Brady Hoke slowed to express a point that meant a lot to him. After mentioning many others, he had one thank you left to give.
“And one other thank you I should give to the thousands of players that we’ve been able to touch … ”
He cleared his voice, eyes watering, and opened his mouth, but these words wouldn’t come easy.
He pursed his lips and finished, “… as a family. Go Blue.”
This was the man who wouldn’t take Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon’s phone call to accept the Michigan head coaching job until his wife Laura came home from her morning swim at the YMCA, so he could share the moment with her.
This was the man who accepted the job over the phone, on the spot on Tuesday morning, without knowing how much he would be compensated — only coach Bo Schembechler had done something similar, according to Brandon.
In fact, Hoke said he would’ve walked to Ann Arbor if he had to, joking that the Rocky Mountains might’ve been an issue. He did make it to his introductory press conference at the Junge Family Champion’s Center yesterday.
Before Hoke addressed his new team for the first time in the club level of Michigan Stadium, Brandon asked if Hoke had prepared anything for the 15-minute talk.
“I’m talking to the team, I don’t need any notes,” he responded to Brandon, as if it was an odd question.
“(Hoke) walked around and spoke from the heart, it was a wow moment,” Brandon said.
Hoke was candid and funny with the media during his introductory press conference yesterday. He was just being himself — comfortable in his own right.
“This is not a guy you’re ever going to program or polish some image, it’s not what he’s about,” Brandon said. “He’s just Brady Hoke. And he said it, ‘I am who I am.’ He’s a genuine guy and that’s what Michigan football needs right now.”
Coaching the Michigan football team was Hoke’s dream job. Hoke recalled when Schembechler used to give him grief about how his defensive linemen should play with more toughness, when he coached the position from 1995-2002.
Hoke let the Michigan community know early on what to expect.
“The traditions, the legacies, (are) in high regard,” Hoke said. “We understand what Michigan football means and what Michigan football is … The things that we believe in, the foundation, is going to be our character. The character of the guys on the staff. The character of the kids in the program.”
His voice began to rise.
“Because character wins in life and character wins on the football field,” he said. “We’re going to be a program that’s accountable.”
Booming with every statement.
“We’re going to have a foundation of toughness, because I don’t care what position you play, this is a tough man’s game. Doesn’t matter if you’re the holder on the field goal — you have to be mentally tough, you have to be physically tough.”
Hoke preached respect. He wants his players to be held to high standards — that includes respecting tradition.
This was the man who, according to his wife, refused to wear red clothes when he was the coach at Ball State because of his hatred of Ohio State — that was difficult because the Cardinals’ primary colors are red and black.
“It is the most important game on that schedule,” he said, pounding the podium.
And when the prestige of the Michigan job was questioned, he appeared offended.
“This is an elite job and will continue to be an elite job, Hoke said. “This is Michigan for God’s sakes. It’s what this is all about.”
The Wolverines’ 15-22 record under former coach Rich Rodriguez may have the public opinion thinking otherwise, and Hoke will face pressure from a deprived fan base.
He said he always applies pressure on himself to achieve greatness. He wants his players to earn the Big Ten Championship rings he won as a coach of the Wolverines.
This whole job is not about him. As he puts it, he’s working for his players.
“Everyone who is going to touch this program and deal with these kids are going to have a fanatical love for the University of Michigan, or they won’t work in the football office. I can tell you that,” Hoke said.
Former Michigan offensive lineman Jon Jansen, who was in attendance yesterday, remembered Hoke as a coach who cared. Hoke would jab at Jansen about how one of Hoke’s players got the better of Jansen in order to motivate him.
“(Hoke) understands that you have to have a relationship with every player,” Jansen said. “(Where) the rubber meets the road, every guy in that locker room is going to love Brady Hoke, but they’re going to know he’s the boss.”
He may have been raising his voice to the level of yelling to make his point yesterday, but he also poked fun at himself — after he made up a word answering a question — he said he was good at Scrabble.
And the Michigan community seems to be rallying around Hoke — Jansen agreed that the press conference felt like a family reunion, with the football staff included.
“(The last three years) when I saw the guys, it felt like it was still family,” Jansen said. “(But) it was just a different feeling from the staff.”
The connection between the vast base of alumni and the Michigan coaching staff was in question during Rodriguez’s tenure. And several questions still hang over Hoke’s head as he starts his own: Will sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson stay? How much will the defense improve? What about recruiting?
For now, at least, the players were impressed with their new coach’s demeanor. Even through the rocky changes, Hoke is saying all the right things to start.
As Hoke prepared to be interviewed by the Big Ten Network, he saw former Michigan coach Gary Moeller standing off to the side and approached him.
“Are you tough enough for all of this?” Moeller asked through a smile.
After the two exchanged words, Hoke had a message for the fellow Michigan Man. “You’re always welcome (here),” he said.
It’s Hoke’s family now.
He agreed to a six-year deal after Brandon’s coaching search concluded on Tuesday. And though Brandon declined to talk about specific candidates after he visited five cities in six days, in his eyes, Hoke was the right person to bring Michigan back.
Brandon admitted this was the most important decision of his term as Athletic Director.
“Those people out there who love this place, and care about this place and understand this place, they’re going to love this football coach and they’re going to love the way this team plays,” Brandon said. “This is about bringing leadership in here who makes a difference in the lives of young men. And they leave here with a championship ring and an education and they go out and do great things in life — that’s Michigan. Michigan Men do that, they create other Michigan Men.
“The guy you just met is all about that.”