Hoke made Buckeyes priority from day one
The Associated Press
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Tick, tick, tick.
Michigan’s Brady Hoke is just days away from his first game as a head coach against rival Ohio State, a matchup that he has been pointing toward since he was hired.
“This is a special week because you play in the greatest rivalry there is in sport,” Hoke said Monday. “When you get the chance to play or coach in this game, it’s always a fun week.”
The husky coach with a coarse, raspy voice has added his own touch to the storied series, growing up as a fan of the Wolverines in Dayton, Ohio, and working as a Michigan assistant on his coaching climb that led him back to Ann Arbor.
Hoke pounded his fist with each word at his first news conference in charge of college football’s winningest program on Jan. 12 when asked about a rivalry that has been lopsided recently in favor of the Buckeyes. And, he bristled when asked for his reaction to the belief that the Wolverines had slipped among the nation’s best.
“This is an elite job and will continue to be an elite job,” he said back then. “This is Michigan for God’s sake.”
It wasn’t an act.
Hoke truly believed that beating the Buckeyes — or Ohio, as he says — was the top priority after seven straight losses, and that he didn’t need much time to restore the program to glory.
If he can help No. 17 Michigan (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) avoid a minor upset against struggling Ohio State (6-5, 3-4) on Saturday, it’ll be hard to argue with him.
With a win, the Wolverines have a good chance to play in a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2006 season — a year before Lloyd Carr retired and two years before their decline under Rich Rodriguez.
As much as Rodriguez didn’t seem to fit in at Michigan, Hoke has appeared to make a perfect transition from mid-major head coach to the face and voice of a big-time program.
Many Michigan fans were clamoring for athletic director Dave Brandon to hire then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh and bring him back to campus, where he was a star quarterback for Bo Schembechler. Or to lure LSU’s Les Miles back to a school where he was a player and an assistant for Schembechler.
But Brandon insisted back then that he didn’t offer the job to Harbaugh before he left to coach the San Francisco 49ers or Miles because Hoke had what he was looking for in Ann Arbor.
Soon after Hoke was hired, he asked Brian Townsend, one of Brandon’s top assistants, to have clocks installed at team headquarters that counted down the time before the Ohio State game and the Michigan State game.
“We had those clocks in Schembechler Hall within three or four days of his arrival,” Brandon recalled. “I thought it was a brilliant idea to reinforce how important The Game is at Michigan.”
There are also huge signs reminding players how many days it has been since they beat their archrival.
“I believe 2,921,” tight end Kevin Koger said Monday. Michigan’s last win over Ohio State was in 2003.
At Hoke’s first team meeting and in every one since, he has expected his players to shout “42” when asked about Big Ten championships the program has won; “132” when asked about the number of years Michigan has been playing football; and “Ohio” when quizzed on the team to beat.
“He explained it: ‘This is what I do at every meeting, here’s what you need to say,”’ Koger recalled. “After that, we kind of caught on.”
Michigan fans have certainly caught on to Hoke calling his archrival Ohio — not Ohio State.
During and after the Wolverines’ 45-17 win over Nebraska at the Big House last Saturday, fans chanted, “BEAT O-HI-O! BEAT O-HI-O!” and everyone there could hear it loud and clear.
“I knew it was coming,” receiver Martavious Odoms said.
Hoke insisted he says Ohio because he always has — without explanation. During a preseason interview in his office, he insisted it is not intended as a sign of disrespect toward the school he grew up rooting against.
When he coached at Ball State and faced Ohio University — commonly called Ohio — Hoke said he used its nickname of Bobcats when talking about that team.
Michigan may not be the only school with a moniker for its rival.
“We might refer to Michigan in different ways, too,” Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell said, drawing laughs at his news conference in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s about a football game.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about Coach Hoke. It’s about the greatest rivalry in all of football, their team, our team and the history of the traditions.”
On that point, Hoke would totally agree.