Brady Hoke unaffected by rising expectations for Michigan football team
The Wolverines went 11-2 in coach Brady Hoke's debut season. With star senior quarterback Denard Robinson among the 15 starters who return from that squad, big things are expected this year.
Michigan was named the favorite to win the Big Ten championship in a recent media poll -- a nod of respect to the once-troubled program. What does Hoke think of it?
"Not much," he said this week at the Big Ten media days in Chicago. "I think we were picked fifth in our division a year ago. I think the 1997 team, I think preseason was picked right inside the top 25 by a lot of people -- and that ended up being a pretty good football team.
"We don't put too much stock in that. It's like anything in life, it's not where we start but where we finish."
Hoke is facing the highest expectations of his career. At his first head coaching stop, he guided Ball State from the Mid-American Conference cellar to a 12-win season in 2008, but left for San Diego State before the bowl game.
He then guided the Aztecs from a 4-8 season in 2009 to 9-4 in 2010, the program's best record in 33 years, but promptly left for Michigan.
Like his previous two stops, Hook inherited a ravaged program and turned it into a winner. Now, though, he must protect it.
What changes in his approach?
"Nothing," Hoke said. "We're going to prepare how we always prepare. Everything else, that's for the media to talk about, that's for fans -- God bless 'em -- to talk about. But we're going to be physical, and we're going to be tough, and we're going to prepare every day to be physical and tough."
Michigan itself hasn't faced these kinds of expectations since 2007, the final season of the Lloyd Carr era. The former coach retired after that season, and was succeeded by Rich Rodriguez, whose tenure was a disaster.
Rodriguez went 3-9 in his first year, the worst record in program history, and was fired after his third season. Hoke replaced him in 2011, and expectations were tempered as the Wolverines, coming off the worst defensive season in school history, installed new schemes on both sides of the ball.
But Michigan proved to be ahead of the curve, winning games against rivals Notre Dame and Ohio State en route to the Sugar Bowl. It won that game 23-20 in overtime to punctuate its rebirth on the national stage.
Yet, it wasn't enough for Hoke, who adopted a Big-Ten-title-or-bust mantra in the preseason and never backed off it, even after exceeding everyone's expectations but his own.
"(The program is) never going to be where I want it to be -- ever," he said. "That’s just the expectations. You can't be satisfied with any part of it.
"That’s the way I think, and that’s the way we think."
The Wolverines aren't starting from scratch in their pursuit of that hardware. They will be one of the Big Ten's most experienced teams, a group that is led by the record-setting Robinson.
The defensive back seven remains intact, and 1,000-yard rusher Fitz Toussaint returns after a breakout sophomore year.
But there are challenges as well, including the recent suspension of Toussaint following an arrest last week for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. His status for the opener against Alabama is unknown, and he has yet to be cleared to practice when Michigan opens its preseason camp next week.
Michigan also has sustained five of its seven losses along its lines, positions that were devoid of depth anyway, and that concerns Hoke.
"Believe me, we’re a long way from being any good -- I can tell you that," Hoke said. "I thought we’ve done some good things in improving and those kinds of things, but I think we’re a long way (from) being the Michigan team that we have the expectations to be."
For Hoke, it's not good enough for Michigan just to be favored to win a Big Ten championship. He wants the real thing.
His players echo that sentiment.
"We want to be the Big Ten champs -- so now, we got to train to be the Big Ten champs, and we got to prepare to be the Big Ten champs," Robinson said. "We got to watch film to be the Big Ten champs.
"We're not the Big Ten champs, are we? We didn't win the title last year, so we still hungry."