Hoke brings swagger back to Michigan

CHICAGO -- Brady Hoke said the words Michigan fans have been yearning to hear.

"We're Michigan."

As in, "We're great."

Hoke dropped that line more than once from the podium here at Big Ten media days. And even if the facts don't back up the boast, a beaten-down fan base has to love the sound of swagger returning to its football program.

The first time Hoke said it was in response to a question that used the word "rebuild": "I don't think we're rebuilding, period. I mean, we're Michigan."

(Immediate reaction: Did he watch the Wolverines get clubbed 52-14 in the Gator Bowl by Mississippi State? I guess not, because that team needs rebuilding.)

The second time Hoke said it was when asked about his rapid recruiting success since being hired this past winter: "This might sound arrogant, and if it is, it is. We're Michigan. We have a global education. We're the winningest program in the history of college football. We have a tremendous staff of guys. The lifeblood for all of us, no doubt, is the guys you bring in your program. We've really tried to focus on the guys that fit the mold of Michigan with the integrity and character that we want to have. We want guys who will play with a toughness, play with an accountability and on a team for each other.

"Those [recruiters] out on the road, they work it and they do a tremendous job. But first and foremost, it's Michigan."

For a program that has always been rather proud of itself, this is a return to normalcy. The insecurity of program outsider Rich Rodriguez is out. The arrogance is back in the form of the Michigan Man now in charge of the program.

"Our current coach is all about Michigan," Wolverines athletic director Dave Brandon said. "That becomes apparent to all who meet him or listen to him. He actually understands the history and traditions of the Michigan program. I think that's extremely important to our players and our fans."

Oh, Hoke gets it, all right. He's never shied away from the immensity of the rivalry with Ohio State. He's embraced it at every occasion, doing what he can to stoke the fires of a matchup that has been losing heat in recent years.

In fact, he's employed an old Jackie Sherrill technique of subtle disrespect for the Buckeyes, referring to the school routinely as "Ohio" instead of "Ohio State." When Sherrill was the coach at Mississippi State, he infuriated rival Ole Miss fans by only calling the school "Mississippi."

Of course, chest thumping and slight verbal digs aren't going to get first downs against the Buckeyes, who have beaten Michigan an unprecedented seven straight seasons. It will take more than a healthy self-esteem to turn that around. But the opportunity is there.

With the jarring departures of coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes are as vulnerable as they've been in a decade. The question is whether Michigan is improved enough to capitalize on it.

A lot of that will depend on how well Hoke's talented coordinators can meld with their new players. Al Borges has the job of working gifted runner Denard Robinson into a more pro-style offense -- a job Hoke said is made easier by Robinson having played in such a system in high school. Greg Mattison is tasked with improving a pathetic Michigan defense that surrendered 34 or more points nine times in 2010.

There is a lot of improving to do. But Hoke has a track record of improving programs, having worked remarkable turnarounds at Ball State and San Diego State before getting this opportunity at a school where he once worked as an assistant from 1995 to 2002.

It was then that Hoke got a feeling for Michigan's healthy self-image. It's now his job to restore it, and he's off to a strong start in the rhetoric department. We'll know in the fall whether that carries over to the field.