You have high hopes for Michigan football. Why not? The Wolverines won 11 games last year, and it was coach Brady Hoke’s inaugural season. “Imagine,” you tell yourself, “what Hoke can do with his own recruits and a full year under his belt.”
High hopes. Well. Hoke has them, too. But they are tempered now. You ask about a successful season, he talks about players he can be proud of. You ask how many victories, he talks about character or family.
He speaks more like a father, and that may be because, this weekend, for the first time, Hoke will start a football season without his father watching his performance.
“I think he was ready,” Hoke says of his dad’s recent passing, “but I don’t know if you’re ever ready.”
John Hoke, a football man through and through, was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer just a few months after his son got the Michigan job. Brady brought him from Dayton to Ann Arbor for a second opinion. Both confirmed he might have a year to live.
It was a sweet year, football-wise. John got to see his son in the job of his dreams, see him run out of the tunnel of the Big House, see him beat Ohio State, see him coach in and win the Sugar Bowl.
“A few months ago,” Hoke said, “he was walking down Bourbon Street. He was OK. And a month after they got back, everything just deteriorated.”
Ties with Woody and Bo …
John Hoke, 80, died in March, a few weeks before Michigan’s annual spring game. It has been a tough summer for Brady, dealing with the absence. Now, with the opener this weekend in Arlington, Texas – against national champion Alabama, easily the biggest college football game in the country – he prepares for a different kind of absence, the first game where his father won’t be “coaching me up” after the final gun.
“He was one of the greatest supporters and greatest critics at the same time,” he says. “We’d meet up after the game, share a moment, share a kiss, and then he’d start talking about the game. Usually critical.”
But that’s the way it is between football father and football son. John Hoke played for Woody Hayes at Miami of Ohio. He had Bo Schembechler as a teammate. He raised two football loving sons. (Brady’s brother, Jon, is an assistant coach for the Chicago Bears.) He was present at Brady’s opening news conference in Ann Arbor. He watched games from a sky booth at Michigan Stadium. And if he always had something to say to his son, at least the final Big Ten matchup left him happy.
“I’ll always remember the Ohio State game last year,” Hoke said. “The smile he had after that win. That smile will stay with me forever.”
Just for openers …
But Hoke, 53, knows that the end of one season only sets the guns for the next. He knows, in the minds of the fans, he has precious little room to rise this year and very far to fall. After 11-2, anything short of a Big Ten title and a victory over Michigan State (one of the two losses last year) will be a disappointment.
Hoke says he doesn’t mind. “The expectations should be high. They always will be high.”
I ask about the upside and downside to playing such a big game as an opener.
“I don’t know if there is a downside, I really believe in playing these kind of football games. It’s why you coach at Michigan and why you play at Michigan.
“Every first game, you’re gonna learn a lot about yourself. And you’re gonna make a first impression. We just happen to make our first impression Saturday at 7:10 against the national champions.”
Hoke’s eighth-ranked Wolverines might have an advantage at quarterback with Denard Robinson, the kind of game breaker who can rely on raw talent while everyone else on the field is getting used to things. “It’s awfully important,” Hoke said.
But you ever know. There’s no preseason to college football. No Grapefruit League, no exhibitions. Last year is last year. It’s a whole new season. And a whole new feeling for the son of John Hoke.
“I gotta believe when that ball is kicked off in Dallas, I’m gonna look up and think about him,” Hoke said.
And then, like the son of a football man, it’s game face the rest of the way. High hopes. You have them. And from the skies above him, the coach will have them, too.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His new novel, “The Time Keeper” (Hyperion, $24.99, 224 pages), will be released Tuesday. For a list of book signings, which start Tuesday, see Page 6B. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).