Ann Arbor — Brady Hoke is sticking to his message, sticking with his quarterback, sticking with his story. That's fine and expected, even admirable. It's also part of the reason he has to go.
The message and the team haven't evolved in Hoke's four seasons, never beyond the broad platitudes of playing "Michigan football." His demise is in the details, in the fundamentals, in the lack of player development, and of course, in the record. The Wolverines are 3-5, and whether the stories are piling up or piling on, it doesn't matter anymore.
Hoke will have to be fired after the season, not because a player drove a spike into the Spartan Stadium field, or a wobbly backup quarterback stayed in a game, or the athletic director tried too many gimmicks. It's because the job requires more strength and savvy than Hoke can muster, and being a good guy who cares deeply about the program isn't enough.
With four games left, Hoke isn't really interested in fighting the criticism. He knows the deal, and when he first arrived, he handled it very well. The initial message was perfect — be tough, be together, beat Ohio (State). Now, Michigan State has become what Michigan wanted to be and Hoke's message doesn't resonate, not with his team, not with the public.
Yes, Michigan lost players that didn't fit when Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez and the spread offense. But four years later, Hoke and his staff still haven't developed a quarterback, still struggle with how to use Devin Gardner, still aren't sure when to play Shane Morris. If you don't have a quarterback who can run your system, you're doomed, and Hoke's regime is doomed.
Whether Dave Brandon or a new athletic director makes the call, the call is inevitable. And the next coach has to be less willing to please others, and more ruthlessly determined to beat them.
"I think those things (job security) will be talked about at the end of the season," Hoke said Monday. "I don't worry myself about those things. I'm confident in what we're doing. I know what we're doing for 115 kids, and that's as important as anything to me. I feel bad, and I do get angry, because they've worked so hard."
For a rare moment, Hoke seemed to get emotional, and it would've been OK if he had. But under withering pressure, he sounds evasive, less genuine. What once was his biggest strength — communication — has turned into a weakness. The "Stakegate" incident before last weekend's game has been wildly overblown, and it's silly season now. It didn't help that Hoke wasn't clear enough or firm enough to stop it — either in the execution of the motivational stunt or the explanation of it.
I don't buy that he's lost control. More likely, he hasn't wielded enough control, and the controversies are mainly byproducts of losing. Michigan's latest apology tour is too much, another sign of softness. I understand Hoke wanted to emphasize Michigan didn't intend to disrespect Mark Dantonio's program when linebacker Joe Bolden jabbed a tent spike into the turf. It became an issue because the Spartans pounded out one last touchdown in the 35-11 victory, and his private call to Dantonio would've sufficed.
Hoke took responsibility again Monday, but said he only became aware players were carrying the spike — a prop representing team unity — onto the field when he followed them out of the locker room, and it was too late to halt it. So now it's breathlessly rehashed, and Dantonio earns credit for stern leadership, reflected in his team's punishing effort.
The Wolverines still are grasping for comparable toughness, four years after Hoke was supposed to bring it.
"All last week, our guys heard, well, you don't seem mad, you don't seem ready, you don't seem angry," Hoke said. "My point is, I think emotionally our guys understand what this game is all about."
Michigan may think it understands how riled Michigan State gets, and Ohio State gets, but I wonder if Hoke possesses the deep, seething burn to match it. Being personable and loyal are assets in recruiting, not so much on the field.
Admittedly, it was a difficult transition from Rodriguez to Hoke, and expectations got out of whack when the Wolverines went 11-2, largely because of Denard Robinson. Since then, player attrition has left Michigan with the second-youngest roster in the Big Ten, ahead of only Penn State.
It takes time to build and Hoke has tried to do it diligently. He hired big-name coordinators, Greg Mattison and Al Borges, and then grabbed another, Doug Nussmeier, when he fired Borges. That was supposed to be a quick fix for Gardner, but the fifth-year senior regressed to the point of being benched. That led to the other flashpoint, when Morris suffered a head injury that apparently wasn't as damaging as Michigan's bungling response.
Despite it all, Hoke and his staff wouldn't be running out of time if the team showed progress. It's not just the record — 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-6 to 3-5 — but the poor line play and all the turnovers. And because Michigan has been known to, ahem, display a little arrogance over the years, the program gets scant sympathy from anyone.
"That's the nature of it — people are upset, we're upset," center Jack Miller said. "So naturally, things become a bigger deal than they probably are. (TV commentator) Kirk Herbstreit said it best with the whole Shane incident — if we were 5-0 at that point, nobody would care."
It's too bad it's gotten ugly, but it's beside the point now. The players say they block out the noise, and they're still playing hard for Hoke, and they should. He protects them from a lot of heat, and keeps trying to teach. But long before a spike was driven into a field for unclear purposes, the message was lost.