February 8, 2011 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski: Q&A

U-M's Brady Hoke: If we don't win Big Ten, we've failed

Brady Hoke on what he’s heard the most since taking the Michigan coaching job: “Welcome home.” (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor-- The whirlwind is starting to settle, before it stirs again. Brady Hoke sits in the big office at Schembechler Hall, with the balcony view of the enormous practice facility, and appreciates more than ever the task ahead.

When Hoke, 52, took over Jan. 11, he happily admitted he would have walked from San Diego for the Michigan job. He was Lloyd Carr's defensive line coach from 1995-2002 and returns, in many ways, to help repair the program, which was 15-22 in three seasons under Rich Rodriguez.

Hoke is a burly former Ball State linebacker who preaches traditional Michigan traits, and pledges to restock the trenches and defense. He has rebuilt twice before, at Ball State and San Diego State, which partly explains his 47-51 record.

This transition should not be as rocky as the last one at Michigan, but it still won't be easy. Hoke and his staff pieced together a recruiting class rated third in the Big Ten, a decent start. Michigan returns plenty of starters from a 7-6 team, so the expectations won't be modest.

The personable Hoke isn't shying from anything. In a recent hour-long conversation with News columnist Bob Wojnowski, Hoke talked about his plans for Denard Robinson, how Michigan again can be a Big Ten force, and how he learned from his mistakes.

Q. You've been the Michigan coach for about three weeks and you've been on the road a lot. Now that you're here, sitting in Schembechler Hall, has it hit you yet?

A. Believe me, there's a lot of pride involved in this job. Is it different than Ball State and San Diego State? Yes, because it's the winningest program in college football. But day to day, it's the same — you want to help kids grow.

I like guys who want to play football after Michigan. I also want them to get the highest degree they can. If they're a 2.9 (GPA), then be a 2.9. Don't underachieve. We can't let these kids cheat themselves, and we're not going to.

Q. When you're out meeting people, what's the most common thing you hear?

A. Just, 'Welcome home.' It's not 'Welcome to Michigan,' it's 'Welcome home.' It's been great.

Q. It's well-documented how fractured Michigan was during Rich Rodriguez's three seasons. Is that part of your task, pulling it together? How will you do it?

A. Same way you do with everything else — you go out and touch people, talk to people, meet people. Shame on us for being fractured, and I mean that.

Q. Have you detected signs of it?

A. It's been pretty good. I haven't been in town as much, but I've heard from guys who played here from all different eras. It just pisses me off that Michigan got to that.

We can't let that happen because at the end of the day, this is about Michigan, period. It's not about the coach, it never should be, or will be. And for us to be a fractured program, that's embarrassing to the memory of Yost and Crisler and Schembechler.

Q. You salvaged a decent first recruiting class. How much of a scramble was it?

A. A lot of people might look at it that way, but going to Ball State, I got there relatively late because I coached the Outback Bowl, something Lloyd (Carr) wanted me to do. So you have a plan, and the No. 1 priority is always the kids that are here. You recruit them to some degree. You want them all to stay — at least give it a go, see what happens — but there's usually some attrition. And that's OK.

Q. You said the other day you hadn't lost any players. But you still expect to lose a few?

A. We're gonna find out in the next six weeks.

Q. Attrition was a big issue when Rodriguez took over. Does that concern you?

A. No, not really. We'll have some because there's gonna be somebody who this is too tough for. And I don't think it'll be because of scheme or schematics. I just think because of the accountability we're gonna have to each other, there'll be somebody who won't quite be able to handle it.

Q. One guy not leaving is quarterback Denard Robinson. Was that an easy sell for you?

A. He's a great kid. When I met with him, he told me, 'Coach, I'm not going anywhere. I want a Michigan degree.' And he fits because of what he can do.

Denard's got a great arm, but he won't have to be featured every down, which makes you a little more dangerous as an offense. And he's not gonna get the crap beaten out of him like at the end of the year. He thanked me for that.

Q. He was so dangerous in the spread. Can he be as dangerous in a pro-style offense?

A. He's a special talent, and coaching defense — that's all I've ever coached — you got a guy like that, it's frustrating when he pulls that ball down and takes off. Michael Vick's made a pretty good living playing a pro-style offense, making something happen.

Q. I was talking to (offensive coordinator) Al Borges, and he didn't sound concerned about finding ways to use Denard.

A. The one thing about Al, he's a football junkie, a guy who understands playmakers gotta have the ball. He's uncanny, like no one else.

Q. Your defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, was coaching with the Ravens in the playoffs. He was a big priority for you — he coached here before and runs the 4-3, so you had no problem waiting for him?

A. Oh, yeah, never a second thought. I didn't really talk to him until after the playoff because I know how he is. We're the same way — focused on one thing, not to be distracted.

Q. What did you look for in putting your staff together?

A. My biggest issue is, No. 1, how they're going to mentor these kids. I got great parents, but I know I needed a coach when I was at Ball State to kind of say, you know, what you're doing really isn't reflecting well on your name.

Q. Did you just drop a hint you were a bit wild back in your college days?

A. Uh, yeah, for two years I really didn't have the best goals in mind. I wanted to play football and try to drink every beer in Muncie, Ind. And I tell parents that on visits.

Q. I've talked to former players that know you well, and they smile and say you've definitely evolved. What has changed?

A. (Laughs). I think there's a lot of me that hasn't changed. When 2:30 (practice) comes, that's my funnest time of the day. That's one reason I've always coached a position as a head coach. Because what I do best is interact with those guys and teach. I think I know something about how to teach defensive linemen.

Believe me, there's a big kid in me out there on the field.

