November 21, 2011
I never quite got around to reviewing the new book "Three and Out," already the definitive account of Rich Rodriguez's arrival, failure and exit over three turbulent seasons at Michigan and an essential addition to the genre. But John Bacon's book does go to great lengths to confirm three of the prevailing themes of the debacle:
a) Rodriguez was met with almost instant condescension or hostility from significant numbers of boosters, former players, outgoing coaches, opposing coaches, local media — especially local media — and probably more than a few people within the athletic department.
b) The roster he inherited from Lloyd Carr was even more barren than it looked on paper before the 2008 season, gutted by transfers (tacitly encouraged by Carr), early departures for the NFL and a prolific graduating class that left a depth chart strewn with tumbleweeds.
c) Rodriguez had an uncanny knack for both talking himself into corners and failing (sometimes on orders from his bosses) to talk himself out of them.
All of which, along with the familiar onslaught of injuries, defensive disasters and late-season collapses, made his stint Michigan arguably the most ill-fated, mismatched coaching marriage of the last decade. The man never had a chance.
But it didn't mean he didn't deserve another one, and after a year on the shelf, it's no surprise that Arizona has decided to give it to him. It's also no surprise that his return to the sideline feels like more of a coup for the Wildcats than a lifeline thrown to a tired retread. Retreads elicit shrugs. Win or lose, Rich Rodriguez's teams are always interesting.
Other than Michigan, of course, there's been a lot more winning. Rodriguez won first at Glenville State, a true Nowhere U. that he put on the map as the birthplace of the offense that's taken over every level of amateur football like kudzu. He won at Tulane, a perpetually foundering program that rode his offense to what must be the most improbable undefeated season in recent sports history in 1998, under head coach Tommy Bowden. He won at his alma mater, West Virginia, delivering three consecutive top-10 finishes and a pair of BCS bowls — and turning down Alabama, which settled for Nick Saban instead — in his last three years there, easily the best three-year run in school history. Everywhere Rodriguez had been before he landed in Ann Arbor, his offense had taken off, and he'd been a winner.
Even at Michigan, he managed to get half of that equation. With a a legitimate talent at the controls — Denard Robinson, Rodriguez's third different starting quarterback in as many years after trotting out freshmen for the majority of both 2008 and 2009 — the Wolverines led the Big Ten in total offense last year and scored at least 28 points in three of their six losses. Watching the 2011 Wolverines turn the corner with virtually the same players putting up virtually identical numbers (though Robinson's not throwing the ball quite as well as a junior as he did in 2010, actually), it's impossible not to wonder if Rodriguez's lament that he didn't get to see the job through with a new defensive coordinator is more than just sour grapes. How would you feel if your longtime nemesis abruptly collapsed a few minutes after you walked out the door?
If Michigan was a slightly neglected Town Car in need of at little overdue maintenance, Arizona is a Dodge Omni on blocks. In the front yard. At 3-8, the Wildcats are in the same state of bottom-dwelling disarray after seven-and-a-half year under Mike Stoops that Stoops found them in when he took over in 2003. Since reaching No. 13 in the polls last Halloween, 'Zona has dropped 13 of its last 16 overall, nine of its last eleven in Pac-10/12 play, fired Stoops and committed to starting over from scratch. (Warning Wildcat fans: Obligatory notice of Rose Bowl drought straight ahead.) In more than 100 years of football, Arizona has finished in the final polls seven times, won ten games in a season twice and — here it comes — is still the only veteran Pac-12 program that has never played in the Rose Bowl.
It's hard to think of another coach Arizona could have plausibly attained who gives them a better opportunity to end that streak: Relatively young coaches (Rodriguez is 48) with a wildly influential offensive system and multiple BCS bowls to their name do not come along very often. Like Stoops, Rodriguez has a long way to go and no guarantee of getting there. But as long as nobody cares too much how he sounds at a lectern, this time he should have all the time he needs to find out.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.