ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Brady Hoke’s wife, his sweetheart since seventh grade, was chatting with fans in the stands in the moments before the new coach went down Michigan Stadium’s tunnel with players for the first time.
“Here comes the team!” someone shouted on the sideline. “Hoke will be in front!”
Laura Hoke knew better.
“Oh, no he won’t,” she said.
Sure enough, when the Wolverines ran onto the field before their spring game the seniors were leading the way and Hoke was hard to spot in a sea of maize-and-blue clad players.
“That’s how I’ve always done it. It’s not about me and it will never be about me,” Hoke said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s about these kids and especially our seniors, who will always lead this team out of that tunnel.”
Michigan hired a husky coach with a coarse, raspy voice who grew up in Ohio — rooting for the Wolverines — in the hopes that he will restore college football’s winningest program to glory.
Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez after too many setbacks on and off the field led to his ouster after just three seasons. Hoke was an assistant at Michigan for eight seasons — when he went on the field before players to hear the band — and spent the previous eight years turning around San Diego State and Ball State as a head coach.
The 52-year-old Hoke has landed what has always been his dream job at an opportune time.
Rodriguez may not have recruited the perfect players to run Hokes’ smash-mouth schemes, but he left behind record-breaking quarterback Denard Robinson and seemingly enough in the cupboard on both sides of the ball to have success immediately. Starting the season with five straight home games should help, too.
Michigan has everything money can buy when it comes to facilities, from the Big House on Main Street to team headquarters on nearby State Street.
Hoke also has priceless support, which Rodriguez wasn’t afforded, from former players such as Tom Brady and Charles Woodson, his bosses on campus and a worldwide legion of fans.
“There are no excuses,” Hoke said in his office suite that overlooks an indoor practice field that would make some NFL teams envious. “And, there won’t be any excuses.”
The NCAA investigation into Ohio State’s program, which led to Jim Tressel’s resignation and QB Terrelle Pryor’s departure, also figures to give Michigan a boost.
Hoke and his assistants have stockpiled talent in the 2012 recruiting class, which includes highly touted offensive lineman Kyle Kalis, who switched his commitment from the Buckeyes to Michigan in the wake of the memorabilia-for-cash scandal.
Hoke insisted he can’t and won’t worry about Ohio State’s problems, saying he’s got enough of his own in Ann Arbor.
“I say this all the time in recruiting, ‘You can come to Michigan and get a global education, play for winningest program in the history of college football in a town rated as one the best in the country,’” Hoke said. “No one else can say that.”
Hoke had signs posted outside his office and the locker room, reminding his players the days it has been since they beat the Buckeyes — 2,800-plus days and counting — and how much time is left — down to the split second — before playing them.
He also refers to Michigan’s archrival as “Ohio” and can’t remember the last time he said “Ohio State.”
“It’s just easier, not as many syllables,” he said in aw-shucks fashion. “I have the utmost respect for the school and the program.”
Hoke just doesn’t like the Buckeyes.
Never has. Never will.
Woody Hayes recruited Hoke’s father, John, to play at Miami of Ohio before leaving to lead the Buckeyes, but that didn’t make him a fan.
“I loved Woody Hayes and all my buddies were Ohio guys, but when we played football in the backyard I always had to be different,” Hoke said. “I was always the Michigan guy.”
Even when Hoke was on the sideline at San Diego State and Ball State — two schools with red as a primary color — he looked like a heavy Johnny Cash, sporting black and shunning red other than a tiny logo on his chest. Hoke said it was “pretty much” a ground rule with equipment managers to keep red-clad coaching gear away from his wardrobe.
“I’m sure I did wear red at some point, but I couldn’t tell you when,” he said. “Probably a long time ago.”
Hoke was born November 3, 1958, in Kettering, Ohio — 65 miles from Columbus — as the third of four children. His father was a teacher and principal and his mother focused on raising four kids, steering her two sons toward girls they ended up marrying. Hoke’s older brother, Jon, coaches the Chicago Bears defensive backs.
His parents and in-laws — the moms used to bowl together on Tuesdays — still live in the same houses a couple miles.
“Brady is his own guy and he always liked Michigan,” John Hoke said of his son. “He always wanted to coach at Michigan.
“But if he could’ve gotten into the FBI, I think he would’ve stuck with that.”
Hoke graduated in 1982 from Ball State — where his goals were to play football and drink every beer in Muncie, Ind. — with a wife and criminal justice degree.
His first job was a federal probation parole officer.
“I interned and then and they were short one of their agents,” Hoke recalled. “So, they gave me six counties and I had 44 people on the case load.”
After briefly using his degree, Hoke was pulled to pursue his passion.
Hoke started his coaching career at Yorktown (Ind.) High School. He and his wife took pay cuts for him to move to Michigan to be Grand Valley State’s defensive line coach in 1983.
“Laura and I had decent jobs and were making decent money for 23, 24 years old,” he recalled. “I went to Grand Valley State to make $2,000 a year with no benefits.”
He’d probably pay $2,000 if someone could find the photo taken of him and his wife that year, posing on the 50-yard line at Michigan Stadium when they were in the area to watch her sister at a swim meet.
Hoke’s dues-paying path paid off handsomely earlier this year when he was handed a six-year contract that could pay him an average of $3.25 million if he fulfills the deal after accepting the job without finding out how much money he would make.
His arrival has made fans giddy, but one former Michigan star cautioned that it will time for him to truly revive the program as a national power.
“He isn’t a magician,” Kansas City Chiefs receiver Steve Breaston said. “But he’s going to make it happen.”
It would be hard to find somebody who has crossed paths with Hoke and believes anything else.
Hoke was an assistant at Western Michigan — where he worked with his defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison — and had stops in Toledo and Oregon State before becoming Michigan’s defensive line coach in 1995. He was on Lloyd Carr’s staff in 1997 when the Wolverines won the national championship and he left to lead his alma mater in 2003.
Even though Hoke didn’t attend school in Ann Arbor, pulling for the Wolverines as a kid, working at program’s camps as a coach and for Carr has made him regarded as a Michigan Man. At team meetings, Hoke says “championships” and players respond “42”; when he says “years,” they say “132; and if he says “beat,” they say “Ohio.”
Carr, who stayed away from the program in his successor’s three seasons, went to the spring game and plans to attend an upcoming scrimmage and has loved every minute of the Hoke era.
“Everything Brady has done since the day he was hired has been an affirmation of what Michigan football has always tried to represent,” Carr said. “It’s about the essence of team, tradition and the responsibility every coach and every player has to do their best to meet the very high expectations.”
Hoke turned the Cardinals around in his six seasons and the Aztecs in two years, winning coach of the year honors in both conferences. That prepped his resume well enough to get a job that potentially could’ve gone to San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh or LSU’s Les Miles.
Senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk, whose father, Butch, was a star Michigan running back, does not expect Hoke to keep bouncing around.
“Most coaches use college as a stepping stone to go somewhere else,” Woolfolk said. “With coach Hoke, you can tell this is his final stone.”