May 26, 2010
Profiling the nation's most embattled coaches.
Michigan may have one of the most recognizable fight songs in all of college football, but "Hail To to Victors" seems to have been replaced lately with a remix of Talking Heads: "This is not my beautiful offense! This is not my all-time winningest college football program! My God! What have I done?"
The narrative, you already know: Rich Rodriguez's first two years with the Wolverines are on the books as the program's first losing seasons since 1967, the year before Bo Schembechler set a winning course for the next 40 years, all of them under Bo or Bo disciples Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr. At 8-16, Rodriguez has overseen the worst two-year stretch and worst overall winning percentage in Michigan history, including the program's first 12 years of existence in the late 1800s, during which time it went 23-10-1 without a head coach. For good measure, the Rodriguez regime added another dubious first this week by voluntarily placing itself on probation.
As far as the Wolverines' on-field product is concerned, at least, nobody in maize and blue really expected the transition from Carr to Rodriguez to be painless. The innovative, run-first spread Rodriguez brought from successful stints as offensive coordinator at Tulane at Clemson and head coach at his alma mater, West Virginia, marked an obvious sea change for one of the nation's most backward-looking programs. But "rocky transition" doesn't quite seem like an adequate description of the last two years. The transfer of power from Clinton to Bush in 2000 was a "rocky transition"; for the proud UM fan base, this has proven to be more like a waking nightmare. The Wolverines do not take coaching changes lightly – over the past century, there have been only two more Michigan coaches than popes – but there's only so much a program can be expected to take.
Why he was hired. Students of the spread offense hail Rodriguez as its chief innovator in the mid-nineties, but even those who don't recognize his strategic foresight will give him credit for being one of the most accomplished executors of the scheme in its first decade. He introduced his offense to the big time as Tommy Bowden's right hand at perpetually moribund Tulane, which rocketed to 12-0 and a top-10 finish in the polls in 1998 behind an offense that averaged 45 points a game. Rodriguez followed his boss to Clemson, where they quickly spurred the stagnant Tigers to a pair of second-place finishes behind ACC juggernaut Florida State.
In 2000, Rodriguez heard the call from his native West Virginia, where he went 60-26, earned two BCS bids as the Big East champion and ended his tenure with the first back-to-back-to-back 10-win seasons in school history. Before Michigan came calling in December 2007, he'd rebuffed Alabama (the jilted Tide settled for Nick Saban instead), and it seemed like only a matter of time before another traditional heavyweight lured Rodriguez away – not that Mountaineer fans were resigned to congratulating the opportunity.
The "Uh-oh" Moment. With nine new starters in a new system and a redshirt freshman alternating with an overmatched walk-on at quarterback, the Rodriguez era got off to a predictably rocky start in 2008, beginning with a home loss to Utah. But a visit from traditional MAC-rifice Toledo on Oct. 11 showed just how much worse it could get. On the Wolverines' first drive, they lost two yards; on the second, quarterback Steven Threet threw a pick that went 100 yards the other way for a touchdown. On their final drive, trailing 13-10 with time running out, the Wolverines drove to the Toledo nine-yard line – only to miss a chip-shot field goal, sealing Michigan's first-ever loss to a MAC team after 24 straight wins. There would be only one more win over the last six games, and no bowl game for the nation's 109th-ranked offense, arguably the worst Michigan has ever seen.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. If it seemed like the Wolverines couldn't buy a win, it was only because they hadn't dug deep enough into the bargain bin. In search of a patsy willing to take a beating in exchange for a fat check, they stumbled upon I-AA Delaware State, which not only took the $500,000 check, but forfeited a conference game in order to squeeze in the trip to Ann Arbor. The Hornets' eagerness ended predictably with a 63-6 bludgeoning on Oct. 17, the Wolverines' final taste of victory in the midst of a seven-game Big Ten losing streak to close the season.
Can this marriage be saved? Surprisingly, yes – or maybe not so surprisingly, if you know anything about the culture of Michigan athletics. In a world where many programs of lesser stature will seemingly look for any reason to fire a coach – he didn't go to a good enough bowl game, he wasn't buddy-buddy enough with the athletic director, he didn't treat a particular player well enough – Michigan remains unusually loath to hit the panic button. MGoBlog founder and BlogPoll innovator Brian Cook, never one to suffer fools (or bad football) gladly, explains why:
I think he's in less trouble than people who don't pay a lot of attention to Michigan think. The athletic department has always tended towards glacial patience when it comes to underperforming coaches. See [former basketball coach] Tommy Amaker, given six years of tournament-free action, Gary Moeller, who was generally thought to be under little actual pressure until his restaurant blowup, and Lloyd Carr, who could have coached until the Sun expanded if he wanted to despite that ugly trend against Ohio State.
Rodriguez has failed to meet the on-field standard of even the most modest coach above (Amaker) but as long as the arrows are pointing in the right direction after this year I think a 2011 is assured. New athletic director Dave Brandon is a Serious Man with a corporate mentality; he seems likely focus on the core issues rather than the peripheral stuff. He's specifically disclaimed any hard and fast win requirements, and his opinion matters more than that of the fans.
As to those fans: they're violently split between people who advocate for more time and point out things like Nick Sheridan and [walk-on safety] Jordan Kovacs and off-with-his-head types. The former group is disproportionately young, the latter old.
Dave of the Michigan blog Maize 'N' Brew seconds Cook's assessment of Rodriguez – nice guy, good coach, deserves a chance – but sounds an ominous note about his future (or lack thereof):
It depends on who you ask, but you'll either be told that Rich Rodriguez is a nice guy who's been outright crucified by the media for no reason or that he's Satan incarnate. Believe it or not, there are a large number of Michigan fans who like Rodriguez as a coach and person, and want to give him more than twenty minutes to be successful. Likewise, there are plenty of Michigan fans who want Rodriguez gone, no matter what. He's not a part of the "Bo bloodline." He's a hick. He's gotten us in trouble with the NCAA. He's what will put hair on your palms and keep the country from winning the war on terror. There really isn't a middle ground.
Personally, I really like the guy and I think he's gotten a raw deal. It's been documented at length just how decimated the program was on defense when he took over, and he's had to recruit Michigan out of that hole. But at Michigan that doesn't matter. You are supposed to win. And wins in 2010 will be what determines whether the "Rodriguez experiment" is a success or failure. Whether I like it or not, I think it's seven wins or bust. And that's too bad. Rodriguez has rebuilt and restocked this program with talent and drive, and 2011 is going to be something special. I just hope he's around to enjoy it.
Approximate hotness of seat. A bed of hot coals: looks a lot worse than it actually is, and the kind of thing Rodriguez is perfectly capable of walking across if he can get his team's mind right. At one of the few remaining programs that looks for reasons not to fire coaches, six wins and a bowl invite will be enough positive mojo to keep Rodriguez around for a potential breakout in 2011. Another 5-7 collapse, though, and all bets are off -- even the resolute Wolverines might not be able to tolerate three straight losing seasons.