When Brady Hoke returned to Ann Arbor, 30 years after accepting his first coaching job at a small Indiana high school, it was the crowning achievement of an already polished career. Hoke hadn’t yet spent one day on the sidelines or organized his first practice, but to him this was college football’s holy ground.
“This for a long time has been the ultimate place I want to be as a football coach,” Hoke said in 2011 when he was announced as the new leader of the Wolverines. “This place means an awful lot to us because of what it stands for as a university.”That’s not rhetoric intended to excite the Michigan fan base. Growing up in Ohio, Hoke said he became fanatical of the Wolverines, even as his friends latched on to the home-state Buckeyes. He still refrains from speaking Ohio State’s name, often referring to the university as “that school in Ohio.”
Michigan is a special place for college football coaches, and Hoke considers himself fortunate to be part of its esteemed family. After a tumultuous three years under Rich Rodriguez the program’s lowest point in more than 40 years Hoke compiled a 19-7 record his first two season, making appearances in the Sugar and Outback bowls. That included an undefeated streak at Michigan Stadium and a 1-1 record against the Buck … “that school in Ohio.”
The program’s quick resurgence onto the national stage was unexpected, particularly for those who believed it could take years to rebuild a fractured system. Hoke said he didn’t have any secret formula for energizing the team, but he did remind players of what it meant to wear the winged helmet and represent the university with pride.
“We reminded them of the expectations that come with winning 42 Big Ten championships, being part of this program and part of the history of college football,” Hoke said. “The senior group and the rest of the guys really grabbed on to all those things and played for Michigan as a team.”
Climbing the Ranks
Few would have guessed Hoke would end up here, but not because of his coaching abilities. At Ball State University, where Hoke was a linebacker and four-year letterman, he majored in criminal justice and expected to practice law.
But football is in his blood. Hoke’s father played for Woody Hayes at Miami University (Ohio) and his brother, Jon Hoke, is the defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears. Jon, who is just a year older than Brady, said his brother has always been a great communicator, making him a likeable coach and accomplished recruiter.
“It’s his personality,” said Jon, referencing Brady’s best attribute as a college coach. “Everybody wants to hear his stories and he has a tremendous sense of humor. At the same time, he’s always very down to earth and honest. He doesn’t beat around the bush on anything.”
Brady landed his first coaching job in 1981, running the defense for Yorktown High School (Muncie, Ind.). The next 12 years would include stints at Grand Valley State, Western Michigan, Toledo and Oregon State before he first arrived at Michigan with head coach Lloyd Carr. As a defensive line coach, he helped lead the Wolverines to three Big Ten titles, including a Rose Bowl championship during the 1997 season.
Hoke landed his first head coaching job in 2002 at his alma mater, Ball State. During the 2008 season, the last of his six years with the Cardinals, he led the program to an undefeated season and its first appearance in the AP Top 25.
Hoke would leave Ball State for San Diego State, where he compiled a 13-12 record over two seasons before returning to Ann Arbor. San Diego State President Stephen Weber told a local newspaper that during his interview for the Aztecs job, Hoke identified Michigan as his ultimate career goal. So when the Wolverines called, there was little surprise he was leaving.
“It’s humbling, and it really is a huge privilege,” Hoke said. “But we always care about the 115 guys on our team, and that’s really where we put all our thoughts and our energy. We have to do the right thing for these guys who are sons to us on this football team.”
Hoke insists there was no secret to his climb through the college ranks. He set ambitious career goals and earned a reputation as a skilled recruiter, but it all comes down to being genuine and focusing on the task at hand without looking ahead.
“Don’t worry about the next job,” Hoke said. “Just worry about the doing the best job you can where you’re at.”
Tom Brady was no guaranteed star coming out of Junipero Serra High School (San Mateo, Calif.), but recruiters at Michigan saw something special in the young quarterback.
Hoke was part of the team that helped recruit Brady. He said more than the quarterback’s achievements or physical abilities, it was his intelligence that impressed recruiters.
“It was his IQ, first and foremost, and his general knowledge of football,” Hoke said. “Also his resiliency and his work ethic. He would be in our football building until 10:30 or 11 at night studying opponents. Everything that Tom had done at Michigan he continues to do at the next level.”
Hoke continues to thrive on the recruiting trail, helping the Wolverines carry the fifth best class of talent into the 2013 season, according to Rivals.com. Brady came and spoke to the team prior to its first game, and Hoke said it was an unbelievable and uplifting visit that provided more motivation for his players.
“His message was about work ethic, winning championships and how hard it is to do all of those things,” Hoke said. “Tom also got to spend some time with our quarterbacks. He talked about how he prepares and what it means to be a quarterback in Michigan.”
Instilling pride in his players is one of the ways Hoke has made the Wolverines so successful. He helps players understand what it means to put on the uniform, and he asks them to respect the tradition.
That carries over into the fan base. Over his first two seasons at Ann Arbor, Hoke didn’t lose a single game at home. He credits the students and alumni who help fill the stadium, as well as the players who elevate their game in front of their fans.
He also credits the team’s defense, which over his first two years allowed less than 19 points per game. That should come as little surprise to those familiar with Hoke’s background. Both he and his brother grew up on the defensive side of the ball, and that carried over into their coaching careers.
Jon Hoke works on Sundays, so he has the opportunity to watch the Wolverines every once in awhile. He speaks to his brother three times a week, but they don’t typically discuss specifics about schemes or matchups.
“What we run defensively here in Chicago and what Brady runs in Michigan, some things are similar but some of them aren’t,” Jon said. “We kind of learned from each other, but he does it his way and obviously he’s very good at it.”
Brady remains in pursuit of Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 2004, but with the Wolverines’ resurgence as one of college football’s powerhouses, that may not be far off. Football is king in Ann Arbor, and while Brady is committed to Michigan’s gridiron success, it still comes down to providing a quality education for student-athletes.
“The game only lasts so long and you only have so many opportunities,” Hoke said. “You have to take care of those opportunities and do a tremendous job in the classroom, because that degree will be there forever.”