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Nick Spar: Hoke has gained the respect Rodriguez never had

Marissa McClain/Daily
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BY NICK SPAR
Daily Sports Editor
Published January 12, 2011

As Brady Hoke was introduced as the Michigan football team’s 19th head coach yesterday, his hands anxiously fidgeted with the 1997 National Championship ring that he earned as the defensive line coach under former head coach Lloyd Carr.

It was natural to be nervous. After all, during his time as coach of San Diego State and Ball State, he had never been grilled like he was about to be grilled by the Michigan media.

The lack of respect from the Michigan fan base couldn't have been doing much to ease his tensions. Less than 24 hours beforehand, he was viewed by many as the fallback option to coaches Les Miles, Jim Harbaugh, and really anyone else involved in Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon’s clandestine national search.

Hoke’s career 47-50 record in the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference wasn’t wowing anyone.

It didn’t wow the Michigan faithful, who knew nothing about the guy besides the shoddy record and the fact that he happened to be a “Michigan Man.” On Tuesday evening, Facebook statuses from Michigan fans everywhere sardonically remarked on the sad state of the program.

Many skeptics thought Brandon methodically turned the Michigan coaching situation into a Michigan coaching debacle.

But after Hoke stepped to the podium and spoke to the media for about 40 minutes, the support he garnered from the Tom Brady's, the Charles Woodson's and the Desmond Howard's was crystal clear.

By yesterday afternoon when the introductory press conference ended, the statuses made the smooth and sudden transition from “Hoke who?” to “In Hoke We Trust.”

That’s because in Act I, he absolutely killed it. With every single answer to every single loaded question at the press conference, he articulated the qualities that command the respect of all his past players.

Rodriguez never earned that respect, regardless of whether he deserved it. And Brandon did everything in his power not to allow the media to perceive Hoke the way they perceived Rich Rod.

Hoke doesn’t need a map to travel Ann Arbor, Brandon claimed. He has spent 25 summer football camps in Ann Arbor, he boasted. Hoke blindly accepted the offer without knowing a dollar amount just like Bo did. And, oh yeah, he can coach a defense.

But Brandon’s concerted effort at winning over the Michigan community by separating Hoke from Rodriguez was just the tip of the iceberg. Hoke accomplished much of that himself by saying all the right things.

Based on personal experience growing up, he understands the importance of a coach in a young man’s life — a perspective that stands in opposition to the accusations that Rodriguez failed to uphold the family values of Michigan.

Hoke elaborated on the significance of the Wolverines’ three major rivalries and the significance of the football program within the University. Many times during the Rich Rod era, we were left wondering if Rodriguez embraced that significance.

Maybe Hoke has never experienced the pressure that accompanies the position — but we now know he’s got perspective. He brushed off questions about the obstacles facing the program.

“I don't know if I look at any of it as challenging … That’s football, and it’s fun to do it and it’s fun to be around those kids,” he said.

Throughout Rodriguez's time in Ann Arbor, "fun" wasn’t a word being tossed around too often.

Hoke recognizes that he needs to coach to his talent, something Rodriguez did not do on offense during his first season or on defense during any of the three seasons. When asked about the offense, he immediately spoke, unprompted, about sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson’s tremendous value.

And Hoke embraces the importance of conference play. He even made it clear that winning Big Ten championships was the goal, because only then could the team vie for a national title. With a 6-18 record in conference, Big Ten play was not exactly Rodriguez's forte.

Granted, you don’t win Big Ten games at an introductory press conference. And maybe the sub-.500 mark is a sign of things to come. Maybe the resurrection of two substandard programs wasn’t preparation enough for this behemoth of a task.

But it’s safe to say the man that can’t address the scarlet and gray team from Ohio by name is a bit different from Rodriguez.

“That man’s walking around with a diamond National Championship ring on his finger, and several, several Big Ten championship rings in his jewelry case,” Brandon said at the press conference. “And those players know it.”

Maybe the way he was fiddling with the ring on his finger was just a nervous tick. But it’s also a subtle reminder that he’s got what Brandon, the fans, the alumni and the players all want.

— Spar can be reached at nickspar@umich.edu