Brady Hoke gets choked up a bit at his introductory press conference in January 2011. Hoke's father, John, attended the event in Ann Arbor. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
When Brady Hoke was at Ball State, he would invite his father, John, to the first practice of the spring.
It became an annual assessment delivered from father to son.
“He’d walk around, and he’d go to the offensive linemen, he’d go to the defensive linemen, he’d watch practice and we’d go home,” said Hoke, now Michigan’s football coach. “I’d pour him a vodka, I’d get a beer, and I’d say, ‘What did you think?’ He said, ‘You’re going to get your (butt) kicked.’ I’d ask why, and he’d say, ‘Because you have no (butts) or legs on your linemen.’
“We go to San Diego State, he comes to the first practice, walks around, we go home, and I pour him a vodka, I get a beer, and asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘You’re going to get your (butt) kicked. You’ve got no (butts) or legs on your linemen.’ At Michigan the first spring, he walks around, looks at the D-linemen, then the offensive linemen, we go home, I pour him a vodka, I get a beer, and I ask him what does he think. He said, ‘You’re going to get your (butt) kicked.’ ”
“We win the Sugar Bowl, we’re in the hotel, and I asked, ‘So what do you think?’ ” Hoke said. “He said, ‘Well, you fooled me.’ I remember that to this day. And I poured him a vodka, and I got a beer.”
John Hoke, 80, celebrated Michigan’s Sugar Bowl victory in 2012 on Bourbon Street with his family. A few weeks later, the fourth-stage lung cancer that had spread to the adrenal glands, had begun to weaken him.
He died two months later.
“I never had a chance to grieve about it,” Brady Hoke said recently, his eyes welling with tears.
Laura Hoke, Brady’s childhood sweetheart whose father, Bob Homberger, is extremely close to her husband, was instrumental in taking care of funeral arrangements and family matters. That gave Hoke the opportunity to continue working while being “strong” for his mother, Patricia. That is why he never gave himself an opportunity to grieve.
“There’s a lot that you miss, but to pinpoint one thing, I think it’s hard,” said Hoke, his voice choked and his eyes reddened. “He was your biggest fan and your biggest critic.”
In the final week of John Hoke’s life, Brady never missed a daily early morning visit, just the two of them, father and son, talking about life. Brady would then head to work.
“I had five or six unbelievable mornings with him,” Hoke said.
John Hoke always had been competitive. All four kids — Jon, the defensive backs coach for the Bears; and Terre and Heidi — have that imprint.
“One thing he said to me in the hospital, when he knew it was pretty much over, one thing he worried about was all of us being too competitive,” Brady Hoke said. “I think he didn’t like how competitive we are with each other, and he didn’t want to see it as much with the grandchildren.
“When he was telling me this, I was thinking, ‘You’re the one who was teaching all of us to be competitive,’ but his message was we shouldn’t be that way as a family in terms of our lives. It was a conversation I never thought I’d have with him.”
Hoke preaches to his team to be accountable, responsible and disciplined. He tells them to work hard, persevere and trust. These are the fundamentals of life he learned from his father.
He had to learn discipline because Brady was an outgoing kid who couldn’t sit still.
In other words, he occasionally needed discipline.
“He was tough, believe me, he was tough,” Hoke said of his father. “I probably deserved a lot of the tough love I received. I know I did.”
During his junior year, Brady decided he wasn’t going to continue his wrestling. His father, a school administrator came home, found his son there, and Brady explained he wanted to lift weights to prepare for football.
“He looked at his watch and said, ‘You’ll either be wrestling 24 hours from now or you’ll be working 20 hours a week,’ ” Hoke said, laughing. “It was the best thing I ever did.”
John Hoke was tough, but he was fair.
“He was very proud,” Hoke said, wiping away tears. “He was really humble about it — at times. I had a feeling other times, he’d point me out and say, ‘That’s my son.’ ”