He’s the man who handpicked the newly minted Big Ten Coach of the Year, directing a Michigan football program out of the mediocrity experienced during the Rich Rodriguez era into a new age of Michigan football.
He played for Bo Schembechler and longed to return the Wolverines to success tasted under one of Michigan’s greatest.
He also chest bumps the starting defensive end after marquee wins.
Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon sat down with Michigan Daily football beat writer Tim Rohan on Wednesday to discuss the state of the program and how Hoke saved the day, among other topics.
The Michigan Daily: What was your impression of the win over Ohio State last weekend? How big of a win was it for the program, ending the Buckeyes’ seven-game win streak?
Dave Brandon: At Brady’s first press conference, he talked about Ohio. It’s a focal point. When I played here, it was a focal point. It’s always been a game, really, that’s defined a season. And Bo (Schembechler) always said you can’t have a successful season at Michigan if you don’t beat Ohio.
It was a big game and had big implications in terms of our bowl picture. It was important for our fans. It had been a lot of years since we walked off that field feeling good. So I was really pleased for our kids and our coaches and our fans.
TMD: Back in January, when you hired Hoke, even in your wildest of dreams did you imagine you’d have a chance at a BCS bowl this season?
Brandon: I don’t think that way. There’s so many things in this game that could change fortunes. The bounce of a ball. Injuries. We had certain positions going into the season, that had we lost a player or two, we would have really been hurting.
We were just really fortunate it didn’t happen. I just believed in our coach and he believed in our team. Brady’s expectation going into the season was that we were going to compete for the championship. You go back, people talked about rebuilding years, foundational years and start-up years and he didn’t want any part of that. He basically said you don’t rebuild at Michigan. This is Michigan. We compete for championships. And he’s a very believeable guy.
So I had high expectations. But hey, listen, I’m like anybody else. I’m thrilled we’re 10-2 and love the position we’re in. It’ll be a great reward for this team to go off and play in a great bowl game.
TMD: When did you buy into Hoke? In the interview process, was there a moment you said, ‘This is the guy I want?’
Brandon: Yeah, really, there was. I intended to spend a couple of hours with him. I had never met him. I intended to do a two-hour block. At some point I looked down at my watch and went, ‘My God, its been three-and-a-half hours.’
And it was really as a result of the fact that it seemed every issue and every area that I wanted to delve into, I was just so impressed with his responses, his fit, the way he thought, the way he approached communicating, his philosophy towards kids and football and Michigan.
It just, at the end — and I think I spent about five hours with the guy — at the end of it, I had a matrix, kind of a scoring system for all of the interviews that I did. I got to the end of the interview, shook hands and he left. And I sat there and I added up all my points, to put in the far right column, kind of the total point rating that he got on the interview. And I added them all up and I had to do it twice because I thought I had miscalculated. The number was so high, I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ And I went back and I added them again. It was right.
At that moment, I just knew this was a very special guy who was very specially — he was very uniquely positioned to come here and do what needed to done.”
TMD: What ‘needed to be done’ about the football program?
Brandon: What I liked about Brady was he really understood the culture of Michigan football and the tradition of Michigan football. There’s an expectation here that is about our coaches, about our players.
As importantly, there is an expectation as to what the tradition of Michigan football is all about. And Brady understood that better than most. I loved the emphasis on defense.
Let’s face it. We’ve gone through a three-year period of time where we were trying to outscore everybody. We were playing horrible defense. And for Michigan to be 109th out of 120 FBS schools in defense is just inconceivable. But, that’s where we were. And Brady’s background as a defensive coach and his commitment to being a strong defensive coach and team was just what the doctor ordered.
And Brady had a track record for turning around programs. You know, I took a lot of flak because people kept looking at his career win-loss record. What they failed to look at was, he was invariably brought in as the guy to take over a really broken program and turn it around. Typically, that’s not going to happen in one season. What he did at Ball State, and what he did at San Diego State, the more I dug into it, the more impressed I was.
Last but not least, I talked to a lot of guys who played for him, not just here but Ball State and San Diego State. I talked to coaches who had coached with him. And I talked to coaches who had coached against him. And the themes that came from those conversations were always the same: about tough, disciplined, players loved to play for him. Fair. Respectful. Words that you just really want to hear as it relates to the head-coaching job at Michigan.
TMD: Was Michigan a broken program at that point?
