Brady Hoke left his alma mater as head football coach in December to take the reins at San Diego State University, where the football program could use a miracle worker.
A GRADUATE of Indiana’s Ball State University, Brady Hoke left his alma mater as head football coach in December to take the reins at San Diego State University, where the football program could use a miracle worker. A veteran defensive coach at Michigan, Oregon State and Western Michigan, he compiled an overall 34-38 record at Ball State. But it was his 12-win season last year, and Ball State’s No. 12 national ranking, that won Hoke the attention of SDSU recruiters. He’s taking on a team that’s had just one winning season in the past 10, went 2-12 last season and hasn’t earned a post-season bowl bid in more than a decade. Hoke and his wife, Laura, have a grown daughter, Kelly. Laura is busy looking for a home in San Diego——and looking to sell one in Indiana.
TOM BLAIR: You must be having a terrible time adjusting to Southern California in the winter——especially after so much quality weather in Muncie, Indiana. How are you holding up?
BRADY HOKE: As foggy as it’s been the past couple of days, I don’t know what’s going on around here. But so far, so good. I’m still employed, so we’re making progress.
TB: You’ve arrived at a time when San Diego State’s football program has just about reached its nadir——not just in losing games, but losing fans. Student attendance at home games has dried up. Even diehard alums who supported the program through decades of disappointment have all but given up. How fast can you win them back——or does it have to happen fast?
BH: You know, it’s very similar to the situation we had at Ball State, in terms of fan apathy and all those things. The only thing I can say is that we’re going to work our tails off and get a team that’s going to do a great job by playing with great toughness and effort. And we’ve got an educational and cultural process to go through to get people back in the stands. People like winners, so that’s going to be a big part of the formula. But our kids are going to also be winning in the classroom and out in the community.
TB: It took you some time to turn things around at Ball State. The Cardinals went 15-31 in your first four seasons as head coach before finishing 12-1 this past season. Do you think after your great success in 2008, fans will expect instant results here in 2009?
BH: People who love their school and love their team always want success. I feel the same way. There’s no question we’ve got work to do to re-enhance the image of San Diego State football and how we play the game. We look forward to it.
TB: San Diego State is located in one of the country’s most desirable cities. It’s considered the flagship of the California State University system. It boasts some of the best athletic facilities in the West. With all this going for it, why do you think the football team hasn’t been more successful?
BH: One thing I don’t do is focus on the rearview mirror when I drive. In building a program and a philosophy, we like to look right through the front windshield so we can stay on course. There’s tremendous talent in this area. The coaches here do a great job of coaching. There’s competitiveness in high school football in this area, and that’s something we look forward to——getting into those schools and getting close to coaches and recruiting all the guys we can.
TB: What about from farther away——Texas, the East Coast, the Midwest?
BH: You always have some satellite areas you want to be cognizant of. Of course, you can do some awfully good things inside this state. But if there’s a difference-maker from Texas or Phoe nix or somewhere in the Midwest who has a great desire to play for San Diego State, then you’re always going to look at those guys and see how they might fit your program.
TB: With so many big-name universities with big-budget football programs on the West Coast, there’s serious competition when it comes to recruiting. Some former head coaches have favored going the junior-college route. How do you feel about that?
BH: That’s going to be part of the formula, but it’s not going to be in the forefront as much. When you really want to build a program, you want guys who understand the goals, the philosophy—— guys who’ve gone through it for two or three years. Then you’re more consistent. On the other hand, there’ve been some awfully good junior-college players who’ve done tre - mendous things here at San Diego State and elsewhere.
TB: Legendary coach Don Coryell did a lot of junior- college recruiting decades ago and built a hell of a program.
BH: Yes, he did. Brian Sipe and I have had a lot of conversations about that. [Sipe is the former Aztecs quarterback Hoke has tapped as his quarterbacks coach.] Brian reminds me, though, that the landscape has really changed. Back then, the Aztecs were 1-AA, just going into Division 1, I think.
TB: In your press conference after you were named head coach, you said SDSU’s football program would be based on “physical and mental toughness.” How do you define “mental toughness”?
BH: In anything, if you’re going to be your best——whether you’re a surgeon or a car mechanic or a football player——you have to be mentally focused. You have the toughness where you don’t get distracted, and you understand what needs to be done and how to do it ——and do it with great effort. We’ll take care of how we live and how we condition. But the mental side of leadership——of being a team and performing at the highest level every day—— is a big part of being successful as a program.
TB: So, when a couple of players showed up late for your first team meeting, you told them to take a hike. Was that an example of mental toughness?
BH: Either that or get a better alarm clock. It’s about being on time——and being on time means being early. That’s what we believe in. When I was at Michigan, [head coach] Bo Schem bech - ler’s office was five doors down from mine. Having the opportunity to talk with him on a daily basis was something that transferred those values that are most important if you’re going to be successful.
