When Brady Hoke took the podium for the first time as Michigan football coach on Jan. 11, he made the team’s initial goal abundantly clear: win the Big Ten Championship.
His sights weren’t set on the national title — not just yet, at least.
“If you don’t win your conference championship, there’s no way in heck you’re winning the National Championship,” he said.
Hoke set the tone early.
When he first addressed the team, it didn’t take long for Hoke to mention the Big Ten title.
“(Right) when he walked in the door,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Taylor Lewan said.
After “This is Michigan, for God’s sakes” and demanding to know who thought head coach at Michigan was no longer an elite position, his five Big Ten rings said everything he missed.
As fall descends on Ann Arbor, this is when that elite job gets tough: Brady Hoke, meet the Big Ten season. Championships are won in November, but late September isn’t a bad time to get started.
The Wolverines have entered the Big Ten portion of the schedule unbeaten in each of the past three seasons. But the conference slate hasn’t been kind.
Michigan was 1-7 in Big Ten games in 2009, 3-5 last season.
Progress, yes. But for the players, it’s been an embarrassment.
“It’s not acceptable by anyone’s standards,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen. “The guys who have played here before us left a legacy of competing for a Big Ten championship, and we haven’t even been close.
“You can see our record against Big Ten opponents, and it hasn’t been anywhere close to where it needs to be. Who cares about being 4-0 in non-conference? Yeah, it’d be great to be 4-0 rather than 0-4, but it doesn’t matter once you start Big Ten.”
Even through spring camp, fall camp and the non-conference schedule, Hoke has repeated the team’s primary goal again and again.
During fall camp, the Michigan Stadium tunnel got a new paint job, featuring former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s famous phrase, “The team, the team, the team.”
Just beside Michigan’s locker room door, a fresh red rose was painted on the wall, set alongside a list of each of the 42 seasons that Michigan has won the conference championship.
Hoke’s given the players all the motivation they need.
The Wolverines haven’t topped the conference since 2004 — the longest drought in Michigan football history since the early 1960s.
“The expectation is to win the Big Ten Championship,” Hoke said. “If we don’t do that, we’ve got to retool it, re-fix it and do whatever we have to do because we’re going to do that for Michigan.”
Hoke was brought to Michigan to do what his predecessor Rich Rodriguez couldn’t do — compete in the conference. Rodriguez’s Wolverines were 6-18 in Big Ten play, finishing no better than seventh in the conference.
Hoke has made it clear that Michigan is his destination job. He wants to retire in Ann Arbor. He’s known that since former coach Gary Moeller hired him as a defensive line coach in February 1995.
But at a place like Michigan, job security comes only after his teams prove they can contend in the Big Ten.
Unbeaten through four games is nothing for Hoke and his players — they have Big Ten on their minds.
“Everyone who is on this team has been 4-0 at one point, and everybody realizes that doesn’t mean anything once you get into the Big Ten schedule,” Van Bergen said. “Coach Hoke says championships are won in November, and our November record’s not very good.
“What we do in the next two months is what’s going to be remembered of our team — forever — and that’s all we have left as seniors.”