Brandon: Yeah. When you’re not competitive in the Big Ten. When you play one bowl game in three years and get beat up badly. When you’re in a position where your defense is ranked amongst the worst in the country, and when your win-loss record overall, as well as in the conference, is the worst three-year period in the 131-year history of your football program, I don’t know how you would draw any kind of a different conclusion.
TMD: Taking into consideration what Hoke brings to the table, defense, toughness, an institutional knowledge, and compare it to what Rich Rodriguez lacked, was Hoke the type of person you needed to fix the program?
Brandon: Yeah, I needed a guy like Brady. And I couldn’t be for certain — I still don’t know today if he’s the only guy out there who could’ve. He’s the guy I found. And he was certainly better positioned that everybody else that I talked to and interviewed.
And you know, a lot is made of this ‘Michigan Man’ thing and I’m fascinated with it because the people that ascribe to this notion that you’ve got to have a ‘Michigan Man’ coach Michigan, they don’t really understand much about the history of Michigan. Because Bo didn’t graduate from here, never attended class here, never coached here, and came in and became a great legendary Michigan Man.
He handed the baton to Gary Moeller, who was the captain and center of the Ohio State football team and had never taken a class here, never coached here. Then he handed the baton to Lloyd Carr, who graduated from Northern Michigan, had never coached here, never taken a class here.
So, my criterion was not to go out and find somebody who had some past connection to Michigan. Because that was never necessarily the requirement. But what I needed was somebody who was a great fit for this job and what this job entails.
And that’s how I ended up with Brady.
TMD: You were close with Bo, and played under him. Some people, fair or not, are already comparing Hoke and Schembechler. How would you compare the two?
Brandon: Their styles are very different. The game has changed. You’re talking about kids and college football 25 years ago, 30 years ago, which is very different from what it is today.
But Brady’s — they’re both intense and they both preach toughness. And they both have very high expectations. Those are commonalities between the two of them.
You know, at our game last Saturday, our punter fumbled a snap and it cost us a punt and gave field position to Ohio. The Bo Schembechler I remember would have greeted that punter about five yards from the sidelines and just ranted and raved because that was just Bo’s way of making a point.
Brady’s way of making a point, he went and put his arm around our punter and basically said, ‘Hey, I know you didn’t mean to do that. Don’t worry about it. You’re going to have to go back out there and next time you’ll get it right.’
And so, Brady has a way of connecting with young people at a different level and a different way than Bo did. And that doesn’t make one of them right or wrong, it just makes them different.
TMD: The 10-2 record, the big-time bowl game on the way, is Michigan football back?
Brandon: Yes. We’ve got one of the best defense in the country against the score. We’ve got a highly rated recruiting classes, some would argue a top-three recruiting class in the country coming in. We went 10-2 and are at least in the running for a BCS bowl bid. We’re ranked in the top-15 in the nation. We competed for the Big Ten championship. We beat Ohio. We beat Notre Dame. Sounds like Michigan football to me.
But one of the challenges for coaches is to maintain excellence. We had a great year. Our program’s back where we want it to be in terms of the national picture. But we didn’t achieve all of our goals. We didn’t win the Big Ten championship. We’re not playing this Saturday in Indianapolis. We don’t have a shot at going to the Rose Bowl. And we didn’t beat Michigan State. So believe me, as good as the year was, and as proud as I am of the coaches and the team, we still have a lot of goals out there that we have yet to achieve. I know that.
And the guy that knows it more than I do is Brady. You talk to Brady, he doesn’t want to talk about the 10 that we won, he wants to talk about the two that we should’ve won.
Next year’s schedule is challenging opening up against Alabama. And next year we’ll be on the road at Nebraska and on the road at Ohio. There’s a lot out there to prove and a lot out there to do. I don’t think any of us are going into a long-term victory dance here. But what a great first year.
TMD: When Hoke had his ‘This is Michigan for God sakes’ moment at his introductory press conference in January, what was going through your mind? Did you know then it’d become a lasting image of him?
Brandon: (laughs) What I was thinking was Brady and Laura and Kelly spent the night at our home, because we brought them in late, early morning really. And just got a few hours sleep. Then that whole day was to meet with the team. So we’re having a little breakfast after three hours of sleep and I said, ‘You know Brady we’ve got this press conference, is there anything we can help prepare for you?’
And he goes, ‘No, I made a few notes on the plane.’ He said, ‘I’m fine.’
So then I get up and I had prepared some notes in what I wanted to say in introducing him. And I introduced him and we shook hands and posed for the picture. He immediately went to the podium and he put a wrinkled page from a legal pad on the podium that had three little bullets on it, like three little five-word bullets.
