Brady Hoke was the subject of my first and only call into a sports talk radio show. It was December 2007 and as I was driving around Metro Detroit the conversation on WDFN's old Stoney and Wojo show turned to who would replace the recently retired Lloyd Carr.
The conventional and obvious choice at the time to replace Carr was Les Miles, but I called to promote Hoke, who with a 22-36 career record at Ball State, was mostly an unknown. So unknown at the time that the call screener had to ask me where he was coaching before putting me on the air.
I had it all planned out in my head. I would argue that Hoke should get an interview, and if he got an interview, he'd probably get the job. Even a brief conversation with Hoke would reveal his passion and commitment to Michigan.
After about 12 seconds on the air, host Mike Stone cut me off and hung up on me. The idea of Brady Hoke as head football coach at the University of Michigan was laughable.
Fast forward to 2010. Enter Brady Hoke.
With his resume boosted by a 12-1 year at Ball State parlayed into a two-year turnaround project at San Diego State, Hoke was still far from most people's first choice to run Michigan's program. But in his introductory press conference, Hoke was quick to win the crowd over. This was a guy who would have walked to Ann Arbor to take the job.
In college football, culture and fit matter. At some places, say Michigan or Ohio State, it matters a lot. This is where Michigan erred in the hiring of Rich Rodriguez. Mismanaging assistant coaches, transfers, and a 3-9 record left Rich Rod in a hole that was impossible to escape from. Hoke was there to fix that. To reaffirm to everyone that in Ann Arbor, it's always the team (the team, the team) that's the commodity, not the head coach. That with tradition comes responsibility to uphold that tradition. And finally to remind everyone that - this is Michigan.
I have never been good with change in any aspect of my life and in the Rich Rod years Michigan veered into a direction I could not recognize. Brady's hiring reset that. He would provide order and balance to my understanding of the college football universe. Bo begat Mo, who begat Lloyd, who ultimately begat Brady. Michigan would be Michigan again. A new 10-year war was dawning.
It has not worked out the way I thought it would because that's not how sports and this rivalry are designed. In retrospect, Stoney was probably right for hanging up on me.
Barring a miracle, Saturday's game at the Horseshoe will be Brady Hoke's last as head coach of the Wolverines. His tenure has not been without highs. Wins over Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State and a BCS bowl victory are not insignificant.
But there are no excuses left to justify how bad it's gotten. The Wolverines have slid from 11 to eight to six to now potentially five wins. The recruiting class is a dumpster fire. The offense has no direction. There are no more offensive coordinators or athletic directors to blame. It's time for a change.
This actually makes me quite sad. Not because as a Buckeye fan I pity what Michigan has become or because I fear that they might actually make a competent hire that could swing the rivalry back into their favor. I'm sad because it's the end of an era for the Michigan I know and another change to the dynamic of The Game and the rivalry that I hold so very dear.
I'm of the belief that "A River Runs Through It" by Norman Maclean is one of the finest pieces of writing ever crafted. In one of my favorite passages, Maclean says: "When I was young, a teacher had forbidden me to say "more perfect" because she said if a thing is perfect it can't be more so. But by now I had seen enough of life to have regained my confidence in it."
More Perfect. It's the closest I will probably ever get to summing up my feelings on Ohio State-Michigan. I sometimes think I can remember every second of every Ohio State-Michigan game I've been lucky enough to see. From intermittent bursts of 28-0 while fighting off chicken pox on my parents couch to the heights of C-deck during the rivalry's greatest masterpiece in 2006.
Unlike Maclean's family, in my home there was no clear line between college football and religion. Saturdays were the holiest day of the week and we worshiped in one of the great cathedrals - Michigan Stadium
Now that I've laid it out there, I'll be clear in admitting that to which I sometimes hate to admit - I grew up a Michigan fan.
Not a casual one either. From the ages of 6 to 18, I missed exactly three Michigan home football games (Illinois 92, OSU 93 - the aforementioned chicken pox game, and Baylor 97 - cousin's wedding). I traveled to a Rose Bowl, a Orange bowl, and multiple Citrus Bowls. I saw the Hail Mary, a couple Heisman winners and probably more bad loses than my memory cares to admit. I was consumed.
But I didn't end up there. And to some this will never make sense. I've probably heard it all before - I'm a traitor, a bandwagon fan, you can't just switch sides of this rivalry and fully get it. Trust me - I get it. If anyone questions my loyalty or devotion to The Ohio State University then shame on them.
Attending Ohio State was the second-best decision of my life*. It's gets an asterisk because if I hadn't been in Columbus I probably would have never met my wife and made my best decision. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become a student at OSU and it's a long/complicated story about how I did, but let's just say it had something to do with fate, distance from home, tuition and visiting on a unseasonably warm weekend in Winter quarter.
Things change. Despite my personal objections and lingering bitterness it's fitting that The Game has moved from the third Saturday in November to it's current post-Thanksgiving spot. What better time to reflect and express our gratitude for the memories it's provided.
It's easy to fight against change, but the world only spins forward. The hero's and characters of the Ohio State-Michigan game's of my youth are fading fast or gone. John Cooper, Lloyd, John Falk, Tress. The Big Ten doesn't have 10 or even 11 teams anymore. We play in a conference championship game after The Game and there's some sort of playoff thing going on that's more important than a trip to the Rose Bowl.
There will be more changes. It's inevitable. And we'll complain about them and about how money is ruining college athletics and things used to be better and simpler and how so and so was a better coach/quarterback/linebacker than the current guy. But it's not going to make a whole lot of difference and anyone younger than us isn't likely to give a damn.
So maybe that's why this game is so important me and other Buckeye/Wolverine fans. It's a link to our past and to our future. The players, coaches and circumstance change, but The Game remains our constant. I've gone from kid to adult, single to married and Wolverine fan to Buckeye and throughout it all it has remained my absolute favorite day of the year.
I pray it will always be there. The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan in November playing a football game that means more than any other football game under a gray midwest sky. And it will more perfect than anything I can imagine.
Go Bucks. Beat That School Up North.