The stadium was empty and the gate was unlocked. Brady Hoke and his wife, Laura, slipped inside and walked down the tunnel. He had never seen the inside of the Big House before. Didn’t matter. When he put his feet on that field, he turned and said, “This is where I want to be.”
That was 28 years ago.
Saturday, Hoke will come through that tunnel again – only this time he’ll be running, he’ll have 100 or so players alongside him, the stands will be packed, and it’s no drive-by. He plans on staying.
Welcome to the perfect match of man and mold. Michigan fans desperately wanted a coach like Hoke, and Hoke desperately wanted Michigan. The three-year Rich Rodriguez experiment was like an avowed meat-lover going vegan because everyone says he should, until he finally spits out the bean curd and says, “Gimme a steak!”
“You a vegan by any chance?” I ask Hoke.
“No, sir!” he barks.
Hoke is a steak. He’s a porterhouse. A former linebacker, he is beefy in stature, beefy in voice (he does sound like that Chris Farley motivational speaker guy) and beefy in Michigan tradition. He loved Bo Schembechler, who used to call him “Hokey.” He worked for Gary Moeller, who made him an assistant. He rose up under Lloyd Carr, who thought so much of Hoke he appointed him associate head coach.
The pedigree is there. The history is there. Hoke makes Wolverines fans feel like lost kids who have found their way home.
Now all he has to do is win.
Putting in the hours (and then some)
Of course, winning is a lot harder than bleeding maize-and-blue, or a few million fans would be coaching this team. The fact is, it’s darn hard to stay on top in college football. The only thing I can assure you is that if Hoke fails, it won’t be for lack of sweat.
This is a guy who was in perpetual motion as a kid, a guy who wrestled his friends, pummeled a speed bag in his garage, banged loudly on a used drum set and even learned the solo to “In-A-Godda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly, something only the seriously hyperactive would try.
When Schembechler was down the hall, the two men would jaw over players’ blocking stances, how they came off the ball. (What’d you think, they were gonna talk art history?) If Hoke, 52, didn’t go into football, he wanted to be a Secret Service agent “and protect the president.” He even worked as a federal probation officer briefly, while still coaching high school football.
So energy will not be an issue. Neither will loyalty. This is a guy who left U-M only for his alma mater, Ball State. (“Otherwise, I’d have stayed here,” he admits.)
This is also a guy who met his future wife when he was in seventh grade. “Disney World. Both of our families were on vacation. I still remember what she had on. A white shirt with purple polka dots.”
Did you have a crush?
“Oh, yeah, no question.”
An afternoon to relish this weekend
Now, normally, you give a new coach the benefit of the doubt – even if you have doubts. In Hoke’s case, you want to caution the other way. Don’t expect miracles. Feelings are not victories. Players still win games.
There is such a rush to embrace this loyal, likable bear of a guy, we need to remember he isn’t blocking, he isn’t throwing or catching the ball. The last time Hoke was in the end zone, he admits, “was probably in sixth grade.”
On the other hand, how can you not root for a guy who was in the banquet audience the last night Bo and Woody Hayes were together, whose father was a cook in the Coast Guard, whose favorite dish is “sausage and gravy” and who admits, sometime Friday, he’ll get nervous. And Saturday morning, around 6, he’ll take a walk to relax his mind.
“So if we see a guy wandering around Ann Arbor at sunrise…” I say.
“That’ll be me,” he says, laughing.
Twenty-eight years between his first Big House tunnel and his next one. Hoke recalls that 1983 moment as “coming out of the dark and into the light.”
Funny, that’s how fans see him, too. Can he live up to such lofty expectations?
He’s a steak man. I like his chances.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).