Rich Rodriguez was the head coach at Michigan for just three years between 2008 and 2010, but he's a man whose name has been cursed in Ann Arbor ever since and will continue to be in the many years that follow.
Brady Hoke, meanwhile, was sold as the "anti-Rich Rod" upon his hiring in 2011 and immediately justified that billing.
His first season with the Wolverines couldn't have been more different than Rodriguez's—a 3-9 campaign that was and remains the worst in program history—resulting in 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
He was ready to be the next great Michigan coach.
However, that progress has backtracked in the two seasons that followed, which have seen the Wolverines go 15-11 overall and 9-7 in the Big Ten. The offense has struggled to gain steam, the execution has been mostly unsteady and the "little brother" 60 miles away in East Lansing has emerged as a legitimate national contender after winning the 2014 Rose Bowl—something Michigan hasn't done in 16 seasons.
Despite the opposite start to his Michigan career, Hoke's third season at UM was uncomfortably similar to Rodriguez's. Both teams finished 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten, and both teams finished the year by getting routed in a bowl game.
So it makes sense that Hoke is making fans in Ann Arbor uneasy, that his tenure is on relatively thin ice. That in regard to his status as a letdown—as someone whose production could never meet his expectation—Hoke might one day be judged in the same vein as Rich Rod, in the camp of those who could never fill the shoes of former head coach Lloyd Carr. Considering the advantages a coaching staff at Michigan enjoys, anyone who loses seven conference games in two seasons deserves that.
Still, to say Hoke is becoming "another Rich Rod" seems like a gross bit of hyperbole. Not just because his teams have proven far more competitive (which they have) but also because it ignores an important part of the job of a college head coach.
Even at a place like Michigan, winning is not everything.
"Michigan football was a family, built on mutual respect and support for each other from [former] Coach [Lloyd] Carr on down...I have great trouble accepting that those family values have eroded in just a few months."
Those are the words of former Michigan lineman Justin Boren, as per ESPN, spoken to explain his transfer from the program just three months after Rodriguez was hired in December 2007.
(Not that it matters, since no player should ever feel such spite, but Boren would move on to play for Michigan's most-hated rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team by conference media in 2009 and 2010 and the All-America Second Team by the Associated Press in 2010.)
Said Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg after the ordeal (subscription required): "Rodriguez's staff uses some of the foulest, most degrading language imaginable. I know coaches curse, and I'm no prude, but this goes way beyond a few dirty words."
"He belittles his players."
Even with his relative struggles toward the end of 2012 and especially in 2013, Hoke has never engendered such dislike from his players or the media around him. He is generally adored and respected as the person in charge of the program, even by those who may question his ability to win.
So wrote Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer earlier this season in an aptly titled piece called "Brady Hoke is not Rich Rodriguez, and That Has to be Enough for Michigan for Now":
Hoke is not Rodriguez, and the last thing Michigan can do is think about another coaching search before this Michigan man has a full roster built in his image. The Wolverines are a disappointment this season, to be sure....But disappointment is at least two steps up from travesty.
The mess left by Rodriguez, the damage done in splintering a fanbase, was real. Hoke made it look easy by getting to the Sugar Bowl his first year, but that season he just tidied up and threw everything in the closet. Since then, he's been actually rebuilding Michigan's house.
Anything was better than Rodriguez. Only the right thing would be better than Hoke.
Hoke's recent handling of the expulsion of kicker Brendan Gibbons for sexual harassment has raised some eyebrows, as thoroughly detailed by The Michigan Daily. But the matters of when and how much he knew is up for debate. Given his squeaky-clean track record before that, it seems fair to give him the benefit of the moralistic doubt.
"I would like to be more forthcoming (with the media)," said Hoke in a response to the timing of the expulsion, according to John Taylor of College Football Talk. "[But] I can’t provide any details due to federal privacy laws and University policies."
If that sounds like bureaucratic claptrap...well, it is. But sometimes being a head coach, especially at a major university like Michigan, means exposing oneself to political realities that exceed the understanding of outside observers.
It's impossible to say whether Hoke consciously lied about Gibbons' suspension (saying he was suspended for "family matters" before the bowl game), whether higher-ups at Michigan advised him to act a certain way or whether he was completely in the dark.
For now—that is, until another situation like this arises—it's best to look at Hoke's 11 years of mostly controversy-absent conduct at Ball State, San Diego State and Michigan and at how many friends and how few enemies he's made along the way.
Make no mistake: This Gibbons ordeal is still an ugly stain. The controversy in general is a step in the wrong direction for Hoke re: his contrast with Rodriguez, who was not just criticized for his treatment of players but also committed NCAA violations during his time with the Wolverines. Anything extra-football that makes headlines moves Hoke one step closer to actually becoming the "next Rich Rod," but this current step is just a first one.
Even if one step closer, he is countless steps away from being close.
Hoke's on-field record these past two seasons must also be viewed within the context of injuries and poor luck.
After tight end Jake Butt, an important offensive contributor, tore his ACL this offseason, Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com counted nine ACL tears since Hoke took over the team in 2011:
I'm not a doctor, so it's hard to speculate on the nature of ACL protection, on whether that is something the Michigan training staff can actually prevent or simply a matter of bad luck. My gut points me toward the latter, though, and even the former wouldn't make Hoke responsible for the rash of knee injuries.
All things considered, Hoke's on-field tenure would have to get something in the realm of a "B" after three years on the job. The last two seasons have been lower. The first was sufficiently higher to compensate.
Rodriguez was more like a C-minus. With extra deductions from the countless off-field ordeals, he was closer to an "F" overall. He was haughty and sneering and left the program in disrepute. He was far from a "Michigan Man."
Hoke is not the next Rodriguez because he made it to Year 4 and Ann Arbor hasn't been burned to ashes. Had Rich Rod been retained for a fourth season in 2011, even the pre-Twitter Internet would have exploded. His hot seat would have spontaneously combusted by spring practice.
Hoke is under fire but largely assumed to be okay.
There is still a lot of work to do in Ann Arbor, many improvements that need to be made. Hoke needs to settle on a quarterback between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and whichever man he picks needs to play well enough to validate that settlement (and then some).
Hoke is far from being the next Rich Rod, but that it's even a conversation shows how far his stock has fallen since the end of 2011. Back then, when people compared him to a former Michigan head coach, it was almost always Carr.
But would it really be a shock for him to get back there?
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
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