, and then he and his coaching staff left the players to linger and soak in what it will mean to don those winged helmets eight days later when Western Michigan is the opponent.
“You do it for the seniors,” Hoke told me earlier. “You want them to think about what it feels like to play in their final home opener.”
For now, in the days before the Wolverines play an actual game, Friday night best exemplifies why Michigan athletic director and former Schembechler backup quarterback Dave Brandon targeted Hoke as the perfect candidate to heal the Wolverines from the wounds of the Rich Rodriguez era.
RichRod, through no fault of his own, didn’t quite grasp Michigan’s history and tradition. He played at West Virginia. His spread offense turned the Mountaineers into national title contenders. He left home only because the school’s president called his bluff during an intense contract renegotiation. RichRod never fit in Bo’s Big House.
Brady Hoke fits. He’s a blend of Bo and Lloyd. The former Ball State and San Diego State head coach has Bo’s in-your-face-but-still-lovable personality — he derisively drops the State when referring to Ohio State; the Buckeyes are simply “Ohio” to Hoke — and Carr’s big-picture vision and attention to detail.
“Brady has done a great job of pulling things from each coach, from Mo (Gary Moeller) to Lloyd to Bo,” said Jim Plocki, a longtime assistant strength coach at Michigan, “and putting his own little twists on everything.”
Hoke’s own little twists include a leadership program he developed along with his coaching soulmate, Aaron Wellman, Michigan’s head strength coach, and Hoke’s right-hand man since Ball State.
The Friday night march to the Big House, while stolen from Carr and Moeller, was incorporated into Hoke and Wellman’s leadership program. They teach leadership and responsibility. Not organically. Not when convenient on the field. Not just by the selection of team captains.
Hoke and Wellman developed a booklet. They teach leadership in a classroom setting. They have regular discussions with the players about the principles and characteristics of a great leader. Hoke and Wellman work primarily with the seniors. Assistant coaches work with the underclassmen.
I’m not doing a good job of describing the uniqueness of Hoke and Wellman’s leadership program. But the overwhelming majority of coaches never fully explain leadership. They recognize it when a player demonstrates it, and they’ll occasionally make an effort to point out strong leadership when they see it. What they don’t do is take the time to teach it.
It’s crucial in this era of NCAA time limitations on coaches and kids growing up in non-traditional families.
Brady Hoke has been tasked with being the new millennium Bo Schembechler. Hoke and his coaching staff don’t have the freedom to work with the players as extensively as Schembechler did. Today’s players don’t arrive on campus as naive and enthusiastic as the kids did in Schembechler’s era.
A football scholarship to a major university used to be the end-all-be-all. Now kids show up at places such as Ann Arbor and Columbus dreaming of NFL millions. They have more voices in their head, conflicting agendas. The name on the back is far more important than the name on the front of the jersey.
By partnering with his strength coach — the coach who spends the most time with all of the players — on leadership, Hoke has developed a unique tool in communicating with, connecting with and influencing his players.
On Saturday, after a light practice inside the Big House in front of major donors, the travel squad was required to lift weights. Six coaches, spread out across the weight room, barked orders and oversaw the individual lifts. The players’ shouts of encouragement drowned out the coaches.
Denard Robinson, the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, clapped, danced, hollered and bounced from station to station. His energy filled the room. The weight room felt more energized and competitive than the practice field.
“We force them to lead,” Wellman said. “You can’t just stand around and wait for your turn to lift. There’s no better motivation than your teammate telling you he needs to do this for him, the team.”
When the lift session is over, Wellman takes me to his office and hands me the "2011 Senior Leadership Series." It’s the leadership booklet he has been defining and redefining since he and Hoke came up with this concept in 2006 when they were at Ball State.
There’s a section of the booklet spelling out the differences between character-driven people and emotion-driven people.
“It is not doing the things we like to do, but doing the things we have to do that causes growth and makes us successful. Successful people are willing to do the things unsuccessful people will not do.”
Character: Do right, then feel good. Emotion: Feel good, then do right.
Character: Make principle based decisions. Emotion: Make popular based decisions.
Character: Believe it, then see it. Emotion: See it, then believe it.
Character: “What are my responsibilities?” Emotion: “What are my rights?”
I have been close to Wellman and Hoke since 2003, when Hoke landed the Ball State job. I played at Ball State. So did Hoke. I’ve witnessed the bond develop between Hoke and Wellman. They fell in football love by accident. They had never met before Brady interviewed him.
Wellman is a low-key workaholic. He has no idea I’m writing this column. He’ll probably be upset when he reads it. He approaches being the strength coach like a head coach. He works with the entire team. He reports to work at 3:30 a.m. He prefers tiny lift groups — no more than 16 players at a time — so he can personally oversee everyone’s workout.
He has an affinity for the military and Navy SEALs. This Michigan team is honoring SEAL Team 6, the crew that took out Osama bin Laden.
“We’re Team 132,” Hoke tells me as we sit in his office Friday afternoon, a few hours before the march to the Big House. “We had a Navy SEAL come speak to the team early in camp. I’ve been talking to the team all camp about the things that bond and inspire Navy SEALs.”
Later, before they walk to Michigan Stadium, Hoke will hand each Michigan player a large trident pitchfork with his name and a message carved into it.
The ethos of Team 132
Toughness Character Discipline
I accept the responsibility to uphold our proud tradition.
This is another example of Lloyd Carr’s influence.
As Hoke excitedly tells me about the speech he’ll deliver to his team later that night and the highlight video he hopes inspires and educates his players, he looks over his right shoulder and points to the ice pick sitting on a mantel behind his desk.
“That’s from 1997 and Lloyd,” Hoke said. “It was about climbing Mount Everest.”
The Wolverines won the national championship that year. Hoke was the defensive line coach.
The Wolverines are unlikely to challenge for a spot in the BCS Championship Game this season. But the climb back to the top for Michigan begins with the foundation Hoke and Wellman lay this season.
“I’ll have to stay up their (tail) for the first two or three years, but by the time these freshman are seniors, I won’t have to do anything,” Wellman said. “The senior class (in 2008) at Ball State policed themselves.”
I’ve seen this foundation take root before. Hoke loved Ball State the way he loves Michigan. He took Ball State’s small tradition and made it big in the minds of Indiana and Ohio kids. My Cardinals — our Cardinals — ran off 12 straight victories in 2008 and cracked the top 15.
Getting Michigan back to the top is nothing compared to dragging Ball State to the brink of a BCS bowl game.
Hoke has more to work with at Michigan. His entire coaching staff — from Wellman to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to offensive coordinator Al Borges — is as experienced, talented and skilled as any in the country.
Hoke spent a decade preparing for this opportunity, this moment. He wanted the job three years ago when RichRod got it.
“I wasn’t ready then. I can admit that now,” Hoke said. “I needed those two years at San Diego State.”
He’s more than ready now. His players will be soon.