Brady Hoke is a good guy. That was made abundantly clear by Michigan's interim AD Jim Hackett in Tuesday's press conference when he announced that the Hoke would no longer be the head coach of Michigan football.
Hackett praised Hoke for his dedication to the university and the integrity with which he acted while heading one of college football's most storied and successful programs. But when push came to shove, Hoke's win-loss record wasn't up to Michigan football standards, and this year's 5-7 effort acted as the straw that broke Hoke's back. 31-20 is a good four-year stretch for most college football programs, but Michigan is not most college football programs. They expect and require their coaches to have their teams competing for Big Ten championships, and if you can't accomplish that, you're not going to keep your job very long.
Northwestern and Michigan are extremely different football programs in terms of past success and current expectations. Michigan has won the most games of any team in college football history with 889 wins while boasting an impressive a .729 win percentage. Northwestern is on the very opposite end of the spectrum, having lost 642 times. Clearly, there is no historical precedent for comparing the two programs. But this is 2014, and things aren't as they used to be. Northwestern football and Michigan football are as close as ever, probably more a product of Michigan going through one of the worst stretches in their history while Northwestern is enjoying one of its best stretches (if you go back to the early 2000s).
In Michigan's last three seasons (all under Hoke), the Wolverines are a combined 20-18. In Northwestern's last three seasons (under Pat Fitzgerald), the Wildcats are 20-17. While Michigan has beaten Northwestern three years in a row, each game has been a nail-biter. Michigan beat Northwestern at the Big House, 38-31 in 2012, connected on a 44-yard last second field goal to tie the game last year and eventually won in triple overtime, and eeked out one of the uglier games you'll ever see this year by a 10-9 final after Trevor Siemian fell on his behind on a two-point conversion that would have won the game.
If you've been watching Northwestern football for decades, this probably brings you a great deal of pride. The simple fact that Northwestern isn't the laughing stock of the Big Ten means that the program has made incredible progress, and that Northwestern is competing for bowl eligibility every year likely satisfies you. But as a new fan of Northwestern sports, I'm not satisfied with mediocrity in the slightest. I see Stanford (who graduates 94 percent of its players) and Duke football (who has quietly gone 19-7 in the past two seasons) as examples of schools that boast both highly ranked academics and highly successful football teams. I see the plans for the sparkling new Lakefront Training Facility and I see a stark increase in the number of high quality recruits the program has been able to sign. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I feel as though this program has potential that it hasn't yet come close to reaching.
And that's why I'm hoping Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips was watching the Michigan press conference with keen interest today. And I don't say that because Phillips has been rumored as a candidate for the Michigan AD job. I say that because Jim Hackett said all the right things in firing Brady Hoke. He showed that it's okay to fire a guy who has ties to the university, who's loved by the community and adored by his players and staff.
While we've been highly critical of Pat Fitzgerald, I don't think any of us on InsideNU staff would say that firing him this year would be beneficial to the program or university. As discussed previously, Fitz has without question elevated this program and has put together some really solid years during his tenure. But the shockingly lopsided loss to Illinois put the finishing touches on another hugely disappointing season for Northwestern, a 5-7 campaign that left the 'Cats sitting on their couches watching Netflix and the NFL rather than preparing for a bowl game for the second consecutive year.
If this trend is to continue, it's vital that Phillips (or whoever the Northwestern AD is) puts wins and losses at a priority when evaluating the football program. Yes, Northwestern's Academic Progress Rate is extraordinarily high, and yes, Northwestern graduates 97 percent of its football players. Those are both numbers that all Northwestern fans should be proud of. But the football players' success in the classroom is more a product of the university and the standard it holds its athletes to any individual coach. In 2004 and 2005, the two seasons before Fitzgerald took over as head coach, the graduation rates were 97 percent and 94 percent, respectively. To suggest that a move away from Fitzgerald (if the team continues to lose) would compromise the program's high academic success and integrity isn't supported by the facts.
As Hackett said today, Michigan will be looking for a coach who will return Michigan to prominence without cutting corners. There are other coaches out there who also possess a strong moral compass and coach and recruit by the rules — Hoke and Fitzgerald aren't the only two.
Next, Hackett went out of his way to say that he wants to eradicate the term "Michigan man." When Brady Hoke was hired, Michigan brass talked about how he knew what it meant to be a Michigan Wolverine and that somehow that knowledge would help him be a better coach. If such a term existed, Pat Fitzgerald would be the quintessential example of a "Northwestern man." He's one of the best players in the program's history and starred on one of two Northwestern teams to ever go to the Rose Bowl. Fitzgerald is a celebrity on campus and is the undoubted face of Northwestern football. He's often cited as one of the "good guys" of college football, an old-school values-first coach who puts honest, hard work at a premium.
But as Hackett showed today, if the on-field results aren't good enough, it's okay to fire a Michigan Man. And if Northwestern continues to have losing seasons, it will be okay to fire a Northwestern man. Fitzgerald has a contract through 2020 and Northwestern probably doesn't care about wins and losses all that much and surely cares less than Michigan does, so all this talk is probably for naught. And again, I want to make it clear that I am in no way advocating for Pat Fitzgerald's firing. I just hope that the powers that be at Northwestern realize that this program has the potential not just to be a team that's not the running joke of Division I, but one that can mirror Stanford and Duke and compete for conference championships.
But for that to happen, a coach's win-loss record has to be the first thing looked at when the AD reviews his status after every season. Eventually, we'll see if Northwestern is willing to do just that.