TB: You also said you weren’t “real big on guys who underachieve, either on the field or in the classroom.” There are some who obviously believe in lowering academic standards for student athletes. A recent story in The Indianapolis Star focused on the level of “special admits” at a number of major colleges. It singled out the University of California, Berkeley, where, it said, 90 percent of recent football recruits did not meet entrance requirements. It also said Vanderbilt had lowered the minimum SAT score for incoming athletes to 710. Is this a trend? What is SDSU’s policy on athletes meeting standard entrance requirements?
BH: You know, I was a classic underachiever, academically, for two years as a student at Ball State. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since. And I tell that to guys we recruit and their parents. Because when you underachieve, you’re cheating yourself. Even as a coach, I’m not going to let these kids cheat themselves——wheth - er it’s in the classroom, on campus, in the community or here on the field. When guys graduate from here, we want them to be good husbands and fathers and community leaders. What we’re doing here at the university is very positive, and Ball State did the same thing during my tenure there. We have the resources that can help guys be successful, with tutorials and those kinds of things. Everything we do in the program is going to be for the good of these kids. If you don’t coach because of the kids, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
TB: From what you’ve seen so far, where do you think the most energy needs to be directed to fixing Aztec football?
BH: Oh, boy. I don’t know if I can comment on all of it, because there’s bits and pieces——there are different things: recruiting; doing a better job in our strength and conditioning; team discipline; team leadership. The best teams have great leadership from their seniors. I told the team the first time I met with them, “We’re going to play for our seniors——so our seniors can leave a legacy.” And then, obviously, recruiting is a big part of it, because when you have pretty good players you’re a pretty good coach.
TB: Makes sense. Your football history, as a player and coach, has been primarily on the defensive side. There’s no question the Az tecs need some major help there. But San Diego State has a history of——and has had some of its greatest success by——playing a wide-open offense. What’s your offensive style?
BH: It’s about two things——offense and defense. We’re going to be multiple in what we do offensively and defensively. Where a lot of guys make a mistake is forgetting you’ve got to have a system that’s going to fit your personalities. So we’re going to take advantage of what we do well. I hired Al Borges to run the offense. I have a lot of faith in him. Being on the other side, defending [against] him at two different places, he’s always given me a problem with personnel and out-leveraging the defense with formations and toughness. Al knows how to get the ball in playmakers’ hands. And with Rocky as defensive coordinator, and having the privilege of coaching with him at Oregon State, it’s along the same lines. We’re going to be an aggressive defense, and we’re going to be a team that’s going to take advantage of the personnel we have at hand.
TB: Some believe the actions of the current athletic administration in downgrading the nonconference schedule——cancelling a home game with UCLA this past season and one with Wisconsin in 2010——sends the wrong message to the community and potential recruits, a message that maybe the Aztecs can’t compete. How do you feel about this, and what type of non-conference scheduling will you pursue?
BH: You’ve got to get both sides of that story on both games. I wasn’t here, so I don’t know all the factors involved. I came from a place where we played Iowa, Auburn and Boston College in three consecutive weeks. For a school in the Mid-American Conference, I think that probably was a little bit of an overload. Now, we are going to play UCLA this year, and I think that’s a tremendous football team and tremendous opportunity. There’s always room for a Pac-10 team on our schedule that can get you ready for the Mountain West Conference. This is a good conference, when you look at BYU, Utah, TCU——and what they’ve done over the past five years. Wyoming has a new coach; New Mexico has a new coach; Air Force pre - sents problems every year because of the style offensively. This is a great conference. We’re going to have our hands full just within the conference. But some of those [non-conference] games prepare you for the conference schedule and what you need to do in the Mountain West.
TB: It’s been a long, dry spell for a post-season appearance by the Aztecs. Do you want to make a prediction about when SDSU will appear in a bowl game again?
BH: Listen, I tried to predict all the football games on New Year’s Day. My dad and I run a fun family pool. And there was one person who missed picking every game but one. That was me. My wife was undefeated——so that tells you who runs the football in the family.
TB: Your success at Ball State this past season landed you on TV’s Late Show with David Letterman, where you got a chance to read the Top 10 list of “Highlights of the Ball State Cardinals’ Season.” I understand Letterman is a fellow Ball State alum. Did you get a kick out of doing shtick on national TV?
BH: Dave is a real proud Ball State alum, and you really get a sense of it when you’re there on the set of the show. All those people behind the scenes are doing a job on that show, but every one of them came up and said, “Coach, we want to thank you for making our year so much fun, because Dave was so happy with your rec - ord this year.”
TB: Well, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno is just up the road here in Burbank. You think maybe you could train that show-biz spotlight on SDSU next season?
BH: Well, we’ll see what happens.