January 04, 2011
Check the clocks: After an abrupt turn for the worse over the weekend, the first report of Rich Rodriguez's official termination as Michigan's head coach came today at 2:24 p.m. EST. The Detroit Free Press has confirmed; AnnArbor.com reports that even if Rodriguez hasn't been formally fired yet, he will be at some point today. Players will likely be officially informed at a team meeting at 7 p.m.
[Update, 6:58 p.m. ET: As of Tuesday night, Rodriguez appears to still technically have a job, but only technically: He's scheduled to meet again with athletic director David Brandon on Wednesday, and tonight's meeting with players has been pushed back to Wednesday at 4 p.m. Michigan tapped the brakes by releasing a statement this afternoon that said Brandon "has not and will not speak publicly until a final decision has been made" on Rodriguez's fate.]
If the Rodriguez era is dead, you don't have to be a coroner to conduct this autopsy. Rodriguez was 15-22 overall and 6-18 with one last-place finish in the Big Ten, presiding over the three worst individual seasons Michigan has endured since Bo Schembechler resurrected the program more than 40 years ago. In three years, Rodriguez teams didn't come close to beating Ohio State; were a combined 0-8 against Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa; had losing records against Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin; and lost in his first season to Toledo, Michigan's first ever defeat at the hands of a visitor from the MAC.
The worst offense (2008) and worst defense (2010) in school history both came on his watch. So did the first NCAA probation. And so did the worst bowl loss, a 52-14 smackdown by Mississippi State in last Saturday's Gator Bowl that obliterated any sense of progress from the Wolverines' 7-5 finish in the regular season.
[Related: Rodriguez breaks down at football banquet]
After moving to 7-3 with escapes over Illinois and Purdue in mid-November – seemingly saving Rodriguez's job with the guarantee of his first winning record – they were outscored in their final three games by a combined 88 points. Three years in, the program doesn't seem any closer to being what Michigan expects it to be than it did after a wholesale collapse over the second half of 2009.
Rodriguez was an outsider in every sense – he arrived from his native West Virginia with a glittering resumé but no ties to the Schembechler era or the state of Michigan, running a new-age spread attack that eschewed – and if the attrition-ravaged lineup he inherited in 2008 was a long way from the usual abundance of talent in Ann Arbor, the only significant difference in 2010 was the emergence of electric quarterback Denard Robinson. And even he suffered from diminishing returns down the stretch.
Since the regular season ended with a thud in Columbus, athletic director David Brandon's hesitance to either fire Rodriguez or commit to bringing him back for another year seemed like a hedge in his play for Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, a coveted alum: If it's for Harbaugh, the thinking went, Brandon would be willing to drop the axe on Rodriguez. No other realistic candidate would be worth the extended chaos that comes with overturning an entire administration for the second time in a single four-year recruiting cycle. As of this morning, there was still no firm indication that Brandon has Harbaugh in the fold – quite the opposite, in fact: The rumor mill is increasingly certain he's bound for the NFL or not going anywhere at all.
[Related: NFL team's baffling coaching decision]
After three years of baby steps, disappointment and overriding stagnation, though, the sense that the program might get back to winning Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls (or at least competing for them) under Rodriguez is gone. Without some semblance of optimism, there's really nothing left to hold on to.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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