Maybe Brady Hoke’s timing is better than it first seems.
From the standpoint of existing personnel, Rich Rodriguez did Hoke no favors. Anyone who watched Michigan play last season knows a few bandaids aren’t going to get the Wolverines back on their feet this year or next.
Michigan’s former coach was not only recruiting poorly, he was recruiting the wrong kind of guys. The problems with the roster are by design. He wanted the types of misfits he won with at West Virginia in the Big East. He didn’t seem to understand that he actually had the ability to go after better players when he went to the better university in the better conference*. Hoke will pay up front for those mistakes, but he probably will receive more patience than Rodriguez did, so he figures to have the chance to overcome it.
For all the bluster about “Michigan Men”, let’s keep this in the forefront of our minds: Michigan football would be nothing without the state of Ohio. That should be on a billboard along U.S. 23 for everyone to see. Ohio State should consider the slogan for a splash page on its website during Michigan week because Wolverines have been imported from the Buckeye State for years. The very man who once declared, “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!” was from Barberton, after all.
The problems Michigan now faces have a lot to do with Rodriguez being a bad coach, but the problems that led to the program being turned over to him have a lot to do with Ohio, specifically, Jim Tressel’s stranglehold on the state.
Michigan hasn’t been the same since a star-studded group left after 2003. That team was a legitimate top 5 team in terms of talent and experience.
The 2004 freshmen had some big names and started with a bang but fizzled as time went on (0-4 against Ohio State, 1-3 in bowl games). Why is that? I trace it back to Jim Tressel reducing the Michigan-Ohio talent pipeline to a mere trickle.
When the Ohio State head coach started signing almost all of the best kids in Ohio every year (beginning with a huge, talented 2002 class), Michigan had a big problem. The Wolverines kept recruiting well nationally in the later years of Lloyd Carr’s regime, but that came back to bite them eventually as they ended up having a remarkably high bust rate. I don’t consider that to be a coincidence. Recruiting too nationally – for any program – is dangerous. There’s less familiarity, less loyalty with the high school coaches because they don’t deal with you on a regular basis. It’s hard to know what you’re getting because you don’t know what type of competition those kids are facing, either.
(Rodriguez signed his share of Ohio kids but Ohio State wanted almost none of them.)
Brady Hoke, the new Michigan coach, is from Kettering, a suburb of Dayton in southwestern Ohio. His MAC coaching stop was not in Ohio, but he had good success luring prospects across the border to Ball State in Indiana. Of course he was never going head-to-head with the likes of Ohio State for those kids, but there are plenty of MAC schools in Ohio they could have gone to, not to mention Cincinnati. That means they liked what Hoke was selling better or he had a better sense on who was worth getting (probably a little bit of both).
Recruiting in the MAC and recruiting in the Big Ten are two different animals, but it stands to reason Hoke made a lot of contacts while he was at BSU and during the eight years he was defensive line coach at Michigan. Knowing where to look, knowing you can get in the door and knowing who you’re talking to are vital in recruiting.
Now remember how much consternation has arisen among Buckeye fans at what has gone on in Cincinnati in regards to recruiting during the Tressel era. Many folks are frustrated that Ohio State does poorly in Cincinnati compared to the rest of the state, but there are two sides to that coin.
Tressel has more coaches combing northeastern Ohio – his native land and a place he got to know well as head coach at Youngstown State in the late ’80s and all of the ’90s – than he does the southwestern corner of the state. Many more offers have gone out to the Cleveland, Youngstown and Akron-Canton areas than Cincinnati and Dayton, and often times it seems that if Tressel is going to take a chance on a kid, he’s more likely to be from his old stomping grounds.
Given how well he has generally done both in terms of recruiting stars and uncovering diamonds in the rough, Tressel obviously knows what he is doing, but the sands may be shifting under his feet.
The northeastern part of the state is dying. Columbus is the fastest growing of the three “Big Cs”, but the Cincinnati metro area is expanding, too. The latter passed the Cleveland area in the past decade in terms of population with one trending up and the other down.
As the population shifted, southwestern Ohio started popping out more highly rated recruits than it had in the past, too, and that leads me to wonder if Tressel will need to shift his focus in the coming years.
He’s already taken a more national view of recruiting in the past four years, something that has opened up a few more bona fide Big Ten-quality players for the rest of the conference, but he could be presented an interesting dilemma sooner or later.
Hoke’s last Ball State team had 29 Ohioans, including 15 from southwestern Ohio and 10 from the northeast. I’m sure he kept a few of those phone numbers of coaches in Dayton** and Cincinnati before he left for San Diego State.
If he digs in down there while Tressel remains more worried about the Cleveland area, could he get the drop on the Vest as the population shifts? There are plenty of variables and plenty of time, but that should be an interesting subplot to watch develop***.
Depending on how Tressel plays it, Hoke could be well positioned to move into the void if and when that day comes.
That can only be good news for Ohio State as kids growing up in their backyard are always going to be naturally inclined to be Buckeyes.
Part of me thinks Michigan can’t come back without Ohio State faltering first, but perhaps the growth of central Ohio changes that.
*I am not in the camp that believes Rodriguez got a raw deal, by the way. He was the wrong guy from Day 1 there. Other than being creative offensively, I’m not sure that he’s really proved he’s a good head coach. His teams did a lot of fundamental things poorly and did not play with much character. But the biggest reason ever hiring Rodriguez was a major error was that he brought a system that ignored the built-in recruiting advantage Michigan had as a name-brand school that doesn’t have to choose between recruiting small, fast guys or big, slow guys. The Wolverines could have the big, fast guys at one time, but Rodriguez pissed that away.
** I should note that Dayton and Cincinnati are not interchangeable. Anecdotally, I would say the percentage of Ohio State fans in and around Dayton is much higher than it is in Cincinnati. But Tressel’s emphasis on northeast Ohio could affect Dayton the same way it does the Queen City as BCS school descend on both in greater numbers than they used to.
***Columbus is a wild card, too. Cincinnati and Cleveland were light years ahead at the turn of the century, but as central Ohio grows, that figures to change. The gap has already begun to narrow, as evidenced by Hilliard-Davidson’s emergence on the scene and the success of programs such as Dublin Coffman and Pickerington Central.
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