And I looked at that and I immediately went, ‘Oh my God’ (laughs) ‘He’s going to kind of wing this.’ And so I stood there as interested and curious as everybody, like ‘How’s this going go?’ And what I learned at that moment and what I think we’re all going to learn about Brady is what you see is what you get. There’s no attempt on his part to be a PR guy, or the toastmaster general, or worry about speech and delivery.
He’s just going to tell you what he thinks and speak from the heart. That’s what he did at that press conference and people loved it. Love it more than if he had carefully prepared remarks that he read to the camera. He was just Brady being Brady. And that whole remark, ‘This is Michigan for God sake.’ That’s how he felt. That’s why it was so charming and so believable. Because it was so real.
TMD: Watching Hoke work his first season, how effective do you think his coaching and the whole staff’s coaching has been?
Anybody who knows football will look at our team and say they’re playing at a higher intensity. They’re playing better as a team. Concept-wise, I think they’ve embraced both on offense and on defense, what the coordinators are looking for them to do. Our offense puts a ton of pressure on defenses and our defense is creative and in some cases we’re using scheme to overcome some weaknesses we may have at some positions. And we’ve gotten away with it. We’ve done well.
I think our team has embraced the game plans and the schemes and the coaching that they’ve received. They’re tougher and they’re playing together better.
I’ve been in the locker rooms after the games when we win, and I’ve been there when we lose, there’s no finger-pointing and blaming in this team. It’s Team 132. And that’s how they think of themselves and I give Brady a lot of credit.
And what I admire most is, there was an energy instilled in the program this year. And a confidence and a belief that propelled us to achieve what we did. And I give a lot of credit to our coaches. Brady’s the head coach, but Al Borges and Greg Mattison, I give credit to all of them. Because that’s a team effort.
TMD: What are your expectations going forward? Hoke always says it’s the Big Ten Championship or bust.
Brandon: You come to Michigan to compete in the Big Ten Championship and play in the Rose Bowl. That’s why you come here. And that’s what it’s all about.
And you know what, if we run the table as we did in 1997 and we go off to the Rose Bowl and play a great team. And we figure out a way to be national champs — great. That’d be terrific.
But what I want from these young people is I want them to leave with that Big Ten Championship ring on that finger. I want them to have that experience now of playing in that big game in Indianapolis. And then going out to Pasadena and playing in the greatest bowl game of them all. And that experience and that opportunity to me is what it’s all about.
If we’re doing that on a regular basis, we have one hell of a football program.
TMD: The seniors that stayed, I know you met with a few of them — Ryan Van Bergen included — before you hired Hoke. What’s your relationship with this senior class and what do you think of what they accomplished?
Brandon: I am incredibly proud of them. I was there to announce when we were letting the previous coach go. I was there to announce who the new coach was going to be. I had communication with many of them in between, because there was a short period of time where there wasn’t a coach.
We were just kind of holding things together until we got a new coach in Ann Arbor.
That’s tough. Particularly for — there were some guys in that senior class who came here for one coach, ended up playing for another coach and then got told they were going to get a third coach. I understand how difficult that is emotionally and how challenging that is and I just admire these guys because they kept an open mind.
They let Brady come in and gave him a chance to prove to them what he was about and who he was. To see them in that locker room now, and enjoying that success together in the way that they interact. And the way the players are talking about the coaches and the way the coaches are talking about the players. It just feels really good.
TMD: We’ve seen your chest bump with Ryan Van Bergen. Who started it? How often do you do it? What’s the story behind the chest bump?
Brandon: Well, let me tell you the story of the chest bump. The night game, at the end, when it looked like all was lost and we scored that touchdown. The sidelines just erupted it was just incredible. And Ryan, who is a very emotional guy, what happened was I was jumping around and kind of shaking hands and hugging people and I turn around just in time to see him coming at me.
So it was a sneak-attack chest bump.
So he came at me to chest bump me and I don’t even know if I got off the ground because he kind of startled me. I’m there in my coat and tie. Then I had this big hulk of a football player jumping at me.
So that week, somebody had noticed this and asked him about it. He basically said my chest bumping was kind of rusty and unimpressive. So the next time I saw him, I said, ‘Hey, I saw what you said, and the next time, I want you to know I’m practicing and I’ll be ready.’
So there have been two or three magic moments this season, including at the end of the Ohio game, where our eyes met and pretty soon we went, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’ And I just want you to know, I’m just worried I’m going to hurt him.
I’ve got to be careful I don’t hurt him. (laughs)