August 30, 2010
The last word on the season's most pressing topics.
At this point, you could fill a book with the petty barbs, divisions and mini-scandals surrounding Rich Rodriguez from the day he showed up in Ann Arbor in 2007 to reignite a decaying program. But the basic story of his tenure as it enters its third year hasn't changed: Nothing good has happened for Rodriguez or Michigan since he was hired. All news since December 2007 has been bad news.
That was the case at the beginning, when his hiring was met with a wave of transfers and early exits for the draft, and he was sued by his former employer within days of accepting the job. It was still the case a year later, after the Wolverines staggered through a 3-9 debacle that obliterated every existing notion of the "worst-case scenario," and it was still the case at this time last year, when late-breaking accusations by the Detroit Free Press tore the fan base into warring factions over the cherished integrity of the program and left Rodriguez a weepy wreck just days before the season opener.
And a year later, it's still the case. True, last September seemed pretty good at the time, after Michigan knocked off Notre Dame and thought it had discovered it quarterback of the future, true freshman Tate Forcier, during a 4-0 start. Seven consecutive Big Ten losses later, the early mirage was a distant memory, obscured by a last-place finish for a team that had far fewer excuses for its collapse than the ramshackle '08 squad. Over the summer, Forcier ran afoul of teammates for an allegedly sketchy work ethic, one of the most essential pieces of the incoming freshman class was denied admission by the university and Rodriguez was slapped with a second lawsuit in connection to a failed real estate investment. Days into practice, the attrition from the Wolverine secondary went from "ominous" to "catastrophic." At some point this fall, the Wolverines will be officially placed on NCAA probation for the first time, to an anguished chorus of wringing hands. At this rate, part of the newly expanded Big House will begin literally crumbling at some point during the Iowa game.
You can take the mounting cavalcade of despair as more proof that Rodriguez is hopeless and doomed, and with a new, more business-minded athletic director on hand, that may be a pretty good assumption. With 17 true freshmen or redshirt freshmen on the latest depth chart, there's still a palpable sense of rebuilding even in year three, when the growing pains of the frighteningly young teams in years one and two are supposed to begin paying off. Before Rodriguez, Michigan hadn't suffered through a losing season since 1967, or back-to-back losing seasons since 1962-63. Three straight losing seasons? In 130 years, it's never happened. Even with a 6-6 or 7-5 record and a bottom-rung bowl game this fall, it would still be possible to view the entire Rodriguez era through three years as one of the low points in program history, on par with the late fifties and early-to-mid sixties teams that preceded Bo Schembechler's resurrection of the program into a 40-year juggernaut. Before Rodriguez, after all, 7-5 and a middling bowl game was considered a year of infinite pain.
On the other hand, amid a roiling sea of darkness, the tiniest hint of light in the distance can bring life-sustaining hope. As relentlessly as they've been bombarded with bad news over the last two-and-a-half years – and it's been going downhill for significantly longer, really, with the majority of the six-year losing streak to Ohio State and the Appalachian State debacle in 2007 predating the Rodriguez-era collapse – 6-6, a well-timed upset, a somewhat competitive effort in Columbus and a berth in the inaugural Dallas Football Classic might be just not-horrible enough to pass as progress.
It says a lot that this team's absolute ceiling against the upcoming schedule (on paper, anyway) looks like 7-5, and even that will require snapping two-game losing streaks to Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue, as well as taking one of two toss-ups against UConn and Notre Dame to open the season. It's just as telling, though, that there don't seem to be any specific benchmarks, in terms of wins and losses, for Rodriguez to save his job. More important than the record itself is finding some kind of hope, some sense that the ship is on the course toward some kind of light, whether it's two more years of Forcier and/or Denard Robinson running the offense or the emergence of hyped talents like William Campbell, Mike Martin and Craig Roh on the defensive line or somebody, anybody, establishing himself as a reliable playmaker at running back or receiver.
Those kinds of once-routine positives have been so starkly absent the last two years that a reminder of their possibility – that this team can be good at some foreseeable point in the near future, and is clearly heading for that point – may be enough to keep Rodriguez from being thrown overboard to the sharks. But only for long enough to keep the "hot seat" meme warm until 2011, when we're asking the same questions all over again, and the answers will be far more urgent.
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Previously: Nebraska comes full circle, quarterback willing.. ... Big 12 leaves its fate to the young guns. ... Alabama's defense reloads (or does it?)
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.