Brady Hoke says he’s not concerned about the legacy he left from his time as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
Believe him, don’t believe him, it doesn’t really matter much anymore. Hoke isn’t trying to be outwardly deceptive. But now as the defensive coordinator of the Oregon Ducks, decorum dictates a forward-thinking mindset, not an irrelevant reminiscence of a broken marriage in Ann Arbor.
“If you worry about your legacy then you are worried about the wrong things,” Hoke said. “You have to live day to day. If you worry about legacies, you’re not worrying about what’s important and that’s what you are doing in the present.”
And the present is where his services are needed … desperately. The Ducks need to rebuild their defense. Hoke needs to rebuild his brand. The math -- and the metaphor -- are elementary.
Hoke will never be Michigan’s savior. The kooky guy in the khakis has already assumed that role. But maybe, just maybe, he could turn around the fortunes of an Oregon defense that was the worst in the Pac-12 in 2015 and help the Ducks return to national prominence. Or, at the very least, be able to hold a 31-point halftime lead should they ever face TCU again.
This is a first for Hoke, who had never needed to reboot his career. Each previous job was a steppingstone to a better one. And in less than a decade he skyrocketed from head coach at Ball State to San Diego State to Michigan -- each time leaving on his own terms. Except for the last time.
So after a 5-7 record followed by an unceremonious exit from Michigan in 2014, Hoke took last season away from college football to get his bearings. He traveled to various programs and even did a little radio.
“I think it was a year where we evaluated the good things and look at the things that maybe you could have done better,” Hoke said. “From that aspect of it, that’s as important as anything. It was 35 years of going nonstop every day … so taking a little time and having a little more family time is important.”
Refreshed and reinvigorated, he's back on the field and focusing on what he knows best: defense.
“It’s been great so far because we’re undefeated and everything has been a shutout,” joked Oregon coach Mark Helfrich about Hoke’s presence. “He’s everything we expected in terms of being demanding, a disciplinarian, a guy who immediately shows he cares about the players but can also be demanding on the field. That’s been a great balance.”
Initially, the hire raised eyebrows. Not just because Hoke’s star fell so quickly in the Big Ten, but because of his lack of experience as a coordinator. But Ernie Lawson -- who played for Hoke at SDSU, followed him to Michigan as a graduate assistant, and is now back in San Diego as the defensive line coach -- says Hoke has always been hands on with the defense, regardless of job title.
“He’s tremendous,” Lawson said. “He’s got a great mind for football. As a coach, he’s as good as you can get. He’s able to teach and simplify schemes because he gets it. You can’t make stuff simple as a teacher unless you truly understand it.”
Say this for his time at Michigan: The Wolverines were always a tough out defensively. From 2011-14, the Wolverines ranked in the top half of the league in virtually every defensive category -- and in most cases they were in the top three. Only Michigan State and Wisconsin boasted stronger defenses during that four-year stretch. During that time, Michigan tied with Iowa for the fewest plays of 20-plus yards allowed -- averaging just 44 per season. For perspective, Oregon gave up 79 last year, second-worst in the Pac-12.
“He was right there in the meeting rooms and doing the planning,” Lawson said. “He was a huge part of that. If people are worried, they shouldn’t be. He’s going to be just fine.”
One of the challenges of being a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 is the variety of offenses. One week it’s the Air Raid. The next it’s the Bear raid. The next Stanford is running power right 15 times from 15 different personnel groupings with 18 offensive linemen. More than anything, pliability of defense is a necessity.
“You can be flexible, as long as you’ve got the guys who can handle what you want to do,” Hoke said. “I’ve done this long enough to know you can have too many tools in the toolbox that you think everyone can understand. It doesn’t really matter what we know. It’s what they know. And how we can get them to play fast and tough and hard. That’s the most important thing.”
Per usual, Hoke will take on a position group. He said he’s going to coach the rush ends. It makes sense. He’s always coached the defensive line in some capacity and it’s his specialty.
“At the end of the day, the best thing I can do as a coach is coach,” Hoke said. “I’m really looking forward to doing that.”
And maybe, just maybe, he can rewrite a legacy in the process.