Michigan hopes Hoke has the ties that bind

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke has spent his head-coaching career dressed like he's going to a funeral.

Hoke's first stop as a head coach took him back to Ball State, his alma mater. Ball State's official school colors are cardinal and white. Hoke showed up to games looking like this and this.

He then moved on to San Diego State in 2009. San Diego State's school colors are red and black. It made Hoke's choice easy. Johnny Cash and Darth Vader would have loved the coach's game-day getup.

Hoke worked tirelessly for both schools, recruited for them, won games for them. But he wouldn't wear red for them.

"I never have," Hoke said. "People understood. They got the message, I guess. Right, wrong or different, that's me."

Hoke's red rejection had nothing to do with Ball State or San Diego State. It had everything to do with Michigan and its archrival, the school Hoke refers to only as "Ohio."

Ohio State wears scarlet on Saturdays, and a Michigan man like Hoke, a Wolverines assistant from 1995-2002, would be damned if he'd enter the same color palette.

"All his guys at San Diego State would give him crap because he wouldn't wear red," Michigan senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "He wore a black shirt on game day. His red never came out because he still had the Michigan roots and you never wear red because that's Ohio's color. For him to maintain that passion and that fire, even when he wasn't associated with the program or playing against us or anything, that means a lot.

"It's personal for him, what we do."

Hoke's personal connection to Michigan and his desire to restore the program to powerhouse status has reverberated throughout Schembechler Hall this spring. Players know this is the 132nd year of Michigan football. They know about the 42 Big Ten championships. They know about the tradition, the legacies and the expectations. Most important, they know what it all means to their coach.

"They know my love for Michigan," Hoke said.

Players also know about Michigan's recent downturn. In announcing the firing of Rich Rodriguez on Jan. 5, athletic director Dave Brandon cited the program's struggles in "red-letter games," contests against Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin.

"If you want to be successful at Michigan, you better win more than your share of those red-letter games," Brandon said that day. "Those red-letter games, over the last three seasons, we've been 3-15."

Hoke understands. And to him, one red-letter game always will stand out from the rest.

"Today is 2,699 since we've beaten Ohio, and that’s important to remember," he told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It hurts, but it's the truth and you've got to do something about it. That's why you're at Michigan."

Hoke has hammered it home by placing reminders around Schembechler Hall.

Countdown clocks to Michigan's upcoming games against Michigan State and "Ohio" are everywhere around the football complex. Outside Hoke's office. In the area outside the Commons room. In the locker room. On either side of the entrance to the indoor practice facility.

"I can appreciate that," Van Bergen said. "When everything in the weight room is based around beating Ohio and everything on the practice field is based around beating Ohio, you're going to get better because you realize how good they are. That emphasis makes everybody work harder."

Hoke's refusal to add "State" to "Ohio" also seems to be catching on.

"I don't know if it's a rule or not," Van Bergen said, "but he's not going to do it, so obviously that's making a statement and I'm not going to, either."

Rodriguez often took heat for what some felt was a failure to fully grasp Michigan's traditions and rivalries. His lack of success against Ohio State and Michigan State -- he went 0-6 -- didn't mitigate the criticism.

Although Hoke has yet to face Ohio State or Michigan State as the Wolverines' head coach, he likely won't be questioned about playing up the rivalries.

"Both of them embraced it, but coach Hoke, he's been here before so I guess he'll know more than coach Rod," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "[Hoke] says 'Ohio,' so that's different for me. But I guess that's how it used to be."

Asked about the countdown clocks, Robinson smiled.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah, you're ready for that," he said. "Coach Rod took an approach like that, too, but you can't compare those two coaches."

Hoke is using more than clocks and colors to revive the Michigan way. After three years of the spread offense and (mostly) the 3-3-5 defense, Michigan is getting back to its roots from a schematic standpoint.

Greg Mattison returned to Michigan from the Baltimore Ravens and brought his trademark 4-3 defense with him. Al Borges came with Hoke from San Diego State and installed a more traditional offensive system.

"Michigan's always been known for its pro-style offense, power running, set up the pass with the run," wide receiver Darryl Stonum said. "It's been known for its dominant defense. That's just been Michigan. We got back to the pro-style offense. Our defense is out there playing hard.

"It just feels like Michigan's back."

Older players like Stonum and Van Bergen have taken to the changes because they were recruited to play in similar systems by former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. Michigan has seen little attrition during the coaching change, and players seem to be responding to Hoke's veteran staff, led by Mattison and veteran offensive coordinator Borges.

"There's not much on-the-job training going on here," Borges said. "We’ve all done this for a long time."

Borges has made previous stops at Auburn, Oregon, UCLA and California, among others. But he senses a difference this time, not only because of the program but because of the man leading the way.

"Brady had a lot of passion at San Diego State, but this is the job when you’re a little kid you grow up dreaming of having," Borges said. "The people who love Michigan football are excited about Brady being here because Brady's excited about being here. And he has hired a staff that is as excited as he is."

Hoke wasn't a big-name hire at Michigan. He carries a losing record as a head coach (47-50) and hasn't led a team in a BCS automatic-qualifying conference.

There were flashier coaches out there, more accomplished coaches. But arguably no coach cares more about restoring Michigan at this critical juncture than Hoke does.

"He's made it real easy for us to buy into what he's teaching and what he's doing because he loves Michigan and he loves football," Stonum said. "We love Michigan and we love football, so it’s easy to get on the same page with him."