ANN ARBOR — In May, 2010, Brady Hoke made a move that was brilliant up until the day he utterly regretted it.
Months before the start of his second — and final — season, as football coach of San Diego State, Hoke agreed to a deal with Michigan to bring his team east to play a 2011 non-conference game against the Wolverines.
Theoretically, Michigan should whip a team from the Mountain West Conference, especially one, that at the time of the contract being signed, hadn’t been to a bowl game in more than a decade. Hoke saw things differently, sensing his Aztecs would be pretty good in 2011. They are — and now Michigan’s first year coach is kicking himself for scheduling the game.
In the ultimate ‘oops’ moment of a coach’s career, Hoke will face his former employer, players, and some of his coaches, Saturday when San Diego State invades the Big House for a contest between two 3-0 teams.
Asked following Saturday’s 31-3 win over Eastern Michigan whether he still is glad he pushed for a game against the Wolverines, Hoke paused, smiled, and replied, “No.”
Hoke did his best Monday to divert the inevitable questions about him coaching against players whom he sat in living rooms recruiting, likely insisting he had no intentions of leaving for another job.
“I don’t know if it gets [emotional],” Hoke said. “Probably more of what’s going to happen is two football teams competing. Their staff will complete like heck. They’re very competitive, and we’re very competitive. They’re great kids, no question, but we have great kids here too.”
Coaching departures rarely go off without feelings getting hurt, and Hoke’s case is no exception. When he accepted the Michigan job in January, San Diego State was on a break from classes, meaning many players were scattered throughout the country. Instead of being able to address his team formally, Hoke’s lone interaction with players was reduced to text messaging.
“You never do it the right way,” he said. “It was a time element and everything. We had a full team meeting when I left Ball State. It’s hard to leave, hard to leave those kids.”
Hoke brought five assistant coaches with him to Michigan, plus strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman. Defensive coordinator Rocky Long replaced Hoke, accepting a promotion as head coach of a team coming off of a nine-win season and a victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. Meanwhile, Hoke was inheriting a team that had been lambasted by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl days earlier.
“This is a much better deal,” Long told reporters at the time. “I’m not talking … about being a head coach or anything. This is a better deal. We’ve got things started here. They’ve got a lot of work to do there.”
Because it resulted in a promotion for him, Long was happy to see Hoke chase his dream job at Michigan. Others associated with the program weren’t so forgiving. Former Aztecs player Kyle Turley, known as somewhat of a loose cannon during an NFL career that lasted from 1998-2007, criticized Hoke in an interview with a San Diego radio station.
“I texted the guy, this is exactly what I said,” Turley said. “‘I understand what you’ve got to do for you and yours but just the same … I hope you lose every damn game. That was a b.s. move, brother, and you know it.’”
SDSU athletic director Jim Sterk’s displeasure over Hoke leaving wasn’t directed at Hoke, but at the man who hired him — Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. According to Sterk, Brandon did not contact him seeking approval to speak with Hoke. Such a practice is not required by administrators but, in some circles, is considered common courtesy.
“It’s not good business,” Sterk said at the time.
Hoke had some words for Brandon too. They went like this: “Let’s buy that one out,” he said, referring to the San Diego State game on Michigan’s schedule.
Unfortunately for Hoke, that wasn’t an option. The contract between the schools was without a buyout clause, although Michigan probably could have tried to broker a deal with SDSU, which will be making $1 million anyway for Saturday’s appearance.
“The game was already scheduled, and you gotta play it,” Hoke said. “It would have been way too hard for both teams to find new opponents. It’s going to be a great game between two schools that have a lot of pride in what they’re doing in the football program.”
In one way, Saturday’s game is a win-win situation for Hoke. If he beats his former team, his current one will finish the non-conference season 4-0. If Michigan loses, well, Hoke will have proven he built an Aztecs program good enough to carry out his plan in 2010.
SMITH TO START: Fresh off of his nine-carry, 118-yard outing Saturday, Vincent Smith has been named the starter at tailback, a position that has proven so far to be what Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges said it wouldn’t — a revolving door. Fitzgerald Toussaint (twice) and Michael Shaw (once) have started so far this season.
OVERRATED: Hoke said he couldn’t care less about Michigan’s No. 22 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll, and senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen called the recognition by voters “a curse.”
Tight end Kevin Koger, a Whitmer graduate, also weighed in, with the quote of the day: “I think we’re vastly overrated. That’s just how it is. We have so much stuff to work on, and we have a lot of time to get it fixed, but for us to be in the top 25 now is kind of ridiculous.”