At Brady Hoke’s introductory news conference on Jan. 11, 2011, he was asked whether Michigan was still an elite coaching job.
"This is Michigan, for god sakes," he famously answered.
Now, Hoke has become the second straight coach to get fired in less than four years for not bringing the Wolverines back to glory, following Rich Rodriguez. Which leads back to that question Hoke was asked in 2011: Is Michigan still one of the best coaching jobs in the country? Will big-name coaches line up for the shot to come to Ann Arbor?
Let’s examine the many factors that make a college football coaching job an elite one, and how the Maize and Blue stack up:
Money talks. If Michigan expects to lure a big-name coach like Jim or John Harbaugh or Les Miles, it will have to pony up some serious cash. That shouldn’t be a problem.
Hoke was paid $2.85 million in 2014, making him the 30th-highest paid coach in the FBS, according to USA Today’s salary database. But in 2013, thanks to retention bonuses and other incentives, Hoke made a reported $4.1 million.
The Wolverines ranked No. 14 nationally and second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State in total staff pay in 2013, with more than $3 million committed to assistant coaches. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,000) was the highest-paid assistant in the Big Ten in 2013, and Doug Nussmeier received a three-year contract worth $857,000 annually when he became the team’s new offensive coordinator in January.
Even with the money required to pay for the remaining contract years for Hoke and his staff -- Hoke is owed a $3 million buyout -- Michigan still has a deep well of support from which to draw. In June, the school projected an athletic budget of $151 million for the 2015 fiscal year, with a surplus of more than $5 million after expenses. Michigan ranked No. 4 nationally in athletic department revenue in 2013, according to USA Today, and the Wolverines had the No. 5 most valuable football team in the country, according to Forbes.
That’s not to mention the expected leap in revenue for all Big Ten teams when the league negotiates its next TV contract in a couple of years, or the many boosters who would line up to help pay for the next coach. Simply put, money is not an object at a place like Michigan.
The Big House, with its capacity of more than 109,000, is the largest football stadium in the country (and a big reason that Michigan’s revenue is so large). Renovations in recent years have made the giant bowl even nicer, and removed some of the complaints about it being too quiet.
Everybody has an indoor practice field these days, but the Al Glick Field House might be the best one around. Schembechler Hall, which houses the coaches’ offices and meeting areas, got a much-needed upgrade that was completed this year, including a stunning museum area in the lobby. We ranked Michigan as having the third-best facilities in the Big Ten back in 2012, and things have only gotten better since then.
"When RichRod went there, he put a lot of things in place that they were a little behind in at that time," said one agent who represents several college coaches. “But in terms of facilities and resources and commitment, I don't see that as an issue."
This is one area where Michigan doesn’t quite stack up to otherwise similar jobs at places like Texas, Alabama and Florida.
The Wolverines face many of the challenges that all Big Ten teams do these days, as the declining population in the Rust Belt has led to fewer stud recruits living in the Midwest. The economic downturn in Detroit has hit especially hard, as Michigan doesn’t produce as many blue-chip prospects as it once did. Hoke and his staff spent a lot of time recruiting Ohio during his tenure.
"Recruiting services aren't always correct, but they are indicative of how highly kids are being recruited. Michigan is still getting those four- and five-star guys to go there." Former Minnesota coach and current Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason
"The player pool from which they’re drawing isn't what it used to be," said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director. "The state of Michigan is going to spit out players, but it’s not going to spit out enough players to fuel two programs -- Michigan and Michigan State -- and other suitors. So what you have to do is go into other peoples’ backyards, and that creates challenges."
Yet because Michigan’s name is so strong and the school’s academics so well regarded, the program can recruit across the country. Hoke’s staff pulled one of the nation’s top-ranked running backs (Derrick Green) out of Virginia in the 2013 class, and landed ESPN Recruiting’s No. 2 overall player in the Class of 2014 (Jabrill Peppers) out of New Jersey.
"They can be a national recruiter when they want or need to be, because they have a brand," Luginbill said. "Maybe they could be in the South more than they are. But if you spend time doing that and you’re not pulling players, then you’re wasting time."
Recruiting -- at least when it comes to impressing the ranking services -- was the least of Hoke’s problems. ESPN ranked Hoke’s classes No. 7 nationally in 2012, No. 6 in 2013 and No. 18 in 2014. The well-regarded classes were compiled without stealing a lot of prospects from SEC country.
