It wasn't supposed to be like this.
After the 2010 season, even the most hardcore Maize & Blue faithful were ready to show Rich Rod, and his dismal record of 15-22 the door after his 3rd year in Ann Arbor. Jim Harbaugh was the fan favorite to replace Rodriguez, but Jim obviously had other plans.
Enter: Brady Hoke.
After a comprehensive "national coaching search" by athletic director Dave Brandon, Brady Hoke was named the 19th head coach at the University of Michigan on January 11th, 2011. Fan reaction was mixed, but generally optimistic. Hoke had good coaching experience, including as an assistant at Michigan. His overall head coaching record was a slight red flag, but most were willing to look past that because of the struggling programs he had inherited at Ball State and San Diego State.
Overall, most Michigan fans were just happy to have the Rich Rod era behind them and something to look forward to…something to be excited about again. And Hoke didn't disappoint.
The 2011 season began much like the previous two years under Rodriguez. Wins against all non-conference foes including Notre Dame. A win against the first two Big Ten teams on the schedule. But then Michigan stumbled against in-state rival Michigan State. Another league win and then another tough road loss at Iowa.
This script was starting to sound familiar.
But that's when Hoke separated himself from the previous years of struggle. A confident win on the road at Illinois and then a return home for two highly anticipated matchups against Nebraska and Ohio State that both resulted in major wins for the first year coach. Sitting at 11-2 after a win against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Michigan fans were feeling good after a successful but albeit still not a championship season for Michigan. But they were trending in the right direction and that was enough for year 1 under Brady Hoke.
Denard Robinson and David Molk following a 40-34 win over Ohio State.The Rich Rod era was a distant memory and Michigan had tasted real success for the first time since 2006. For Brady, who was also making great gains in recruiting top talent to Ann Arbor, you couldn't have asked for a much better start to the Hoke era at Michigan.
There was a consensus that Michigan was now "back" after the impressive first year under the new head coach. But those notions were about to be dispelled in a big way.
If you want to know where you stand as a program nationally...schedule Alabama as your opener. That will give you a harsh look in the mirror. In front of 90,000+ fans inside Cowboys Stadium and a national primetime audience on TV, Michigan took a 41-14 whipping by Nick Saban and his defending national championship squad. Before Michigan could even blink, the score was 21-0…in the first quarter. They never recovered.
Three weeks later, Michigan was sent packing by the Irish after an embarrassing turnover filled 13-6 loss in which Denard Robinson was responsible for 5 of the 6 Michigan turnovers that cost the Wolverines the game. The Irish would eventually finish the season undefeated only to also lose to Alabama 42-14 in the national title game.
In late October at Nebraska that same year, Michigan sat at 5-2 after a narrow win against Michigan State the week prior. Denard Robinson went down in the first half with a nerve injury in his arm. Untested backup QB Russell Bellomy stepped in, but with no success as Michigan stumbled yet again in a marquee primetime matchup.
Another loss at Ohio State one month later and disturbing trend was beginning to emerge. Michigan couldn't win big games on the road.
And as we sit here today almost a year and a half later, Brady Hoke and Michigan have yet to win a major regular season game away from the Big House.
The site of Michigan's 4 overtime loss to Penn State, their 1st of 6 losses last year.East Lansing, South Bend, Columbus, Lincoln, Iowa City, State College. All of these venues have been like kryptonite for the Wolverines. And in an era when there is little to no room for error for big time college football coaches, this is the primary point of contention for Brady Hoke's critics.
His combined record of 4-5 against Michigan's primary rivals (Ohio State 1-2, Michigan State 1-2, and Notre Dame 2-1) has only added fuel to the fire that is turning up the heat on Hoke as he enters year four. Michigan can't just get by with mediocrity when the conference as a whole has been so mediocre.
The head football coaching position at Michigan is unlike most college football coaching jobs. The lights shine a little brighter at Michigan than they do at most places. And as a result expectations are always going to be elevated regardless of outside forces or circumstances. There isn't just pressure to win, there's pressure to deliver championships. And if you're not bringing home trophies you better at least be in the hunt.
Brady Hoke he's yet to sniff a Big Ten championship – his self-proclaimed ultimate goal every season.
Is that fair? Probably not. But since when is any coaching profession fair?
Is 3 years enough time to put a coach on the hot seat? Ask Rich Rod. I think it all depends. But in this modern culture of college football – when guys like Urban Meyer show up in Columbus and win 24 straight games…and your in-state rival breaks that winning streak en route to a Big Ten title...the heat gets turned up. There's no way to avoid it.
Year 4 for Brady Hoke at Michigan is going to be the defining year. I can't sit here in March and tell you how many wins could save Hoke's job because I don't think it works like that. But if things are going well or not so well, you'll know it. Because you'll feel it.
It'll be impossible not to.