So far this football season I have gone 9-10 in my weekly football prediction column for The Recorder. In the two fantasy football leagues I have a team in I have gone 2-4. Clearly I have some strong opinions about this sport, but am sorely lacking when it comes to successfully converting those opinions into success. Fortunately, there is no blow-back to my mediocrity except some mild bruises to my ego. Such is unfortunately not the case with Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke, the Athletic Director and Head Coach who have overseen the final death and obsolescence of Michigan football as I have known it my entire life.
The Wolverines Have Played Like Shit
Their Wolverines’ 2-2 start has looked worse than the .500 record would indicate. It takes some stats to get a sense of just aw terrible they have looked through 4 games. Michigan has a -10 turnover ratio, couching up the ball 12 times while only forcing 2 turnovers of their own. They have failed to reach the Red Zone (inside opponents 20-yard-line) against Power Conference opponents (i.e. teams from the Big Ten, SEC, PAc-12, Big 12, or ACC). When Defensive Tackle Willie Henry intercepted a Utah pass and rumbled 7 yards for a touchdown he outscored his team’s entire offensive accomplishments in those 2 full games against Power opponents. Against Utah they gave up a punt return TD while fielding only ten players on the coverage team. Almost no other teams even let their opponents field punts anymore because they deploy the statistically more-effective spread formation that Michigan disdains for no good reason.
Michigan is so Dedicated to Winning the “Right” Way that They’re Losing
Even beyond the putrid stats, the past four Michigan teams have been loaded with evidence of bad coaching and a reactionary philosophy. The Head Coach, Brady Hoke insists on using a “pro-style” offense based on under-center running and play-action passes. It’s the “traditional” Michigan way, supposedly. (We’ll just ignore the fact that Michigan only adopted that offense in the mid-80s). It can be an effective system for physically dominating teams, but it requires players to overpower opponents every down. By contrast, the spread offense that has been adopted by ~80% of other college teams is based on (you guessed it) spreading teams out and making them tackle in space rather than just trying to run them over. As someone who has played football on a very low level, I can tell you tackling in space is much harder than not falling down.
This dedication to old-school offense uses a “statue-esque” Quarterback who stands rarely leaves the pocket and throws like an artillery piece ala former Wolverine Tom Brady. Michigan has been so dedicated to this idea that they have shunned the best quality of their last two starting Quarterbacks: they ability to run. Devin Gardner was a 5-star spread QB in high school and Denard Robinson is the NCAA-record holder for rushing yards by a QB. Yet Hoke’s adherance to “Man-ball” is so maniacal that that those incredible athletes saw their talent get negated play after play.
Michigan even disdains simple strategic gambits like “not being mind-meltingly slow.” This Wolverines offense is the 2nd-slowest offense in all of Division 1. They burn 30 seconds between each play assembling and then breaking the huddle, often getting lined up for the snap with only seconds left on the play clock. Most other teams eschew the huddle in favor of getting right to the line, which forces defense to with play faster and with fewer at-the-line adjustments. It’s like the Air Force ignoring their F-17 fighter jets because of a the philosophical righteousness of the dirigible.
Was that a bunch of gobbledegook? My apologies. I am a football nerd, and when my sensibilities are offended I spit and blubber and point at all the obvious failings. To put it bluntly, the hired leadership of the Michigan football program has failed utterly, and that failure has been noticed by fans and rivals alike. Huge swathes of Michigan Stadium sit empty on game day despite ticket prices being at an all-time low on the secondary market. Despite that, season ticket prices and seat-renewal “donations” are at all-time high even though the wait list has evaporated in the past decade. These days, though, even the most passive Walmart Wolverines wouldn’t want to spend money watching such a wretched product. Rival teams like Ohio State and Michigan State are poaching recruits by pointing to the team’s accumulating losses and fan apathy. Loss of recruits leads to less talent on the field leads to more losses leads to…well, you get it. This is a classic example of a vicious cycle reaching its apocalyptic end.
Michigan Needs to Stop Looking to the Past
It’s a cycle that Michigan has been stuck in for nearly a decade. The architect of the modern Michigan program, Bo Schembecchler, died on November 17, 2006. Bo’s first Michigan team upset #1 Ohio State, coached by his old mentor Woody Hayes, and played in the Rose Bowl. The subsequent “10-Year-War” between Bo and Woody remains a high-point in both programs’ history and set the template that Michigan is still trying to emulate four decade later. Bo’s Michigan was based on hard-nosed defense, conservative offense, and moral rectitude. The man himself was irascible and impatient, but genuinely loved his players and school. (Think any role Gene Hackman played.) He coached for 20 years and his opinion or style had dictated every football decision made in Ann Arbor since 1969.
The day after Bo died, the #2 Wolverines played #1 Ohio State in the most-hyped match in The Game’s storied history. The Wolverines lost and haven’t looked back since. The following season saw the disastrous Appalachian State loss and Lloyd Carr’s retirement. The year after that, Rich Rodriguez became the coach and was run out of town just three years later. He lost more games than fans in were used to, sure, but the program’s culture seemed to virulently reject a hillbilly outsider with a twang in his voice. (John U. Bacon’s Three and Out is an incredible insight into the Rodriguez era. Ask Bean if you can borrow it!)
Michigan is Failing Because They Hired a Bad Head Coach for the Wrong Reasons
So in 2011, Dave Brandon hired Brady Hoke as Head Coach. Hoke had a career 47-50 record and no conference championships to his name. How did a coach with a career losing record take over college football’s winningest program? But he is a “Michigan Man,” which was Brandon’s lead consideration while hiring. To be anything less would be downright treason. The football coach at Michigan had to think like Bo and coach like Bo and bluster like Bo. Never mind the fact that the university and fanbase only accepted all of those Bo qualities because he won like crazy. That element of logic was lost in the rush to slavishly follow the dictates of a man whose style of football was obsolete even before he retired.
So Hoke postured and bellowed and taunted and even won a lot (in his first season). He molded his teams to look like an idealized version of the Michigan teams he was an assistant on in the 90’s. But even at the time those teams played a conservative brand of football. Its success was as much based on mystique and luck as strategy or tactics. By the 2010s the mystique and luck were gone and that football philosophy has directly resulted in all the failures I listed earlier. Hoke’s hiring has proven to be an unqualified disaster these past few years and seems to have finally killed the fan’s interest in the program that Bo built.
Long Live the New King
Barring a miracle run to the Big Ten title (HA!), Hoke should already be polishing his resume. Brandon’s inability to not have a notoroious PR fuck-up every 2 months should see him shit-canned as well. Honestly, he should be fired just for making the Hoke hire. But that’s for the best. Bo’s revolution in ’69 swept out the skeleton of a program that Fielding H. Yost had brought to prominence at the turn of the 20th Century. Michigan won like crazy for a long time under Yost and was a continued success under his hand-picked successors until the magic ran out around 1955 and Michigan stumbled through the woods for a decade until the hiring of Bo in ’69 renewed the Mandate of Heaven. It’s long past time for another renewal. In order to do that, the current dynasty must be swept aside. With the disastrous start to this season, it has to happen this year or much worse misery beckons.
The King is dead. Long live the new King. Whomever he may be.