Q. You were here eight seasons, so you're familiar with the territory. That clearly was important for fans and athletic director Dave Brandon. Do you look at what happened with your predecessor and learn from it?

A. To be honest with you, I had written up a plan four years ago about Michigan, when Lloyd retired. I still have the five-by-seven cards, about how I would attack applying for the Michigan job. And that's exactly what we're doing.

We all have different ways of coaching, different schemes, different personalities. Rich and his staff did a great job — they gave three good years, hard years, and I respect that.

We're gonna have a foundation of toughness, knocking guys off the ball, because that's how football is played. We're gonna recruit the heck out of the state of Michigan, recruit in Ohio and the rest of the Midwest. The fortunate thing we have is, Michigan is a national brand, so it gives you a chance to recruit nationally at the same time. I just think those guys from the state of Ohio and this state, they understand the last Saturday in November is pretty significant, and always will be.

Q. You've referenced often how huge the Ohio State rivalry is. Where do you stand on the Michigan State rivalry?

A. I think it really is the same in a lot of ways. It didn't happen very much when I was here as an assistant, but it's not much fun being on the wrong end of that game.

That's the great thing about Michigan. We have Notre Dame, that's a heckuva rivalry. The Michigan State game, that's an unbelievable rivalry. And on a national scale, Michigan and Ohio, big time.

Q. You always say 'Ohio' instead of 'Ohio State.'

A. Yeah.

Q. How come?

A. (Smiles.) I don't know.

Q. You're considered a likable guy, intense and easygoing at the same time. Here's the question: Can you be ruthless enough to take on the Jim Tressels and others?

A. Mean, ruthless, whatever, I'm a competitor. And our team is gonna be made up of competitors. Look, I'm gonna be who I am. I was a linebacker and now I'm a nose tackle (chuckles), but that linebacker mentality never goes away. We're going to be aggressive in everything we do.

Q. So what did you think sitting there in San Diego with the Michigan job open and people clamoring, 'Please go get Jim Harbaugh, please go get Les Miles?'

A. I didn't think anything. It didn't bother me. I have about this much ego (holds thumb and forefinger an inch apart). I had a job to do there. I had a team, 115 boys, 115 sons, and that's the way I've always looked at it.

Q. Your career record is 47-51. Why shouldn't people be nervous about that?

A. They can be nervous. I can't control what other people think, and to be honest with you, I don't care. But I know we have a plan. And this is where I may be a little arrogant — we do it the right way, with an unbelievable love and respect for the guys on this team. Love and respect sometimes is ripping a kid's tail, making sure he's going to class, making sure they're being accountable to each other.

Q. How often do you chew a kid's tail?

A. Oh, usually daily. Like I said, you got 115 sons. And if you went down and grabbed 115 people off State Street right now and lined 'em up, there's going to be 8-10 knuckleheads. I was a knucklehead, so I understand that. If I didn't have coaches who cared, parents who cared, I wouldn't be here.

Q. How, exactly, were you a knucklehead?

A. Just bad decisions about going to class, about maybe being out late on a Saturday night. I never reached my full potential, either academically those two years or as a teammate. That's what bothers me, because I let 115 other guys down.

Q. It still bothers you?

A. Oh, yeah, to this day.

Q. So, say you've had an exhausting day and you've got a free night. What do you want for a good meal?

A. Well, it would start with oysters on the half shell. A steak would be good. But really, just give me my wife's homemade pizza. We've done it for 32 years, every Thursday night during football season — homemade pizza. Then in our little tutorial session with my position group on Fridays, they get leftover pizza.

Q. You met Laura in the seventh grade (in Kettering, Ohio). Looks to me like you married the first girl you ever dated?

A. Yeah. My best friend, still is to this day.

Q. Do you have a favorite book?

A. "Lone Survivor" by Marcus Luttrell of the U.S Navy SEALs. Worst pain in SEAL history, in Afghanistan. And we embedded with the SEALs in San Diego. Our greatest warriors.

Q. It's pretty clear what your strengths are — communicator, coach, teacher. What's your weakness?

A. (Laughs.) There's probably a lot of them. Clothes aren't important to me, so I guess my wardrobe is a weakness. You know, that'd be a good question for Laura. Probably a lack of discipline in taking care of my own health. That's something I promise you she would say.

(His cell phone rings to the song "Who are you?" by The Who. He looks at it and smiles).

That was her, in fact.

Q. Many fans crave a return to old Michigan ways. You've talked about being tough in the trenches, having a pounding defense. What about the little traditions, like helmet stickers again?

A. I don't know about the helmet stickers yet. I'm gonna get some counsel from ex-players, from coach (Gary) Moeller, coach (Jerry) Hanlon. We are going to have captains, I can promise you.

Q. You have 18 starters back next year, including the Big Ten offensive player of the year. I'm thinking an 8-4 record, minimum. What do you think?

A. If we don't win the championship, we failed, period.

Q. Have you looked at your roster closely and assessed how good you could or couldn't be?

A. No. If we don't win the championship, we failed.

Q. So I suppose it's possible then?

A. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't.

Big Three

Michigan coach Brady Hoke has said he will place extra emphasis on Michigan's three biggest rivalry games — Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame. How the Wolverines have fared against those opponents in the last 10 years:

SeasonOhio StateMichigan StateNotre Dame
2001L 26-20L 26-24DNP
2002L 14-9W 49-3L 25-23
2003W 35-21W 27-20W 38-0
2004L 37-21W 45-37L 28-20
2005L 25-21W 34-31L 17-10
2006L 42-39W 31-13W 47-21
2007L 14-3W 28-24W 38-0
2008L 42-7L 35-21L 35-17
2009L 21-10L 26-20W 38-34
2010L 37-7L 34-17W 28-24
Total1-96-45-4

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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