"Have there been more good players being produced in the South? Statistically, yes," said Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason, a former Minnesota head coach and Ohio State assistant. "But if that was the only problem, you would think Ohio State would be struggling like Michigan is, and that’s not the case.
"Recruiting services aren’t always correct, but they are indicative of how highly kids are being recruited. Michigan is still getting those four- and five-star guys to go there."
Michigan’s strong academic standards -- the school ranked No. 29 among national universities in the latest US News & World Report survey, tops among Big Ten public schools -- means not every athlete a coach wants can gain admittance in Ann Arbor. But player development seems to have been a much bigger problem under Hoke than attracting raw talent.
"On paper, the recruiting looks like it's been good," the agent said. "I don't know if they've missed on some kids or what."
The most victories in NCAA history. Those iconic winged helmets. "Hail to the Victors." What else do you need to say?
"Michigan’s still Michigan," said one Power 5 head coach. "It’s hard to erase 100 years of tradition."
If anything, tradition might be a little too revered in Ann Arbor, as the program often seems to lean a little too much on its storied past instead of changing with the times.
Any big-name coach taking on the Michigan job will want to know if he can win a national title.
"Coaches are competitors," said Russ Campbell, a Birmingham-based agent who represents coaches all across the country. "They are looking for a place to win, a place to compete for championships."
"Michigan has all the ingredients. It is a first-rate educational institution with great football tradition. Coaches can recruit to Michigan and will have the financial support they need to return the program to national prominence. Any program is susceptible to up and down cycles. It is a question of when, not if, Michigan returns to its former glory." Russ Campbell, a Birmingham, Ala., agent who represents coaches across the country
For all their historic success, the Maize and Blue haven’t hung a lot of national title banners in most of their fans’ lifetimes. The program claims just one national championship -- the 1997 co-title with Nebraska -- since 1948. That’s the same amount in that time period as Maryland, Minnesota, Syracuse, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Pitt and BYU.
Still, when the Wolverines have operated at peak levels, they’ve never been too far from the title discussion. In 2006, they entered the final game of the regular season ranked No. 2 in the country before losing a thriller on the road to No. 1 Ohio State. They won 11 games and the Sugar Bowl in Hoke’s first season. Michigan competes in a stacked Big Ten East Division with Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State, but the College Football Playoff format means that in many years, winning the Big Ten should be enough to get in the mix for a championship.
The most shocking fact is that the Wolverines haven’t won a conference title since 2004, a true sign of the gap between the program’s reputation and reality.
"That’s really incomprehensible to me," Mason said. "Typically, when you take a dip at a place like Michigan, it tends to come back rather quickly because of the history, fan support and monetary support.
"Should Michigan be able to compete in the Big Ten conference like a marquee team? The answer is yes."
Another factor coaches look for is strong leadership above them and total commitment to winning. Michigan has a new president, Mark Schlissel, who had no previous experience with big-time college sports. The school fired athletic director Dave Brandon in October and currently has an interim AD in Jim Hackett, who could stay on the job for a while. That sort of uncertainty doesn't necessarily turn coaches off -- Penn State was able to hire James Franklin away from Vanderbilt despite having an outgoing president and athletic director while also dealing with NCAA sanctions -- but it could play a role.
"Coaches, most of those guys want to make sure they've got a partnership with the AD," the agent said. "If that situation's unresolved, it could hurt."
So ... is Michigan still one of the nation's best jobs?
Other than some possible leadership conflicts and certain geographical challenges in recruiting, Michigan doesn’t lack for much.
"Michigan has all the ingredients," Campbell said. "It is a first-rate educational institution with great football tradition. Coaches can recruit to Michigan and will have the financial support they need to return the program to national prominence.
"Any program is susceptible to up and down cycles. It is a question of when, not if, Michigan returns to its former glory."
The Wolverines might not get one of their first choices if the Harbaughs stay in the NFL and Miles opts to remain at LSU. But sources believe other big names would jump at the chance to coach Michigan.
"I don’t know why that wouldn’t be a very, very, very attractive job," a former Big Ten head coach said.
"It's a [freakin'] great job," the Power 5 coach said. "Because of the academics there. Because of the reaction when you mention the name."
"The toughest thing about it is it's in the toughest division in the Big Ten with Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State," the agent said. “But it's still considered a premier job.
"The tradition, it's a great brand, great fan support, great school academically. It just has a pizzazz about it."
That's the best news for Wolverines, despite all their recent problems. The name still resonates. Michigan fans should hope that attracts a head coach who can prove that this is still Michigan, for god sakes.