Brady Hoke has accomplished in only a few weeks what Rich Rodriguez had failed to do in three years on the job: hire a defensive coordinator who is both a proven and capable extension of the coach's football philosophy. It is impossible not to be excited by Greg Mattison, who was entrusted with the Baltimore Ravens defense by John Harbaugh after Rex Ryan left to take over the Jets. There can be few higher honors for a defensive guru than to coach the Ravens, and though Mattison lacks the same football intelligence as Ryan, he is, by all accounts, more than capable for the job.
The hire of Mattison seems especially invigorating after Rodriguez spent much of his tenure warring furtively with Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson over purely philosophical grounds. At the time of Shafer's early departure, he was blamed for the precipitous fall—Michigan tumbled from 23rd to 84th in the span of a single season—but in reflection, the failure to properly utilize Shafer, who has had a transformational effect wherever he has been, looks especially egregious.
Shafer's successes in improving largely awful defenses at Western Michigan and Stanford into merely competent squads before arriving at Michigan didn't seem to presage much about his potential ability, but the success that he has had with his latest renovation project—transforming Syracuse from the 102nd to 17th-ranked scoring defense in only two years—poses serious questions about the problems he faced with the Wolverines, which begins foremost with the disconnect between Rodriguez and a defensive staff in 2008 that Freep columnist Michael Rosenberg classified as "completely dysfunctional." A lack of input in hiring assistants and the near-ubiquitous tinkering with the scheme probably had a damaging effect upon a defense that wasn't very good to begin with. Rodriguez had no over-arching vision for the defense; his moves were purely reactionary.
By comparison, Greg Mattison is firmly in line with Hoke's prevailing vision for the direction of the program, and if there is unity in purpose, then they are already off to a welcome start. Together they have the often overrated but highly indispensable bond known as chemistry. Their long friendship dates all the way back to 1985, when Mattison, Hoke and current Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh all served under Jack Harbaugh at Western Michigan. Hoke, as a DE coach, and Mattison, as defensive coordinator, would reunite at Michigan during the 1995 and 1996 seasons. Hoke continued at Michigan for several more years, finally elevated to the position of head coach at Ball State in 2003, while Mattison moved onto Notre Dame, Florida and, finally, the Ravens.
Their third collaboration together brings both satisfaction and reassurance at a time when it is most greatly needed. Coordinators are always difficult to evaluate by pure metrics, because they are only as good as the players who have ultimately been recruited, but if he is to be judged solely by the opportunities bestowed upon him by successful coaches such as Urban Meyer and John Harbaugh, then he would appear to be held in high esteem by his peers.
Most of all, however, Michigan has gained in Mattison a consistent and genuine presence who will conduct his job with the highest regard. The way in which Mattison has vouched for Brady Hoke may not assure fans that Michigan football will be restored to its former glory, but I believe that it says something about the ability of Hoke to command respect by those who know him personally.
Mattison speaks almost ebulliently about this present opportunity. He comes in at a fortuitous time, when he has the potential to shape a young but maturing defense. The task that he is currently preparing for seems like the kind of thing that he is quite good at. Mattison can, according to former Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie, "develop players" as well as any coach that Davie says he has been around, and he has the kind of recruiting acumen that can keep present recruits in Michigan's camp during a difficult transition period.
Mattison may not be the hot, young coordinator prospect typically hired by most coaches. Nevertheless, it is extremely encouraging to the future of Michigan football that he has been brought aboard for Hoke's tenure, and though Michigan may still abide by a countervailing ethos that sets itself well apart from the dominant trends in college football, it is the kind of brilliant hire that can, at least for now, unite all Michigan fans in these difficult and divisive times.