NEW ORLEANS (AP) – When Michigan finally beat Ohio State this season, Brady Hoke had to do something about the signs he posted displaying the more than 2,900 days that had passed since the previous victory over the Buckeyes in 2003.
They were merely updated.
“Now I think it’s probably about 30 or 40 (days),” defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. “It’s still up, regardless of the fact we won. … It’s been reset, which is nice.”
For now, Michigan’s immediate focus has shifted to Virginia Tech, the Wolverines’ opponent in Tuesday night’s Sugar Bowl.
But in recent days, Michigan players cited Hoke’s emphasis on the rivalry with the Buckeyes as an example of how the first-year Wolverines coach connected with players so effectively and led the program to its first BCS bowl in half a decade.
“He’s passionate about this program,” safety Jordan Kovacs said. “He’s passionate about Michigan football and he knows what it’s about.”
Hoke understands the Michigan mystique because he’s lived it. He was an assistant on Lloyd Carr’s staff for about eight years, including the 1997 national championship season. He always refers to Michigan’s chief rival as simply “Ohio,” among the more generic alternatives to what Buckeyes players and diehards say: “The Ohio State University.” Seemingly every Michigan player has since followed suit.
Hoke left Michigan to become the coach at his alma mater, Ball State, in 2003, then spent two seasons at San Diego State before returning to Ann Arbor to take a job he had coveted for years.
“It’s just refreshing to know that this guy’s been a part of Michigan before and he has our best interest at heart,” Kovacs said. “It makes it so much easier to play well in a game if you know you’re playing for a guy like that.”
The Wolverines (10-2) sure had an easier time racking up wins than in any of their previous four seasons.
Michigan reached double digits in victories for the first time since 2006, when the Wolverines won 11 before falling to Ohio State and then Southern California in the Rose Bowl, their last Bowl Championship Series appearance.
Ultimately, Hoke expects Michigan to compete for Big Ten and national championships, but this season was a significant first step toward re-instilling pride among the maze-and-blue faithful.
“For us to be here, it means a lot to the senior class,” tight end Kevin Koger said.
In Koger’s freshman season of 2008, also the first year of the brief Rich Rodriguez era, Michigan went 3-9, failing to qualify for a bowl for the first time since 1974. Michigan was 5-7 in 2009, before winning seven games last season. That was good enough for a bid to the Gator Bowl, where the Wolverines were crushed by Mississippi State, 52-14.
That brought about the end of Rodriguez’s time at Michigan and Hoke was hired after a search that also included talk of LSU coach Les Miles and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who is now with the San Francisco 49ers.
When Hoke arrived, one of his priorities was to establish a foundation of toughness.
“I just remember being in pads every single day in fall camp,” Koger recalled. “That instilled a mindset in us like, we’re going back to playing Michigan football – run the football, control the line of scrimmage and that’s what we’ve been like this year.”
Michigan players said that while Hoke was careful not to make callous comparisons between football and war, the coach often spoke of his admiration for Navy Seals he had become acquainted with in San Diego. He sought to pass on the Seals’ culture of toughness, accountability, pride and attention to detail.
Taking pride in the program didn’t just mean hustling on the field, players said. It also meant taking good care of team gear and facilities. “It’s all about ownership,” Koger said. “Just small things in the locker room. If it’s dirty, pick it up. … It all relates.” In studying tape of the Wolverines, longtime Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said he could see Michigan players taking on the personality of their coach. “He’s been fantastic. You see a real toughness in his team,” Beamer said. “Defensively, they’re very much improved.”
Hoke deflects opportunities to take credit for Michigan’s resurgence. He’s not the type to lead the team out of the tunnel because he believes his role is to support the players, not the other way around.
“The players bought into each other,” Hoke said during Sugar Bowl preparations in New Orleans. “They bought into Michigan and what Michigan is, and the expectations for football at Michigan, going to class at Michigan and all those things.”
“It’s all about those kids,” Hoke stressed. “That’s the only thing we think about.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)