Rich Rod referendum

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In the history of college football no program has won more games than Michigan. And in the history of Michigan no one ever thought a game against Western Michigan could possibly mean so much.

Only here comes the most unlikely referendum game in the sport, Broncos at Wolverines. What was once expected to be a season-opening tuneup is now serving as proof of where Rich Rodriguez’s program is headed.

You don’t have to care about the alleged NCAA violations detailed in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press to wonder what the heck is going on with U of M. The 3-9 season of 2008 makes for an ugly past. The pending investigation into abuses of practice times makes for an uncertain future.

In terms of pure, present-day football, the most troubling part is that some players currently on the roster spoke anonymously to the newspaper and made the charges.

If they are just a couple of disgruntled players who don’t represent their teammates, then it may not mean much. Rodriguez said that’s what he thinks it is, and there’s no question that’s what he hopes it is. Michael Rosenberg, one of the reporters on the story, would only say they “did not just get the six most bitter guys.”

As such, if the thoughts of the whistle blowers are indicative of some sizeable segment of the locker room, then Rodriguez’s fate may already be sealed.

Everyone knows that practice abuse occurs at many programs around the country. Only one is dealing with a potential scandal though. Unlike many areas with college powers, there was a big-city newspaper that wasn’t afraid to allow two reporters to ask potentially troubling questions about the sacred cow program.

More than that, though, some of those players talked. If they hadn’t, there’s no story and that’s why it’s fair to wonder whether Rodriguez still controls his team.

And that is the first thing everyone will be looking for on Saturday.

If the Michigan players are behind their coach, as many swear they are, then it ought to be apparent from the opening kickoff. If the questions he’s dealt with this week, the raw emotion he displayed both at a private team meeting at his home Sunday and at a public press conference Monday, don’t cause them to rally around Rich Rod then what could?

“All in,” is how Rodriguez described his team, citing incredible chemistry and trust. The four players the university made available to the media this week all vociferously supported Rodriguez and dismissed the allegations – of course, if they didn’t would they have been made available in the first place?

We’ll see how close everyone really is. It’s reasonable to assume some players are casting suspicious looks at teammates, wondering who did and didn’t talk to the Free Press.

Compounding the issue for Michigan is that Western arrives with a strong offense led by a future NFL quarterback in Tim Hiller. The Broncos went 9-4 last year and will likely spread the ball out, something the Wolverines have struggled to defend dating back to when Appalachian State torched them.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, “anticipates” playing three different QBs, including two true freshmen, in an effort to find someone who can run his offense.

It wasn’t an ideal situation before the drama of the week.

In terms of the investigation that will unfurl and potentially distract throughout the season, Michigan is most susceptible to the charge that staff members monitored voluntary 7-on-7 practices. That’s a clear-cut violation and one you can’t be a little bit pregnant about – the assistants were either there or they weren’t.

The excessive practice hours is likely a hall of mirrors, with debates over what was and wasn’t “voluntary” and whether players did or didn’t feel pressured. No one can predict how that will turn out.

The other threat for Michigan is that the NCAA can compel all 125 players (walk-ons included) to talk, and if this is a serious investigation, you never know what might come out that has nothing to do with the initial charge. No program wants to be exposed to an inquiry of such potentially far reaching scope.

On Monday Rodriguez looked like a man worn from this entire challenge. That isn’t to say he’s incapable of handling it, he’s just exhausted from the battle. He left a great situation at his alma mater, West Virginia, to come here and it’s been a series of missteps from the start.

He wasn’t a so-called Michigan Man, which didn’t help. He engaged in a tacky family feud with WVU about breaking his contract. He’s had players transfer and blast him in the media for not caring. He had a player he recruited caught dealing drugs in Ann Arbor. His team lost to Toledo. Now there’s an investigation into rule violations at a program that’s never been clipped by the NCAA.

Just Tuesday word emerged his business partner in a failed 2009 real estate deal had been banned as a booster at Clemson in 2000 for offering recruits extra benefits, according to Rodriguez was a Clemson assistant at that time. Aside from the legalities of the real estate deal, it begged the question why a college coach was still hanging around this guy at all.

The constant soap opera has turned off some of the blue bloods. Some of it is legitimate. Some, such as his decision to change the way captaincy is handed out [he likes game captains, Bo liked seasonal ones] is just silly.

All of it has gotten to him.

“I just think it’s disheartening to fight obstacles that aren’t really there, that shouldn’t be there,” he said. “The model and the plan are in place, and I just hope everybody will let us do it.”

Rodriguez’s track record of building programs is impressive. He usually makes a major move in his second season and then doesn’t let up. He’s never had trouble motivating players or getting teams together at previous stops. He’s right that given time and space it’s almost impossible he doesn’t win and win big here. With a folksy, open personality, he ought to one day be beloved.

The stakes and status however have never been as high as they are in Ann Arbor. Michigan is a place with so many advantages, so much tradition and strength that it’s difficult to not be at least moderately successful.

Heading into this most unlikely of must-win games, moderately successful is all they are hoping for up in the Big House grandstands.

Rich Rodriguez needs to prove that this season is different, that his team is still behind him, that sticking by him in these turbulent times will be well worth the effort.

He needs to show, against the Broncos of Kalamazoo of all teams from of all places, that Michigan is still Michigan.

The program with more wins than anybody needs one Saturday in the worst imaginable way.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009