Family matters: Michigan coaches discuss the anatomy of their success
ANN ARBOR — Brady Hoke once was assigned to drive from Kalamazoo to Ft. Wayne, Ind., to secure a kid’s signature on his letter of intent. It was 1985, long before fax machines, and Hoke was an assistant at Western Michigan.
There was a blizzard, but Hoke plowed through, eventually reaching the recruit’s house. He was greeted by the kid’s mother, who insisted he call Jack Harbaugh, the Broncos’ head coach.
Hoke dialed the number, but it wasn’t Harbaugh’s. It was Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo and his wife, Laura, was in labor. She wasn’t due for another three months.
Kelly Hoke was born that day. She weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces and could fit in the palm of a hand.
She survived, after months on a respirator. She was a miracle.
But as the years passed and Brady rose through the ranks of his profession, Kelly was squeezed out of his life more than he would have liked.
All coaches sacrifice family time, an ugly reality of big-time college football. But now that he’s 53 years old and nestled in his dream job, head coach at Michigan, it has hit him just how much he forfeited to achieve his dreams.
“I missed a lot of my daughter’s growing up, and I can’t get it back. Wish I could,” Hoke said during a recent interview at his Schembechler Hall office. “I missed a lot of Kelly’s junior high, her high school, and I just can’t get it back.”
If he could do it all over again, would he do things differently?
“I’m sure of that,” Hoke said. “I’m sure of that. I’ve worked hard, and we all do, for the (players) and what we have to do for them, but there were times where I could have gotten away.”
Consider it a lesson learned.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines open their 133rd season of football Saturday against No. 2 Alabama. They do it after posting an 11-win season few saw coming.
A chief reason for that revival is coaching. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and offensive coordinator Al Borges are two of the more respected assistants in the game, with long track records for success.
Ask about the anatomy of that triumvirate, and what makes it so successful, and you’ll come back with a story about family.
Hoke’s first job in college football was as defensive line coach at Grand Valley State, a Division II school located in Allendale. It paid $2,000.
“Great school,” Hoke says. “That was a good year for me.”
Hoke wasn’t as polished then, and his coaching philosophies incipient. But one thing he had, as he does now, was charm on the recruiting trail. He was tough, yet fair, and always likeable.
A defensive assistant at Western Michigan took notice, when the two bumped into each other at a camp in Grand Rapids. His name: Greg Mattison.
“He was at Grand Valley, and he’s not going to get the same kind of kids as us at Western, but he recruited as if he was recruiting for a national championship team,” Mattison said. “He looked like a linebacker. He carried himself in recruiting with a lot of pride. And you knew he was a coach the second you ran into him.”
The following year, Western Michigan’s defensive line job opened and Mattison recommended Hoke for the gig. Harbaugh, the team’s head coach, liked what he saw and obliged.
One problem: Hoke had nowhere to stay. So, for almost a month, he and Laura slept on a pullout coach in Mattison’s basement. Upstairs were Greg and his wife, Ann, as well as their 9-month-old son, Bryan.
Bryan cried a lot then. Hoke would put him in a swing and rock him, which helped. Hoke started calling him “Cryin’ Bryan,” and still does.
Bryan is a 310-pound offensive guard for the St. Louis Rams.
“It’s almost like I had two dads — like I had a second grandpa or something like that,” Bryan Mattison said. “He’s always busting my chops somehow, which is fun because he can take it too.”
Brady Hoke spent three years with the Broncos, two of which came with Mattison as his defensive coordinator. Those were impressionable years for the young coach.
“He was one of my main mentors, to be honest with you, at a young age,” Hoke said.
So, then, it comes as little surprise the two have similar coaching philosophies, a harmony that now resonates on the Michigan defense. But the relationship extended off the field as well.
Hoke and Mattison would recruit Michigan and Wisconsin together, all of it by car. An old Chevy Impala with Western Michigan stickers slapped across the side.
The pair listened to all kinds of music, but mostly funk. Hoke, always a competitor, would try to name the tunes quicker than Mattison. And almost always did.
They talked baseball. Hoke hails from Dayton, Ohio, and loves the Cincinnati Reds, while Mattison grew up in Madison, Wis., and roots for the Chicago Cubs. NL Central rivals.
As they toured the Midwest, their relationship calcified.
“It’s what cemented it,” Hoke said.
The Mattison and Hoke families remained close, even after their Western Michigan staff was fired in 1986. They vacationed together, played euchre together, their kids grew up together.
“When him and dad got together, they were funny people,” Bryan Mattison said. “They roll on each other. They’re like the same person in different bodies. They think the same things are funny, they think the same things are right or wrong. They just feed off each other.”
The pair reconnected in the mid-1990s at Michigan, where Mattison recommended Hoke for the defensive line job, but split again after two seasons as both advanced their careers.
Fourteen years later, when Hoke was hired as the Wolverines’ head coach, he already knew who he wanted as his defensive lieutenant. Mattison, though, had a plush job as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator.
