NEW ORLEANS — Exactly 366 days ago, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon went on a mission.
His football team needed a new coach. At the time, Brandon didn’t know who the right man for the job was. But he did know what he was looking for.
“I really felt like the program needed a change, needed to move in a different direction,” Brandon said Tuesday night. “I was talking about defense, special teams, consistency and improvement as the season wore on.”
After a week-long search to find the Wolverines’ new headman last January, Brandon felt that he had his guy: Brady Hoke.
Hoke didn’t have the name recognition of LSU’s Les Miles or Stanford’s then-coach Jim Harbaugh, two top candidates that many Michigan fans wanted to lead their team. He wasn’t the big-name guy. And he certainly had his doubters.
On Tuesday, with the Wolverines’ 23-20 overtime victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Hoke silenced any doubters that remained.
And he made it official: Dave Brandon found the right man for the job.
Brandon said he wanted defensive improvement. Hoke’s defense didn’t just improve. It looked like a completely different squad than last year’s, which featured nearly all of the same players.
Last season, the Wolverines finished the season ranked dead-last in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up an average of 451 yards per game. Under Hoke and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Michigan gave up just 318 yards-per-game, fifth in the Big Ten.
For the first time in three years, the Wolverines were a defense-first team again, exactly what Brandon was looking for.
And how about special teams?
Last year, the Michigan kickers — Brendan Gibbons and Seth Broekhuizen — finished the season a dismal 4-for-14, good for last in the nation. Gibbons went 1-for-5, while the walk-on Broekhuizen finished 3-for-9.
This year, Hoke put his faith in Gibbons after Gibbons earned the starting role in camp. And like the defense, he looked like an entirely different player.
Gibbons finished the regular season 10-for-14, then added three more in the Sugar Bowl. Oh yeah, he also hit the game winner from 37 yards out in overtime on Tuesday.
Sure, it’s tough to say that a coach can really have that big of an impact on a kicker. At some point, it’s up to the kicker to get the job done. But Gibbons will be the first to say Hoke and his staff made a difference.
If Gibbons missed a kick, Hoke always let him know he had his back.
“He just talks to me one-on-one,” Gibbons said last week. “He says, ‘Don’t worry. Go out there and make the next one. You’re a good kicker, we all have confidence in you.’
“It’s helpful. When you have confidence and people backing you up, you can’t fail, you know?”
With Hoke backing him, Gibbons radically improved his consistency. And under Hoke’s watch, Michigan became one of the most consistent teams in the nation — another one of Brandon’s must-haves.
The Wolverines finished the season 11-2 — just the fifth team in program history to reach the 11-win mark. It wasn’t always pretty, but they got the job done.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges hit the nail on the head after the game Tuesday.
“At the end of the day, the kids played like they played all year,” Borges said. “They wanted to win. And that’s why we’ve got 11 wins now. We’ve had some beautiful wins, we’ve had some ugly wins. You’ve gotta win some games like that. They’re not all masterpieces.”
And neither was this season. But Michigan improved throughout, ending on a four-game winning streak, including a win against Ohio State for the first time in seven years.
With that, Brandon’s checklist was complete.
“I think if you go back and study what transpired this season, you can check the box in every one of those categories,” Brandon said. “That’s why I’m so proud of Brady Hoke and Al Borges and Greg Mattison and all of their staff.”
The journey started when Hoke was hired on Jan. 11, 2011. It certainly didn’t end on Tuesday, but it took one giant step.
And with Hoke at the helm, Brandon likes where his program is headed.
“I feel very comfortable telling you that Michigan football is where it needs to be and where we want it to be,” Brandon said.
Who could blame him?