Mon Jan 03 06:24am EST
There were no heads rolling in Ann Arbor Sunday, a day after a 52-14 Gator Bowl debacle at the hands of Mississippi State obliterated any sense of progress in Rich Rodriguez's third season at Michigan, but if Rodriguez has a clock in his office, every tick at this point must sound like another step toward the guillotine. Athletic director Dave Brandon shied from a verdict during Sunday night's basketball game against Penn State, but promised he would "have more to say on this matter in the the latter part of the week." By most accounts, that means Thursday at the latest, and Tuesday at the earliest – just enough time for presumptive target Jim Harbaugh to wrap up his fourth (and likely final) season at Stanford in tonight's Orange Bowl date with Virginia Tech.
Meanwhile, the mood in Michigan is increasingly funereal, down to the initial postmortems. The ubiquitous calls for Rodriguez's head from outside the program on Sunday were accompanied by hints of panic from within. Hyped commitment Dee Hart, the No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2011 recruiting class and easily the headliner of Michigan's incoming crop, abandoned ship over the weekend and now appears bound for Alabama. Star quarterback Denard Robinson, the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year as a first-year, sophomore starter, had "no response" after Saturday's loss to looming transfer rumors if Rodriguez is shown the door. Backup Tate Forcier, ineligible for the bowl game, was still waffling on his return last week.
Whatever it is that he and Robinson and the rest of Rodriguez's now-seasoned recruits will have to return to, it will be a rebuilding job: The defense – dead last in the Big Ten and among the worst dozen nationally in both yards and points allowed – is in utter disarray, and the offense that terrorized opponents for most of the season finished by getting shut out in eight of 12 quarters over the course of a three-game losing streak. Combined score in those games: Opponents 137, Michigan 49, an average margin of 29 points, after dropping three straight by double digits in October. The fleeting sense of relief that came with a return to .500 in early November is a shadow burned on to one of the few still-standing walls.
Brandon has held fast to his "evaluation process," encompassing the entire season, but his patience speaks volumes. If he wanted Rodriguez back in 2011, he would have made it official in the intervening month between the latest ugly loss to Ohio State and the bowl game, instead of letting his coach go in front of the team and blubber to the strains of Josh Groban. If he was waiting on the result of the bowl game, there was certainly nothing in Saturday's nationally televised humiliation that could have possibly turned the tide in Rodriguez's favor. If he's waiting on Harbaugh to close out one of the truly remarkable rebuilding jobs of the decade in Miami, Rodriguez has been a dead coach walking for weeks; the bowl blowout only makes the announcement and fallout a little easier. We'll likely know within the next 48 hours, and the obituarists are warming up.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.