In the end, family ties won out. Mattison’s daughter, Lisa Roberts, lives in Tecumseh — about 40 minutes from Ann Arbor — and was pregnant with Mattison’s first grandchild.
“I told her, ‘I got a big decision to make,’ and she kind of got real quiet,” Mattison said. Then she started crying, and “that’s when she said something to the effect, ‘Bryan and I have followed you everywhere we’ve been. We’ve moved. This is a perfect place for you.’”
She had her baby, and named her Mattison. They call her Mattie.
Earlier this year, she opened a shop on Main Street called Rock Paper Scissors. Her father’s office is minutes away, and he visits frequently.
Borges is the outsider in this triumvirate, but Hoke’s relationship with him does have deep roots.
The exact year they met is fuzzy, but it occurred during spring camp in 1989 or 1990. Hoke was defensive line coach at Oregon State and Borges the offensive coordinator at Portland State.
The Portland State staff visited Oregon State to observe camp.
Borges remembers one thing about their encounter: “He was a down-to-earth guy, just as he’s always been. He wasn’t hard to talk to, even though I barely knew him.
“I could see that (he was head-coaching material), because he was a tough guy. He was a smart guy, that probably sometimes didn’t want you to know how smart he was.”
Both spent time on the West Coast, and would run into each other at recruiting stops. They played against each other a few times, including twice when Borges was at UCLA and Hoke at Michigan.
Hoke also faced Borges’ Auburn offense in 2005 when he was head coach at Ball State, losing 63-3.
In those encounters, Hoke developed an admiration for the efficiency of Borges’ offenses. When he took over at San Diego State in 2009, he called up Borges, who was out of football for the first time in almost 30 years, to offer him the offensive coordinator job.
Borges readily accepted.
“It saved my career — that opportunity really did,” Borges said. “San Diego State was a sleeping giant, but to work for Brady too, it was kind of a no-brainer for me.”
Borges followed Hoke to Michigan last year. There’s a transition period for a new coaching staff, as they develop a rapport, mesh their varying styles and philosophies, and then figure out how to distill that into a unified message for players.
Sometimes, that’s a painful process.
For this staff, Borges said, it was seamless. He credits Hoke’s lack of ego for setting the tone.
“That’s what makes chemistry,” Borges said. “When chemistry gets screwed up is when guys get too selfish, and I’ve seen it. I’ve been around it. We try to avoid all that.”
Borges said if there’s a defining trait for Hoke, that’s it. And this staff has followed suit.
“I don’t know that it’s rare that a head coach is so ego-less, but it’s not common,” Borges said. “But with Brady Hoke, I don’t think you get a hell of a lot different guy you get as a head coach than you do as an assistant. The core personality is no different.”
Borges says there’s something else unique about this staff, and it’s the importance placed on family. He appreciates that, now that he has one of his own.
He didn’t marry his wife, Nikki, until he was 43. They adopted two children, Cole and Maddy Jo, a few years later.
Maddy Jo, now 5, sometimes sits in during her father’s news conferences at Schembechler Hall. She helps soften the questions, Borges likes to say.
Cole, now 7, enjoys hanging around the football program as well. He’s even taken to drawing up plays, just like his old man, who fancies himself a “scribbler” because he’ll draw up plays anywhere.
“It’s unbelievable,” Borges said. “We had a whole wall of them at the Sugar Bowl. I guess he sees me do it, so he does it.”
Borges, 56, cherishes those opportunities. He’s an older father with young children, and has a demanding job. But Hoke sees to it Borges spends time with them, even in football settings, helping to avoid the mistakes he made with Kelly.
“I’m in a different situation — I’m in a high-pressure job with itty-bitty kids, and I’m further on in my career,” Borges said. “When the head coach appreciates my family, I appreciate the head coach. It’s very important to me.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to socialize as a staff, and it’s contributed at least in part to the good chemistry that we have.”
Hoke has instituted an annual kickball game that is held on the final day before summer break. Everyone in the Schembechler Hall offices is invited to the affair — families, too. He doesn’t play, but rather is the “all-governing body of Brady Hoke Kickball,” Borges said.
Once the season starts, Hoke opens up the Schembechler Hall cafeteria so coaches and staff can eat with their families.
That’s this staff in a nutshell.
They are powerful men, charged with running one of the country’s most powerful football programs. They have to roll up their sleeves just like anyone else, and that means making sacrifices elsewhere. It’s an unbalanced life.
But Borges, Mattison and Hoke each say this staff is as familial as any they’ve been on. It’s something recruits have noticed, and often cite when they commit to the program.
It all starts with Hoke, who works in his lavish office with a photo of his wife, Laura, over his right shoulder.
And there’s Kelly, the miracle, over his left. A reminder of those lost cross country meets and golf matches. A reminder of family, and its importance as the grease that helps his program run.
“When I became a head coach, I said I was going to try to do the best I could that other guys wouldn’t miss what I missed,” Hoke said. “I think we do the best we can with it.”
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