LIVONIA, Mich. — On the night the Michigan football team’s seniors gathered to celebrate the program being “back,” Desmond Howard compared former coach Rich Rodriguez to Cherry Coke.
“It’s a brand … it’s like Coke,” said the Heisman winner Howard, who served as the emcee for the 91st annual Michigan football bust at Laurel Manor in Livonia, Mich. “So some people in the boardroom at Coke make some crazy decisions and decide to go with like Cherry Coke.
“They said, ‘OK, we’re going to put cherry in Coke.’ But then the consumers didn’t like it too much. So then they had to go back and bring in some brilliant minds to get this thing back on track.”
Hiring Rodriguez, who may not have understood the Michigan tradition and had non-traditional schemes for the Big Ten, was comparable to a high-profile corporation like Coke taking a chance on a new drink.
“That’s like Domino’s Pizza saying we’re going to put pineapple on pizza,” Howard continued. “And, you know, consumers aren’t buying it.”
Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon, the former Domino’s CEO, who was sitting a few seats away, laughed and shook his head.
“So what Michigan did is we brought in some brilliant minds, like David Brandon, to get this thing back on track,” Howard said.
More than 1,600 people gathered Monday night to honor the senior class and relive the 12th-ranked Wolverines’ 10-2 season.
Everyone had a lot to celebrate.
“Thank God for defense,” exclaimed Howard, soon after he took the podium.
“If I could apply for a sixth year, I would,” said fifth-year senior Junior Hemingway.
Fifth-year senior Troy Woolfolk even joked he was grateful senior wide receiver Martavious Odoms broke his ankle before the 2010 season, so Woolfolk could be a part of this year’s team.
“Always (I’ll remember the seniors) — no question,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke told reporters after the bust. “The relationships are what you try and get out of this.
“And to see these guys succeed … and to watch them grow together, that was the neat part.”
By now, the seniors’ story was told: the fifth-year guys had three head coaches and three different sets of position coaches. The fourth-year seniors had never won a bowl game.
Rodriguez’s tumultuous tenure seemingly came crashing down at this event last year. An emotional Rodriguez began singing Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” as an attempt to show how he felt about his players that had just endured another embarrassing season.
A year later, the seniors reflected on their ascension with their own emotional speeches.
“There was a time when we got booed by you guys and that hurt,” fifth-year senior center David Molk told the crowd. “The reality is this is Michigan, and we come back.”
“Coach Hoke, like you said on day one, ‘For God’s sakes, this is Michigan,’ ” said senior defensive tackle Mike Martin.
Howard used his opening remarks to heap praise onto Hoke’s turnaround effort this season. In particular, Howard loved Hoke’s hiring of defensive coordinator of Greg Mattison. He said Brandon made the hire of the year in nabbing Hoke, then Hoke made the next-best hire by signing Mattison. The phrase “Michigan Man” was thrown around several times.
Howard said he watched Hoke’s introductory press conference with his wife and told her: “It was hard. It was long. But Dave got the right guy.”
As he has done all season, Hoke made sure the spotlight was on his seniors, as he laughed and joked with them all night.
“Doing this at a couple other schools where you had fifth-year seniors, at San Diego State, I was their third head coach,” Hoke said. “That’s part of it, and you understand it.
“There are some guys that this place means an awful lot too — in fact, all of them. They appreciate what Michigan means and what it has done for them.”
AWARD WINNERS: Junior quarterback Denard Robinson was selected by his teammates to receive the Bo Schembechler Most Valuable Player award for the second consecutive season.
“I think he means an awful lot, but it was probably as close a vote as I’ve ever seen,” Hoke said. “And what you tell is how they feel about each other and what this team has been all year long.”
Molk was named the team’s Hugh H. Rader Jr. Memorial Award winner as the team’s top offensive lineman, adding to his already impressive trophy case. Defensive linemen Martin, and fifth-year seniors Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger, took home hardware too.
For the third-consecutive season, Martin won the Richard Katcher Award for Michigan’s top defensive lineman. Heininger, an Ann Arbor native, was given the Dr. Arthur D. Robinson scholarship award for the team’s top senior scholar.
And Van Bergen shared the Robert P. Ufer bequest with senior tight end Kevin Koger. The honor is bestowed upon the seniors who demonstrate the most enthusiasm and love for Michigan.
Redshirt junior Kenny Demens, whose 86 tackles led the team, was given the Roger Zatkoff Award as the Wolverines’ top linebacker.
EVANS WON’T BE BACK: Fifth-year senior Marell Evans is not expected to play for Michigan next season.
“Probably not,” Hoke said after the bust.
The linebacker’s status had been murky all season after he transferred from Hampton. In his first year back to Michigan, having left Ann Arbor after Rodriguez’s first season, Evans didn’t appear in a game all season. Instead, the coaches raved about his play on the scout team.
When Evans’s name was announced Monday, he refused to give a speech, but Hoke chose to speak to his character.
“Because of a twist of fate with different transfers and things that happened, Marell was not able to play or be eligible,” Hoke told the crowd. “But what he did do everyday on the scout team was, he did a tremendous job of representing our opponent and our opponent’s defense.
“I can’t thank Marell enough for that because there would’ve been a lot of guys that said, ‘That’s it.’ But this team means an awful lot to him, and I’m very glad that he made a decision to stick with it.”