Ann Arbor — Nine years. Some players barely can spit out the words without recoiling in disgust.
It has been nine years since Michigan won a Big Ten football championship, and if you’re sick of hearing about it, imagine the guys roaming Schembechler Hall. They hear it from Brady Hoke, from assistant coaches, from each other. The pass code to enter the locker room is a numerical reminder of the drought, punched in daily.
It was 2004 and the Wolverines didn’t even beat the Buckeyes that year. Since then, Jim Tressel has been deposed, Rich Rodriguez was disposed and Hoke arrived with a solitary mandate. He’s not afraid to admit anything short of a Big Ten title is a “failure,” and he hammers it to his team every single day.
The difference now? The Wolverines are getting bigger and bigger, and closer and closer to having the type of team that can hammer back.
“It’s unbelievable, really,” senior All-America tackle Taylor Lewan said. “We have a program that’s won 903 games, most in college football history. So you think, well, they should win a Big Ten championship all the time. What’s gonna happen if I come back 10 years from now and I stand in front of a bunch of people and I have to say I never won a Big Ten championship?”
Well, he wouldn’t be the only one. It was a strident theme as the Wolverines held their annual media day Sunday. They’ve won a BCS bowl and gone 19-7 in Hoke’s two seasons, but this is the step they must take next, before any talk of national aspirations.
Ohio State is a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten again — partly because the Buckeyes get one more free season in the lame Leaders division — but the Wolverines have their best shot in several years, with a workable schedule and upgraded talent.
“It’s the battle cry around here, the measure of how we really know we’re back to where we belong,” athletic director Dave Brandon said. “Until we win it, there’s gonna be high levels of motivation to fix that problem. Brady is absolutely perfect for this job, and it’s also the coaches he’s surrounded himself with. We look like Michigan again. We’re bigger and stronger and prepared to play more of the smash-mouth football that defines the Big Ten.”
Gardner can't wait
Mark Dantonio talked last week about being “inches” away, but hey, Michigan State earned a title share as recently as 2010. Ohio State and Wisconsin gobbled up the rest since 2004. The Wolverines have been pounds away but that’s changing, at least on paper and in pads. Denard Robinson is gone, and so are most remnants of the spread offense. Devin Gardner is a 6-foot-4 junior who can run, and could develop into an excellent pro-style quarterback.
For now, he’d just like to develop into a Big Ten championship quarterback.
“It feels horrible that we haven’t won one,” said Gardner, who completed 59 percent of his passes in five starts last season. “We haven’t done anything. I can’t wait to get the opportunity.”
The Wolverines return only two starting offensive linemen — 6-8 Lewan and 6-7 right tackle Michael Schofield — but they’re adding raw beef (football term). Projected guards Kyle Kalis (297 pounds) and Ben Braden (314) are highly touted redshirt freshmen, and center Jack Miller is a 291-pound sophomore.
Remember all those sprightly backs and receivers skittering around with Robinson? They could be dynamic, but they’re about to be extinct in Ann Arbor. Longtime running backs coach Fred Jackson raves about his batch of seven running backs, almost every one topping 200 pounds.
Top recruit Derrick Green (240 pounds) looks like a tree stump that thumps, and that’s a compliment. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is 100 percent again after his horrible leg injury. From 198-pound Justice Hayes to 250-pound Wyatt Shallman, the backfield is so crowded, 168-pound Dennis Norfleet was granted his request to move to receiver.
“(Green) is a huge human being, but he’s got great feet, too,” Jackson said. “And I think Fitz will be better because he’s stronger, got more weight to him, and he’s definitely faster. … Brady is a big historian, and he’s pounding the fact we haven’t won in a while. Every day they hear something about it.”
With Urban Meyer cranking it up at Ohio State, it won’t get any easier. Michigan’s nine-year drought is the program’s longest since 1950-64, but at least now the Wolverines are back to a formula that worked before.
Don’t take it from me. Take a look at the Wolverines in the opener Aug. 31 against Central Michigan. Hoke’s red-hot recruiting added tons of size, and in the rugged Big Ten, that’s the preferred path.
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk said Sunday, “We finally have some guys that want to play physical,” an attitude that could alleviate the experience deficit. Hoke has a quiet confidence in his team, and I asked what element he must see before he knows it’s ready to win big.
“Playing fast and playing physical,” Hoke said. “I had this conversation with (wife) Laura Hoke last night. I don’t think we’re playing as fast as we need to play to be a championship football team.”
That’s a fairly typical lament early in fall camp. You can bet Hoke will bring it up daily, and it won’t be the only point he hammers.