The moment before the “hot seat” label is officially bestowed upon a coach is always the most fascinating. There’s nothing official about this process, of course, it just sort of happens. And when it happens, it can be difficult to recover.
When things begin to turn (often unfairly so), regaining momentum can be an uphill climb—one most coaches simply cannot complete.
Brady Hoke has reached this phase of his coaching tenure at Michigan, and the uphill climb is beginning to become steeper thanks to a handful of recent happenings, mainly in the loss column. There’s a slow drain of confidence now bleeding from the program.
An ugly loss to Ohio State will not result in his firing; the notion of such drastic changes is premature. But if things are to get ugly in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the hole will be dug deeper, the leash will grow a little shorter, and the urgency on the 2014 season will be impossible to ignore.
A loss to Ohio State would leave Michigan with a 7-5 regular-season record, an unacceptable mark by the storied program’s high standards. The anemic offense led to a few close calls early on against the likes of Akron and Connecticut. These close calls have transmuted into something more during the second half of the season.
On the recruiting front—a place where Hoke has thrived since taking over—the past few weeks have not helped ease such angst.
Virginia defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, one of the nation’s top overall players in the class of 2014, seemed likely to pick Michigan for some time. Hand instead threw on an Alabama cap on decision day, and the rumblings grew louder.
As unfair as it might be to zero in on a verbal commitment well before it comes official, the recruiting has been an angle many have been banking on with Hoke. And with the perception of trouble brewing, Jabrill Peppers—a Michigan commit since May—announced that he would visit other campuses after the season.
Imma take a couple Officials after the season myself 🙌🙇— Breezy (@JabrillPeppers) November 26, 2013
I am still 100% committed to the University of Michigan and that is the place where I want to go to college. With the rumors about Coach Hoke possibly not being there I need to make sure that I have options and have seen other places.
This is a part of the process—a rumor of a rumor that has no real origin. Regardless, this is how pre-hot seat turns into something more, something that creates the week-to-week pressure that will likely follow Hoke next season.
With speculation beginning to churn and recruiting suddenly vulnerable, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon addressed the issue to the public. At the very least, he’s going public with confidence, real or manufactured.
Speaking with The Detroit News earlier this week, Brandon stated:
Brady Hoke is our football coach, and he's going to be our football coach into the future. Any of that nonsense is that—nonsense. Let me make this clear, this isn't about one football game or a couple disappointing losses. It's about building a program.
The same guy who was national coach of the year his first year (in 2011 when Michigan went 11-2) is the same guy. So the same guy who started that process is going to finish that process, and it's Brady Hoke. I want to put a bucket of cold water on these Brady Hoke rumors, because it's so ridiculous. He will be our football coach, and I'm proud to say it.
Brandon’s enthusiasm is a part of the cycle, one that Pat Haden utilized earlier this summer at USC regarding Lane Kiffin. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has engaged in a similar strategy with Will Muschamp’s struggles, putting out the three-story fire by throwing the extinguisher and hoping for the best.
That’s not to say that Brandon’s lying or he’s wrong, either; Hoke is not in any present danger to lose his job. He’s just stating the obvious.
While this public support can help slow down the train, however, it can only be really slowed with production and results. And in the case of Hoke, the production—regardless of the massive strides being made in recruiting—has to change. It has to change soon.
This brings us full circle to Ohio State, Michigan’s archrival and a team that has yet to lose a game under its new head coach. It’s unfair to compare the separate jobs being done at respected schools. It’s also impossible not to.
The Buckeyes serve as a measuring stick for the Wolverines, just like they always have. That measuring stick has Ohio State as more than a two-touchdown favorite over Michigan in its own stadium—a gap that speaks volumes.
If the results match expectations, the hole could be dug a bit deeper for Hoke.
At a time when confidence is suddenly at a premium, a blowout loss against Urban Meyer in the season finale will not help recapture what is dwindling away. It has been a turbulent stretch for the program, and Ohio State smells blood.
At the same time, a close game or upset would serve as an enormous victory for a program that could use it. It’s not impossible by any means, just unlikely.
This is not the most important game of Brady Hoke’s career. It’s another critical game against a rival at a time when he could use a victory. The problem? Soon every game could come with a certain level of importance, and a familiar cycle is taking shape.