Last year, when former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez was fired, three coaches were thought to be the leading candidates for the job: Jim Harbaugh, Les Miles, and the lesser-known Brady Hoke. Back then, Fox Sports analyst Jason Whitlock passionately endorsed Hoke: “Michigan is his destination job. … He’d crawl on hot, broken glass to work inside Schembechler Hall as the head coach. … He has an uncanny ability to get kids to believe in him and believe in themselves. He doesn’t do it with smooth words. He’s not smooth. He does it by being the same genuine person day after day.” Hoke was eventually hired, and swiftly guided Michigan’s return to national prominence with a surprising 11-2 2011 season, including wins over archrival Ohio State (which Hoke refers to as “Ohio”) and Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Saturday night, Hoke’s eighth-ranked Wolverines open their season at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas against no. 2 Alabama.
You grew up in Kettering, Ohio, just over an hour from Columbus, but you were a Michigan fan. How did that happen?
All my buddies were Ohio fans, and my dad played for Coach [Woody] Hayes at Miami of Ohio and had a deep respect for him. I like to go against the grain sometimes, and I think I started rooting for Michigan just to be different.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I never planned on being a coach. Even when I graduated college, it wasn’t on my radar. At Ball State, I was a criminal justice major, and I had done an internship with the federal probation and parole office out of the Southern District of Indiana, and had really enjoyed that. My real dream was to become a Secret Service agent. President Reagan had been shot in March of ’81, and from that moment on, I felt like it was my duty to protect the president of the United States.
Then one night, a friend of mine named Dave Tanner came by me and my wife Laura’s apartment. His father had passed away, and he’d moved back home to be near his mom. He was coaching a local high school football team and asked for my help. I was able to work out my schedule with the federal court where I was working so I could do some coaching on the side. Being with kids and helping kids appealed to me because I’d had coaches in college who’d really helped me straighten out when I was heading down the wrong path.
I tell recruits and their parents when I meet with them that my two goals in college were to play football and to drink every beer in Muncie, Indiana. If I didn’t have a coach sit me down and say, “Look, this is the direction you’re heading; this is why your academic performance and your performance on the field are going downhill,” I might’ve wound up on a very different track. Now I try to teach the same things: How to honor your name, your family, and your school.
Besides football, what were your other passions growing up?
Well, I always loved music. I remember my first concert like it was yesterday: Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1976. It was their One More From the Road tour. I was 17 years old and drove up there with a few of my buddies. My hair was a little longer than it is now. You can imagine.
Another great show was The Outlaws up in South Bend when I was in college. These days, I still listen to music — country, classic rock, all kinds of stuff — but what I like most is all the old vinyl I have from the ’70s. My older brother moved away from Ball State to go play for the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent, and when I was helping him move, he gave me a milk crate with all his best records. It was an amazing collection. To this day, those records are the ones I still listen to — Hall & Oates, early Stones, REO Speedwagon, Aerosmith. I love Hall & Oates. “Rich Girl” and “Sarah” can bring a tear to my eye.
You’re known as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t hide emotion. Do you remember the last time you cried?
I sure do: when my dad passed away five months ago. His name was John. He was a great father, and we were very fortunate to have him for 80 years. Even with all the moving around I’ve done, coaching in different parts of the country, we always found time to play golf together and talk football. He was a football guy through and through. I’m so grateful I had the privilege to come back and coach here at Michigan and be closer to my dad. He was diagnosed [with lung cancer] and died within nine months. But he had one last, great football season, and [he] had a great time at the Sugar Bowl, and it was so meaningful to all of us to be living so near.
Prioritizing between family and football can be difficult, because, let’s face it, you spend so much time with other people’s kids and not your own. For the guys on our staff with young families, we try to make sure they have as much time with them as they can. Because I know I’ve missed out on some things with my daughter. Coaching involves sacrifice, but you don’t want to overwork someone and have them in the video room at 3 a.m. when they could be home with their children.
I still think of my dad every day. Certain times of day — or when something happens that I want to tell him about — I get the urge to call him, then realize I can’t. A lot of energy now is directed toward my mom. She lost her partner of over 60 years, so you try to help her navigate her feelings and emotions, and help her move forward.
Your dad cried at the press conference when you were introduced as Michigan’s head coach. How much did getting the job mean to you?
Back in 1983, when I was coaching at Grand Valley [State University], my wife’s sister was swimming at Bowling Green, and they had the MAC championships at Eastern Michigan. I went with my wife and her parents to cheer her on. One afternoon, my wife and I drove over to Michigan Stadium and sneaked our way inside. The whole place was empty. It was surreal to see it so completely quiet, when you’re used to seeing it with 110,000 people crammed inside, all going bonkers. We walked from the locker rooms down the tunnel onto the field, and I told her, “This is where I want to coach.” For that dream to be realized was incredible.
Besides your dad, what other non-football people have been inspiring to you?
My grandfather. My father-in-law. My brother. I have an older sister, Terre, who’s one of the hardest workers you’ve ever been around. She has run a dance studio for over 30 years, and I learned what hard work was by watching the way she lives her life.
What misconceptions do you think the average fan might have about football?
You know what drives me nuts? When a guy drops a pass or misses a tackle, how some fans respond like the young man tried to drop the ball, or tried to miss that tackle. These aren’t pros — these are 18- to 23-year-olds, and you may have some players who will move to that next level, but still, these are kids. And they’re still developing. It’s hard to believe the impatience people have for mistakes and imperfections. They can say whatever they want about me or our staff, and be as critical as they’d like. But to be critical of 18- to 23-year-olds, something’s mixed up.
What are your feelings about college football playoffs?
Whatever the powers that be devise — because, let’s face it, it’s not going to be the coaches who decide what happens; we’re the last people to have any opinion that counts — but let’s make sure we’re doing right for the players and we’re doing right for their families. Remember, these aren’t pro athletes. How many games do you really want them to play? I would hope they’d cap it at 15. The kids have an academic responsibility. They have a responsibility to their bodies not to get beat up, which is going to happen with extra games. And how do their parents travel to see them play? How can [starting quarterback] Denard [Robinson]’s parents travel? They can barely get up here twice a year to watch him play. Say you’ve got a seeding system, and no. 1 is hosting no. 4 in Austin, Texas, and the winner goes to Seattle — how’s a kid’s family able to do that? That’s never a part of the discussion, and that’s a problem.
If they go with the plus-one championship game, I’d like to see that happen within the current bowl game system. I’d like to see them get the Cotton Bowl back into the mix somewhere. As a Midwest guy, the affiliation that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 have with the Rose Bowl has always been special. That needs to be preserved.
You’re coming off a stellar season in your first year as head coach. What are your hopes and concerns for this year’s team?
The expectation is to win a Big Ten championship. We won’t shy away from that goal, and we won’t make excuses — everyone knows where the expectation is. We’re going to be a young football team, so the leadership of our seniors will be crucial. Look, anything is possible — we could win every game and we could lose every game. It all comes down to our chemistry, our commitment, our sense of accountability, and the respect and trust we have for each other. But we’ve been working hard all summer, and now we can’t wait for the opening kick.