Wojo: Hackett hunts for new kind of UM hero

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Jim Hackett said it solemnly, with true gravity. He called Brady Hoke a "hero" who exhibited the right values, and firing him was not an easy decision.

It probably wasn't, from a personal standpoint. But if Michigan's interim athletic director thought that was difficult, you hope he's ready for what's next — one of the most important decisions in Michigan football history.

Speaking with eloquent calm Tuesday, Hackett loosely diagrammed his outline for the next coach, and it sounds like someone with a lot of Hoke's traits who just wins a lot more. That's not easy to find, although it's clear where Hackett must begin his search. It absolutely starts with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who might not be interested according to some in the NFL, or simply has declined to express vocal interest out of respect for Hoke.

Hoke's dismissal was inevitable after Michigan finished 5-7 in his fourth season, but that didn't lessen the program's pain. He's a good man who was loved by his players and perhaps was too loyal — too nice? — to win at the highest level of an increasingly ruthless sport.

This is Michigan's second coaching failure in seven years, and its chief rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State, have rolled ahead. Hackett seems to get it, or at least understand where his predecessor, Dave Brandon, didn't get it. Hackett displayed a cool confidence in his 15-minute news conference without revealing much, and sounded like a guy who plans to be around for a while.

One clue he understands the challenge of shifting times? He happily buried the "Michigan Man" moniker, recognizing it was skewed into an unflattering symbol of arrogance. Even though two prime candidates — Harbaugh and LSU coach Les Miles — would be viewed as Michigan Men, it's ridiculous to limit a search, and Hackett promises he won't.

"I believe the head coach of Michigan football is one of the finest jobs in American sports today," Hackett said. "And we will have great options. The University of Michigan remains one of the top programs in the country. Now, it's true the pendulum has swung into a negative. However, one truth of physics is that when a pendulum is in a negative state, it's always building energy for its eventual move back to a positive arc."

That may sound Michigan Man-nish, but I think it's more a message to his constituents. Hackett pleaded for patience, and he does have time. Most top college coaches are preparing for bowl games, and NFL candidates have a month left in the regular season. Michigan isn't in a bowl so there are no practices, and no wild rush. It wouldn't be a surprise if the process takes several weeks, or until Harbaugh gives some kind of answer.

For a rich program like this, money shouldn't be an issue. Hoke will get a $3 million buyout, and a top experienced coach could cost $5 million to $6 million per season. I also wouldn't rule out a younger coach such as Stanford's David Shaw or former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

"We want to continue the legacy of what's been great from a values standpoint," Hackett said. "This place does not need to cut corners to win. And you've got a lot of pride in the fact that you come here, you know you're signing up to be the best in the world without any kind of shenanigans going on."

Hackett knows his audience, which means he knows he must land a strong, vibrant leader, and can't settle for a relative unknown. He was essentially speaking to new president Mark Schlissel's point about academic integrity and the football culture. But he also can't ignore his huge constituency of fans and alums that agree with the no-shenanigans platform, but desperately want to be competitive again.

Hackett is connected in many ways, as a former Michigan player and as a high-level businessman who ran the office furniture company Steelcase before retiring. It's a big leap from couches to coaches, but Hackett isn't blindly plowing ahead. He said he'll hire a head-hunting firm to help with the search, but has been empowered by Schlissel to make the call. Hackett, 59, is an interim by label only, and obviously has no qualms about hiring a coach before a permanent athletic director is found.

It really is unfortunate it didn't work out with Hoke. This was his dream job, and on that hopeful day four years ago, he declared he would've walked all the way from San Diego to be Michigan's coach. When he went 11-2 his first season, the divisive days seemed over, although talent development issues were lurking.

The regression from 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-6 to 5-7 wasn't acceptable, even with a young team and a quarterback with passing limitations. Devin Gardner, in some ways, represented Hoke's regime — classy and occasionally flashy, with minimal improvement.

Hoke's classic opening line, "This is Michigan, for God's sakes," morphed into something different — "What is Michigan, for God's sakes?" It's a fair question now, a decade since Michigan won a Big Ten title. Hoke became a symbol of what Michigan once was — he was an assistant on the 1997 national championship team — and what it has become.

On the day Hoke was fired, former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year at Arizona. That's more than ironic, it's telling. Good people with good intentions have tried to make this work the past seven years, and failed.

This was a respectful parting, and in praising Hoke, Hackett mentioned the young roster could "pivot next year into being extraordinary." It will take extraordinary means and an unordinary man to make it happen. Hackett is hunting for a new brand of hero, someone who can handle a job that keeps getting bigger and tougher and harder to fill.