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Wojo: Frank Clark arrest adds to Michigan football woes

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Brady Hoke stood at a podium and answered another series of non-football questions at another weekly football press conference. He did it politely and patiently, with only the slightest hint of weariness.

There's no end in sight, even as the end nears. Hoke did what he had to do Monday, dismissing defensive end Frank Clark after the senior was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. Michigan is 5-5 as it prepares for its home finale against Maryland, and if not for the disturbing event in a Sandusky, Ohio, hotel room Saturday night, Clark would be one of 13 seniors honored for their perseverance.

UM defensive end Frank Clark’s future in football now seems to be in jeopardy. The senior had developed into a leader and one of Michigan’s best players.

Instead, Clark pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges Monday in an Erie County (Ohio) courtroom, his college career over, his football career in jeopardy, his former coach back in the maelstrom, left to wonder what could possibly happen next.

"I do know we're doing the right thing for these kids in this program, and the harsh reality of it is, I did the right thing (by dismissing Clark)," Hoke said. "I have no worries about how we handle our kids, and the consequences they pay. I just know we live in an imperfect world."

Hoke has navigated uncomfortably through the imperfect world of college sports, and in this case, he was burned by the oldest equation in the game: Every time you give a chance, you take a chance.

Not everyone deserves a second chance but Clark seemed to be embracing his after an arrest two years ago, developing into a leader and the best player on Michigan's defense. Second chances are an unavoidable element of coaching, and that's not Hoke's failing. In this case, blame falls directly on Clark, who can't play the "just a kid" card. He's 21, and was a few months away from an NFL future.

The allegations are disgusting and sad, and if proven true, young lives are irreparably damaged. Disgusting, because Clark may have hit a woman, grabbed her by the neck and thrown her to the floor. Domestic abuse is a scourge that must be treated seriously, and Hoke's decision to boot Clark isn't even debatable.

Sad, because an opportunity squandered is too common a tale in college football.

"It was unacceptable, not what we want associated with our program," Hoke said. "Domestic abuse is tragic, and it's tragic on a national scale. We all need to do something about it."

This had to be painful, and not because the Wolverines lose a key piece of an improving defense. It has to be painful because it is indeed tragic, for all involved.

In 2012, Clark was accused of stealing a laptop from a student's dorm room and eventually pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony for home invasion. Hoke suspended him for a game, and wasn't the only one to offer a second chance. Under the Holmes Youthful Training Act, Clark's conviction was to be erased after a year of probation, a fresh start for a guy who endured a troubled upbringing in Los Angeles before moving to Cleveland.

Clark was an unheralded recruit who developed into a high-end player, but more than that, he became an engaging communicator, buoyant and refreshing. Two fellow seniors, quarterback Devin Gardner and linebacker Jake Ryan, called Clark's arrest "disappointing," before fielding actual football questions that don't seem to matter anymore.

"It's pretty amazing that so many things keep coming up," Gardner said. "But in life, you're gonna have a lot of adversity, things are gonna come that you don't expect, and I think we've dealt with it well. That's what you're gonna have to do as a citizen in the world, and that's what we're learning to do right now."

The lessons keep piling up. Beyond the normal batch of injuries, including a sprained ankle that Gardner says is finally healing, there's been an unprecedented blast of noise. Hoke is expected to be fired after a fourth season of decline, following the forced resignation of his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon.

University president Mark Schlissel and interim athletic director Jim Hackett will be hunting for new leaders, and Schlissel has lamented the disconnect between college athletics and academics. That's a worthwhile debate, but Michigan football is in no position, from a competitive standpoint, to turn away from the realities of the game.

As Hoke said Monday, "leadership's supposed to be hard," and the Wolverines keep proving it. Wobbly leadership was responsible for turning an apparent concussion suffered by quarterback Shane Morris against Minnesota on Sept. 27 into a national referendum on player safety. Going back to December 2013, several players have been arrested, including former star offensive lineman Taylor Lewan (assault), offensive lineman Graham Glasgow (drunken driving) and receiver C'sonte York (assault). Glasgow was suspended one game and York was kicked off the team.

A team in turmoil, lacking leadership and focus? Or a team caught in a seemingly endless whirl of misfortune?

The distinction doesn't really matter now, with changes pending. Hoke hasn't courted sympathy once during the season, and isn't inclined to do so now.

"I don't feel burned, no, that's part of mentoring," Hoke said. "You feel like you failed a little bit. … But there's been so many positives with guys who have come through this program, that learned from hard lessons and paid some dear consequences. Obviously, Frank's gonna deal with significant consequences."

Leaders are forced to make choices and take chances, and live with the results. Hoke took his chance and Clark made his choice, and the devastating failure serves as the symbol of a failed season, and the reality of a flawed system.