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Hoke stays upbeat, focused amid turmoil

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Brady Hoke has dealt with a number of distractions this season, not the least being six losses.

He has said time and again, particularly this week as speculation continues to swirl about his future at Michigan, that to spend a minute focused on anything but his team and players would be unfair to them, and, frankly, not part of his fiber as a coach.

Michigan is 5-6 overall, and has slipped each year since going 11-2 during his first season in 2011.

Still, through it all and on the eve of "The Game" — Michigan and Ohio State — Hoke has maintained his even-keel personality, never losing his temper or speaking angrily at his twice-weekly news conferences. Even during last Monday's news conference, when typically he would be fielding questions about Michigan and Ohio State, he took question after question about his future, laughing at one point at how indefatigable the media were on this subject.

His defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, also gave a five-minute speech defending Hoke and his four seasons when asked why he should return next year. Mattison has been consistent all season in his defense of his close friend.

"When you believe so much in a program like he does and our staff does, and you give everything you have to the program like he does, when things don't go exactly like you want them to, that's hard," Mattison said.

"I haven't seen him … he never wavers. He's the same guy every morning when he comes in, he's the same guy when he addresses the players. I think he's done a tremendous job as a head football coach with some of the things that have happened."

Some of the things that have happened, besides the losses:

■The mishandling of quarterback Shane Morris, who suffered a concussion against Minnesota and returned to the field after taking a hard hit in the fourth quarter.

■Linebacker Joe Bolden slamming a stake into the Spartan Stadium field before the Michigan State game.

■The dismissal of senior defensive lineman Frank Clark, charged with domestic violence and assault.

And, less than a month ago, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, who hired Hoke after firing Rich Rodriguez, resigned and Jim Hackett, a former Michigan player and CEO of Steelcase, was named as the interim.

To call it a season of turmoil probably wouldn't be generous enough.

Remaining upbeat

On the field, it has been a challenge. A three-game losing streak finally was snapped with a night-game home victory over Penn State, but last weekend's home loss to Maryland, the best shot for the Wolverines in the final two games to become bowl eligible, was an enormous disappointment.

Michigan has lost three home games and was swept by Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland.

Losing at Rutgers was particularly challenging after finishing September with three losses, a program first.

But back in Ann Arbor, Hoke had not lost his enthusiasm and remained upbeat as he worked to motivate his team.

"It was an emotional loss for us," senior punter Will Hagerup said of the Rutgers game. "We fought hard, and it was close (26-24). It was one of those weeks we were beaten, and we felt not only beaten on the field but with the media and with all that, and it was kind of a low point.

"You're curious to see how your leader will respond, and (Hoke) came running into the team meeting room excited. He had spoken after that game that it's not in his personality to give up, and the guy means it. The energy he brings has saved this team in a lot of ways."

Hagerup, suspended three times during his career at Michigan, which began under Rodriguez, and held out all of last season by Hoke after he violated team rules, has frequently praised his coach for believing enough in him to help him progress and mature.

He said he never has seen Hoke's temperament waver.

"There has not been one point where I have seen him down or waver in his confidence in the team and in his coaching ability," Hagerup said. "That makes a big, big difference. When you see people in leadership positions sort of give up, then it's impossible to stay the course, and he has not done that once.

"It's a really hard sport, and sometimes it's hard to come back to work, but when the guys in charge come back ready to work, it's not a choice. You know you're going to be right there with them."

Players support Hoke

Senior linebacker Jake Ryan said this week the team is "100 percent" behind Hoke.

Just as Hagerup described, Ryan said their coach keeps moving forward despite the criticism and controversy.

"He's one of those guys who kind of throws things behind him if it's negative," Ryan said. "Anything about him, he throws it to the curb if it's negative, and that's what you need out of a coach — being confident and knowing exactly what he wants and what he wants to do with his team."

In the aftermath of Clark's dismissal — he was the second player Hoke kicked off the team — Hoke was asked if this is the toughest season of his coaching career. He joked at one point, saying the season has been enjoyable, then, after brief pause, he smiled and said, "No, not really."

Leadership, he said, is supposed to be hard, and this season has been tough, at times, for the leader of Michigan's football team.

"Externally, for some of that of stuff, some things that have come up, maybe," Hoke said. "Internally, to watch these guys work every day, they truly come out and work every day, and they compete. That is rewarding."

achengelis@detroitnews.com

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Michigan at Ohio State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus

TV/radio: ABC/WWJ

Records: Michigan 5-6 (3-4 Big Ten), No. 7 Ohio State 10-1 (7-0)

Line: Ohio State by 21

Series: Michigan leads, 58-45-6 (Ohio State 42-41 in 2013)