Monday, May 9, 2011

The Spring of MSU’s Recruiting Autumn, or: Brady Hoke Is Eating Mark Dantonio’s Lunch

Brian from MGoBlog recently wrote two posts: “A Brief History of In-State Recruiting: late Lloyd Carr era”, and its sequel, “Rodriguez and Now.” Both delve into the gritty details—and the dramatic meta-narrative—of the battle between U-M and MSU for Michigan football talent. Shorty thereafter, MGoBlog recruiting maven Tim posted Big Ten recruiting rankings, and . . . well, it backs up the current state of said narrative: Brady Hoke is eating Mark Dantonio’s lunch.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not a recruiting guy. I’m leaning on what I glean from other sites, and from my co-author, Jim (who, like me, has taken the postseason off to pursue other pursuits). Still, I’ve been watching the U-M masses frolic upon Mark Dantonio’s grave, and suddenly a post was bubbling up under my fingers. So, out it comes:

I told Brian during the Hoke intro presser, “You may have gotten your Dantonio, for whatever it’s worth.” Hoke, like Dantonio, was an assistant during the most recent Glory Days of his respective program—and Hoke, like Dantonio, immediately appealed to his base with strong campaign promises: I will install a Good Old Fashioned He-Man offense, I will recruit in-state talent, my teams will out-work the other guy for sixty minutes, and—most importantly—we will beat our rivals.

Dantonio tried, sort of, to hold together the transitional ‘07 recruiting class. But when he went hunting in early 2008, he had lots of ammunition: immediate playing time in a pro-style offense, a BCS National Championship ring, and a big bandolier of we’re going to beat Michigan. His 2008 haul looked unlike anything seen at MSU since the Internet has cared about such things, and 2009 saw an unprecedented tail-kicking of U-M for in-state recruits. Brian describes these years as “Transition,” and “Dominance Type Substance” in his articles:

Michigan State nearly swept the in-state four stars, though some of those were pretty iffy—Jeremy Gainer's offer list read "MSU, Iowa and crap"; Donald Spencer's read "MSU and… MSU." Others could be filed under "just one of those things," like Blake Treadwell being a Spartan coach's son. Others were no longer of interest to Michigan because of their offensive system.

That said, this year saw four players who Michigan wanted and seriously could have used go to Michigan State, more than the previous six years combined. Only one—Norman—was a Ren/SE kid. Michigan's instate recruits were three Cass Tech kids and Inkster's Cam Gordon; with the exception of Michigan getting the #1 kid in the state this looks like a complete reversal of The Natural Way Of Things.

We Spartans proudly proclaimed it all over the Internet: The Natural Way of Things had been reversed, and the upper hand was ours! Unfortunately, that didn’t really hold for the 2010 class, and 2011 is shaping up to be a tail-kicking of us, by them. What happened?

Partly, it’s losing Dan Enos to CMU; he recruited Detroit beautifully. But primarily, I see a lot of Hoke’s 2011 success coming from the same source as Dantonio’s 2008 triumph: easy buy-in. Hoke’s doing and saying all the right things to appeal to Michigan’s (huge) in-state fanbase. Hoke is telling kids they can get in on the ground floor of the New Era of Michigan Awesome, and it’s easy to believe. He’s preaching the same values and fundamentals these kids have heard all their lives, and offering immediate playing time in pro-style schemes. In-state recruits are buying what Hoke’s selling, just like Michigan fans everywhere.

Is this a return to the Natural Way of Things, as experienced by Michigan since Bo? Maybe. But if Hoke is Bo, or even significant fractions thereof, he has yet to show it in the fifty-two years he’s walked the Earth. Brian, since the 2007 coaching search, has been screaming that Hoke’s resume is completely inadequate, and repeatedly stating the truth: that if Hoke “been a Michigan State assistant no one would have ever brought him up:

I promise you this: if Brady Hoke is actually hired small children should not read the site for a week following because every other word will be swearing. This is in no way a joke.

Of course, the aforementioned introductory presser pressed every right button, with authority. Just as we clung to Dantonio’s granite jaw after years of John L. Smith calling triple-pitch WR passes and slapping himself, Hoke sweating maize and talking blue is anodyne to the Wolverine faithful. Hoke also pulled off an incredible hire, convincing Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to hold the same position at U-M—as he once did from 1995 to ‘96 . This should help offset the fact that Hoke has never coordinated a defense at the college level.

That’s right; Hoke was a career DL or LB coach,  and he held a DL coaching job at Michigan from 1995 through 2001, before the words “associate head coach” were appended to his job title.  Hmm . . . career defensive line coach, spent most of a decade under the same head coach and defensive system, got promoted to “associate head coach” before landing a head coaching gig, compiled a losing record over several years, and loves to whip players and fans into a team-first adrenaline frenzy with dramatic monologues about toughness and outworking people. Sound familiar, Lions fans?

Lions Marinelli Football    63014404

I’m not saying . . . I’m just saying

Honestly, now: I’m not saying Brady Hoke will be the disaster at Michigan that Rod Marinelli was in Detroit. For starters, Hoke’s made much better coordinator hires. Besides the masterstroke of pulling Mattison to run the defense as opposed to, you know, his son-in-law, Hoke brought along his offensive coordinator from SDSU, Al Borges. Marinelli, on the other hand, hired his personal and professional antithesis: Mike Martz. Second, the NFL is a brutal meritocratic road grader: over time, the wheat consistently get separated from the chaff. Marinelli may be able to whip a defensive end into a quarterback-killing frenzy with nothing but talk, but he had no clue how to play the game of chess that unfolds between NFL offensive and defensive coordinators every Sunday. The ultimate result was 0-16.

In college ball, however, perception is reality; reputation can produce results in a feedback loop. The teams that recruit well win; the teams that win recruit well. Hoke is attempting to start that loop by stuffing an empty larder with beefy front seven recruits; with enough hard work and pad level and luck and smoke and mirrors, his hot air will inflate that perception long enough for the results on the field to catch up to his pressers—and the “Natural Way of Things” really will be restored.

However, Hoke’s strategy will be to take one of the best round offenses in the nation and file off the edges until he can stuff it into a square hole—then take one of the worst round defenses in the nation and stuff that into a square hole, too. Just as Marinelli spent three years trying to remake the roster in the image of his system, Hoke will have to throw out what’s working along with what isn’t. If initial results are no better than Marinelli’s—or, to the point, Rodriguez’s—all of the Michigan Men who never extended Rich Rod a second’s grace will fall all over themselves excusing Hoke . . . for a while. Meanwhile, all the fans who simply want Michigan to win again will grow restless, especially when Michigan again loses to Michigan State, Ohio State and three, four, five, or maybe six other teams.

So, fellow Spartans: do not sweat this tidal wave of Hokeamania. Wail not ye on the message boards, nor gnash thy teeth on teh Twitterz. Let Michigan be The Victors of April. Golf clap for their recruiting classes now, as they did not for ours. Should they press their case to you, simply smile and say “Scoreboard.” Sleep well, knowing what the Way of Things shall be come autumn.