Is Michigan a challenger again?

BY foxsports • April 6, 2011

It worked well enough once to chart an impeccable course for almost half a century, so it's no surprise Michigan returned to that time-tested formula to fix its woebegone football fortunes.

Bo Schembechler, the native son of Ohio who jolted the Wolverines juggernaut out of the doldrums, would approve of Brady Hoke as the right guy for the immense task of retooling Michigan in much the same way it was accomplished back in 1969.

Schembechler rolled into Ann Arbor with a commitment to toughness and a stubborn refusal to bend under the behemoth 200 miles to the south in Columbus.

Ohio State was coming off an unbeaten national championship and a 50-14 spanking of Michigan the season before Schembechler took over, much as the Buckeyes rule the Big Ten now with six straight conference titles and a three-year dominance of the Wolverines by a cumulative score of 100-24.

Now we'll see if Hoke, who hails from Fairmont, outside Dayton, can do the same as fellow Ohio native Schembechler, the pride of Barberton, near Akron, and work some magic.

It‘s not like the new Michigan Man won't have weapons, and it's not like he doesn't fit the mold of those who followed Schembechler and kept the Wolverines purring after the legend's retirement in 1989.

Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were both Schembechler assistants, and Hoke coached the defensive line under Carr in Michigan's last national championship season, 1997.

He then cut an impressive enough résumé at Ball State and San Diego State to be the choice when Michigan pulled the plug after three failed seasons under Rich Rodriguez.

Rodriguez never was a fit from the day he arrived, which wasn‘t his fault, but most certainly was a fact. He didn‘t know the traditions or value why they were important, so he needlessly alienated some fans and then went 15-22, including 6-18 in the Big Ten, to help the undecided join the mob.

Hoke wasn't much of a sexy hire, in much the same way the headlines blared "Bo Who?" when Schembechler arrived.

The swashbuckling coaching star of last season, Jim Harbaugh, was out there as the slam dunk, as was another alum, Les Miles of LSU.

Harbaugh, though, had the wanderlust for the NFL in him, so he grabbed the San Francisco 49ers' millions. Miles, whose impressive record is an effective rebuttal to the mountain of evidence that he's just a lucky stooge, is now getting a hint of the Willie Lyles pay-for-recruits stink floating his way.

So, Hoke looks the more solid hire every minute. But nothing he does really counts until September.

FACING BIG ISSUES

At least Hoke hasn't done anything to offend anyone yet, which puts him a few notches ahead of Rodriguez's first season already. Whether Hoke can win with the talent, and the holes, RichRod left behind is a vexing mystery for a win-starved fan base.

There is the dynamic Denard Robinson at quarterback, albeit in an offense different from the one that allowed him to lay statistical waste to the opposition last season.

Robinson rushed for a Division I QB record 1,702 yards and passed for 2,570, but there's another number that bothers new offensive coordinator Al Borges.

"He came out of 10 games last year (due to injury)," Borges said. ". . . I'd like the kid to be able to start and finish a football game. If it means handing the ball to the running back a few more times, if indeed the tailbacks are worthy of the carries, I think that's a great approach."

Michigan doesn't have a proven tailback, but it has candidates to go with an above-average offensive line that returns four starters. The wide receiving corps is deep.

There are no tight ends with any résumé, nor fullbacks of much note, which is a casualty of transitioning from Rodriguez's flashy spread option to Hoke's more meat-and-potatoes pro-style attack.

Robinson will be under center a lot, which he hasn't done much since high school. If he gets injured again, untested sophomore Devin Gardner will be the backup, with Tate Forcier having transferred.

Defensively, Michigan was a train wreck last year, and it's up to former Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Mattison to fix that. He's back for a second tour of duty, having previously held the job in the mid-'90s when the Wolverines annually rendered Ohio State's talented offenses impotent.

Mattison also was Florida's defensive coordinator when the Gators famously held Ohio State to 82 yards in a 41-14 shocker at the BCS national championship game in January 2007.

Mattison, Borges and Hoke seem unified on building Michigan into a more physical, more unified team, which seems a modest goal for a program so high profile — until the autopsy of the Rodriguez years is examined.

Michigan was seldom an effective second-half team and almost never a dangerous fourth-quarter team. Promising starts in 2010 and '11 morphed into colossal collapses down the stretch, which suggests that Hoke's biggest coaching job must focus as much on attitude and belief as X's and O's.

There's also an overlooked talent angle, which Hoke didn't have much time to address via recruiting upon his hiring in January. While Rodriguez hit spectacularly on some finds, like Robinson and some of the Wolverines' receivers, it's folly to think Michigan can compete evenly with Ohio State if talent isn't better identified right off the top.

In Rodriguez's final class of 27 signees, 11 hailed from Ohio. That sounded great, given that Michigan always thrived upon luring away headliners like Rob Lytle, Dan Dierdorf, Elvis Grbac, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. But Ohio State didn't offer a scholarship to a single one of the 11 in-state players Rodriguez signed in 2010.

One man's trash might be another man's treasure, but the currency to win Big Ten championships starts with elite talent, and Michigan hasn't gotten enough of that lately.

Time will tell if Hoke can change that.

Follow Bruce on Twitter @BHOOLZ

Email Bruce@brucehooley.com


share story