Rich Rodriguez still runs into his players during shopping trips in Ann Arbor.
"Office Depot or something," said Michigan's former coach. "You can figure, you've got mixed emotions. You're frustrated because it's your guys and you want to coach them."
The memories are as hard to shake as his mortgage. Rodriguez hasn't sold his Michigan house yet. He has another residence in Florida, a job at CBS Sports Network and somewhat of an I-told-you-so outlook this week.
"They're [Michigan] about where you thought they'd be," said Rodriguez, who was let go in January after three seasons.
That would be 6-0 for the first time in five years. The Wolverines are in the top 10 for the first time since 2007 (No. 10 coaches poll, No. 11 AP). Rich-Rod pretty much predicted it.
"We thought it was just getting ready to take off," he told me in February.
The difference is that among Michigan followers, Saturday's game at Michigan State seems like a takeoff point rather than another test of their faith.
All that makes Brady Hoke a rarity. Remember him, the guy who took over Rodriguez's forlorn program? He is one of only eight first-year coaches with a better record this season than where their new programs were at the same point in 2010. Only four of the eight are FBS coaches. Vanderbilt's James Franklin, David Shaw at Stanford and North Carolina interim Everett Withers are the others.
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That's significant. Schools typically don't change coaches because the program is successful, if you catch the drift. There is always baggage left over to greet the new coach -- attitudes, bad fits, attrition. And Hoke wasn't exactly the first choice at Michigan.
Rich-Rod loved his players. But in the end, he wasn't the right fit for a tradition-bound program. Embarrassing losses to rivals Ohio State and Michigan State only begins to cover it. There was the troublesome NCAA episode. The defense was atrocious. That doesn't mean the former coach can't take some satisfaction.
"I knew coming in the first spring at Michigan," Rodriguez said. "I told the administration, 'You might not want to believe this, but it's going to take this more than three years. But after that, we're going to have a whole lot of fun.'"
The fun is now Hoke's. He's a hit because he is winning largely with someone else's players. There's nothing wrong with that, though it usually has a negative connotation. There's no apologizing for winning. Hoke's no different than 23 other new coaches around the country this season.
He's just doing it better than most, being one game better than Rich Rod (5-1) at this point a year ago. Louisiana-Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth is author of the best first-year turnaround in the country so far. The Ragin' Cajuns have gone from 2-4 after six games in 2010 to 5-1 right now.
That's the kind of success Rodriguez predicted for Michigan when he left behind 18 starters for 2011 from a 7-6 team.
"You still have to coach them up and give them a chance to play," Rich-Rod said. "If you're coming back with a bunch of returning starters that are good, that's different, especially at quarterback."
Ah, yes. The quarterback. The triggerman of triggermen this season. Rich-Rod's guy: Denard Robinson.
"Not just a returning starter but the player of the year in the league as a first-year starter," Rodriguez reminded.
Hoke is that Michigan Man with Michigan Values, even a Michigan Voice. Well, if that Michigan Man were Matt Foley. Forget his spot on the interview list. AD Dave Brandon has a hit on his hands. A Ball State grad from Ohio, Lloyd Carr's former D-line coach, a guy lured from San Diego State, has restored the spirit and culture of Michigan. The improvement over 2010 is only by a game but it seems like 10.
|Mark Hudspeth, La.-Lafayette||2-4||5-1||+3|
|Hugh Freeze, Ark. State||2-4||4-2||+2|
|Brady Hoke, Michigan||5-1||6-0||+1|
|Everett Withers, UNC||4-2||5-1||+1|
|Pete Lembo, Ball State||2-4||3-3||+1|
|Dan McCarney, North Texas||1-5||2-4||+1|
|David Shaw, Stanford||4-1||5-0||+1|
|James Franklin, Vanderbilt||2-3||3-2||+1|
"One of the biggest mistakes that are made," TCU coach Gary Patterson said, "is that you go outside the region. You have to be somebody who understands the people there, the way people think."
Most of all, Hoke has injected something in half a season that Rodriguez couldn't sustain in three. Optimism. Michigan's 2012 recruiting class is ranked No. 1 by MaxPreps.com. Hoke has landed five top 100 players.
"Kids are starting to think that Michigan pride is restored," said MaxPreps.com's Stephen Spiewak. "They've been on fire, basically."
The Wolverines started similarly -- 4-0 in 2009, 5-0 in 2010 -- before finishing a combined 3-13. Saturday, then, is a season pivot point considering a nasty three-game losing streak to the Spartans.
The influence to date, though, of a certain Rodriguez-recruited dreadlocked dervish at quarterback cannot be understated.
"I wondered what they were going to do with Denard," Rodriguez said. "The talk was that they weren't going to run him 20 times a game. They were going to make him pro-style. The last few games they're running him over 20 times a game. The reason they're doing it is because they want to win."
In that sense, not much has changed at Michigan. Robinson is having another Heisman-worthy season. He is at the exact spot in the NCAA stats where he ended 2010 -- first in Big Ten rushing, fourth nationally. Through six games D-Rob is averaging exactly one less carry per game than he did at this point last season, 19.8-18.8.
He's playing a bit more under center, but Michigan probably doesn't beat Notre Dame without Robinson. It might not rally at Northwestern last week in its first road game of the season. It is not unbeaten without Robinson's point-guard imagination being one year older.
The guy who recruited him is missing all the fun.
"When you're taking over a team, are you taking over a team that is on the upswing or are they on the way down?" Rodriguez said.
This one is improved, if not soaring. Ten of Rodriguez's former players are in the top 15 of Big Ten statistical categories. Michigan is the Legends Division leader and a legit contender for the first 12-team Big Ten title. CBSSports.com BCS analyst Jerry Palm has had Michigan at 10-2 and in a BCS bowl since the preseason.
The defense has cut its points allowed by almost two-thirds. The Wolverines have been great in the second half, reflected by the Notre Dame comeback and 28-0 skunk job against Northwestern last week.
Turnovers forced are up. Angst is down.
"I looked up there [last season] against Ohio State, we're getting killed," Rodriguez said. "I wanted to yell and scream, then I looked up and there are seven freshmen on the field. I was thinking, 'You can't say a whole lot. They may grow up. When they grow up, they're going to be pretty good.'"
Hoke shouldn't apologize for any of it. Larry Coker didn't in 2001 when he took over Miami 10 days before signing day. Butch Davis abruptly left for the Cleveland Browns. The program was dangling in midair.
"It's really a leap of faith for them because I'd never been a coach before," he said.
Coker not only salvaged the recruiting class that today includes several All-Pros but won the national championship in his first year as head coach. The current coach at Texas-San Antonio remembers looking up at the scoreboard at halftime of his first game. Miami led at Penn State 30-0.
"I'm jogging off the field at the half thinking, 'What's wrong with this story?'" Coker said. "Joe Paterno's on the other side and he's trying to win 400 games and I'm trying to win one. Something's just not right about that."
He was winning with Davis' players, who had become his in a hurry. Coker had recruited the likes of Jeremy Shockey and Ken Dorsey before keeping that recruiting class intact. Miami hasn't been as good since. Is Michigan, as Rich-Rod suggested, getting ready to take off on a similar arc?
"Really, the University of Miami did it. It wasn't me or Butch," Coker added. "Michigan should have good players and Miami should have good players."