Doug Nussmeier won a national championship as offensive coordinator at Alabama. (Vasha Hunt / Associated Press)
Michigan doesnít have a full-fledged crisis, but something more basic. It has an identity crisis, and Brady Hoke had no choice but to address it.
Hoke talks a very good game, a tough game, and now must show he can consistently play it. This was a tough-game move in many ways, hiring Doug Nussmeier from Alabama to replace Al Borges as offensive coordinator. Hoke wants Michigan to play like the big boys, so he went and plucked a respected assistant from big-boy Bama.
This was a good, necessary strike. I wouldnít call it a panic move, although Hoke has to know the heat is rising. Iíd call it a perception move, and the Wolverines havenít won many of those battles lately. The perception here is, they moved swiftly, boldly and expensively, and arenít reducing expectations one bit. Michigan might not have shown much fight this season, but it did here.
Borges had his strengths, but stubbornness was a weakness. Three years ago, when the Hoke Era was new and Michigan was in a major transition, patience was accepted. Not anymore. Not after a 7-6 season, Michigan Stateís rise to the Rose Bowl and Ohio Stateís run. Not with a potentially dynamic senior quarterback in Devin Gardner, and an offense in dire need of an identity.
We know the type of team Hoke wants, the straight-ahead, pro-style team Michigan used to have. And we just saw the meekest running game and offensive line in the programís history. If people want to call Borges a scapegoat, I suppose thatís technically true. But Hoke gives his coordinators play-calling control, which heightens their responsibility and culpability. If he didnít make a move, heíd appear soft and complacent. Iíve wondered if the gregarious Hoke had the ruthless edge to lead a power program, and he just flashed it.
Thereís a bit of nuance to this no-nonsense move. Did athletic director Dave Brandon push the change? Perhaps. If he did, at least he provided the resources to make a pricey hire. Was Nick Saban itching to open up his offense and hire Lane Kiffin, which made Nussmeier available? Thatís one theory. Another theory is, Nussmeier wants to be in charge, and working under Saban can be taxing and limiting.
Regardless of the circumstance, Nussmeier, 43, has excellent credentials from two seasons as Alabamaís offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and three seasons in the same capacity at Washington. He coached Michigan Stateís quarterbacks from 2003-05 and draws raves from former Spartans quarterback Drew Stanton and others.
Thereís a never-ending arms race in college football, and Michigan reportedly made Nussmeier one of the five highest-paid assistants in the country. Mark Dantonio has built a formidable program at Michigan State using the very principles Hoke craves, and Urban Meyer is a force at Ohio State.
The Big Tenís new East division should be competitive, with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. But itís still a relatively weak conference, and with the four-team national playoff starting, a good Big Ten team could find its way there quickly. The Spartans would have been there this season.
Program stability is important, but so is player development. Although it wasnít all Borgesí fault, Michiganís offense fell apart. A similar thing happened to Greg Mattisonís defense, and scrutiny is required there, too.
But the Wolverines can take the quickest leap on offense, and Nussmeier is known for developing quarterbacks, from Alabamaís AJ McCarron to Washingtonís Jake Locker to Michigan Stateís Stanton and Jeff Smoker. Yes, Alabama loads up on the best players, but its 2012 national championship team set school records on offense, and Nussmeierís unit led the nation in passing efficiency.
Gardner needs help and Borges didnít provide enough. The quarterback and the system were stuck between Rich Rodriguezís spread and Hokesí hoped-for smashmouth, and Borges tried to force it last season. The shuffling on the line and stunningly poor running game resulted from trying to become what Michigan couldnít be yet. Gardner was most effective in the read option, and it was as if Borges was determined to take the toy away and make the offense grow up.
Produce right away
And trust me, Nussmeier doesnít get a freebie year to adjust. He has to make Gardner effective immediately. Freshman left-hander Shane Morris also shows promise, and Nussmeier was a productive left-handed quarterback at Idaho. Of all the differences between Michigan State and Michigan last season, especially on defense, the most surprising was the disparity in the quarterbacks. Gardner regressed and threw too many interceptions, and Connor Cook progressed and became a Rose Bowl champ.
The Wolverines needed a morale boost, an energy boost, and they werenít too stuffy to admit it. Theyíre desperate to change perceptions and create identities, evidenced by Brandonís blog last month, when he staunchly defended Hoke to stem negative recruiting. Hokeís three-year record of 26-13 isnít bad, considering the radical system shift, and his recruiting has been very good. But his 15-11 mark the past two seasons is unacceptable.
The fact is, Michigan has the talent and resources to bounce back, and Hoke just made the type of edgy move a head coach has to make. The Wolverines are feeling the pressure, of course. This was their acknowledgement of it, and appropriate response to it.