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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Rich Rodriguez had taken off his headset and assumed a spot the edge of the Michigan sideline. There were still a couple minutes left in the Wolverines' wholly-satisfying, long-time-coming 30-10 victory over Connecticut, but Rodriguez wasn't going to waste the moment fretting over the final details.
He was going to enjoy this. He was going to soak in the jubilant scene. He was going to accept the steady parade of hugs and backslaps of coaches and trainers and athletic department officials and anyone else willing to celebrate. He gave his longest embrace to his brilliant sophomore quarterback, Denard Robinson, who managed to run 198 yards and throw for 186 more despite not bothering to tie his shoes.
Then the two of them, each an outsider deemed too unconventional for the Big Ten, stood with arms wrapped on each other's shoulders. They looked up at the largest crowd in the history of college football (113,090) here at the spectacular, renovated new Bigger House and basked in the glory of a near-perfect afternoon.
"A great day for Michigan," Rodriguez would say.
There had been plenty of terrible days for Michigan of late. The last year had been about newspaper investigations and NCAA violations and losses to Toledo and Rodriguez's name appearing on every coaching hot seat list written. A guy who had won big everywhere he'd ever been showed up here and promptly fell flat with consecutive losing seasons.
There's no telling how many of the fans belting out "The Victors" at that moment had just hours before stood over their barbeque smokers and declared Rodriguez's future as bleak as a boarded up Chrysler plant.
Then suddenly Rodriguez and "Shoelace" gave them something to believe.
Here was the wide-open, high-octane, full-speed offense that Rodriguez had promised. Here was Robinson, a Deerfield Beach, Fla. native, taking the reins of Michigan's famed quarterback position and doing it in a way that Griese and Brady and Harbaugh and the rest never could dream.
Generously listed at 6-feet, 193 pounds and with his black adidas secured with a Velcro band but the laces untied and hanging loose, he made darting, dramatic runs through the UConn secondary, 29 carries in all. To keep them honest, he threw 22 accurate passes (19 completions). At times, Michigan just snapped it to Robinson and let him find a hole to run, the world's simplest offense.
"Are we just going to have the Denard play?" laughed center David Molk.
Sure, as long as no one can catch him. UConn sure couldn't. They so struggled to do it they resorted to trying to de-shoe Shoelace.
'"Take his shoe,"' Robinson said the Huskies kept yelling. '"Take his shoe.' They took it off one time that I ran for a first down."
Robinson never ties his shoes. Not in games. Not walking across campus. He's played this way since pee wee ball and "I'm not changing anything."
Neither, it appears, is Rodriguez. He stood firm under a torrent of criticism these past two years and kept preaching to his players that if they stayed the course the plan would work.
Critics said you can't win in the Big Ten with the spread. They ripped his defense. They questioned his recruits. And, of course, the NCAA came along and slapped him with five major violations – and then some more dating back to his days at West Virginia, mostly for what can generally be described as excessive practice.
This was the kind of on-field futility and off-field drama not seen since before Bo Schembechler arrived in 1969 and built the kind of bedrock program that filled this massive bowl of a stadium each week. Since then, for more than a generation, Michigan did things nearly the same way, including winning a lot of games.
Now here was Rodriguez, changing everything all at once, fumbling through public relations and compliance and winding up in the Big Ten basement.
Stick with me he kept telling the players. Believe in me he kept pleading to the fans. The Wolverines went 1-7 in the Big Ten last year. "We finished the season so poorly," Rodriguez acknowledged.
This was no longer a team for the weak of faith.
And then there it was; series after series of suddenly breathtaking play. "It's such a relief," said linebacker Craig Roh. Added Molk, "it was great to see it work."
UConn isn't Ohio State. At Notre Dame looms. The season is full of big, near must-win games – in South Bend, Michigan State, those Buckeyes on Thanksgiving weekend. As sweet as Saturday was, it didn't solve everything. Or anything.
It did show that greatness is possible though. This was a legitimate opener, against a good opponent. It was a real show of force for the Wolverines, so impressive the coach and quarterback could just hang out and admire their handiwork as they waited for the clock to run out.
"I will enjoy this for the next three hours and 10 minutes and try to get five hours of sleep," Rodriguez said before preparations for next week's game at Notre Dame begin. If you were looking for him to emote on the personal importance of the day, he wasn't going to play along.
Which isn't to say he wasn't aware of it. He'd said as much when he addressed the players in an emotional locker room, thanking them for their focus.
"We've been through a lot …," Rodriguez said. "It's been tough on the coaches. It's been tough on the players. … I want them to be happy. One of the goals as a coach is your players to truly enjoy being a student athlete. … This is just one win but I'm going to let our players enjoy it."
For a rattled program and a concerned fan base and an under siege coaching staff, enjoy it was enough. On a day it ushered in a new era of its iconic stadium, it showed a potential new era of play.
Michigan may not yet be back. You can see the roadmap and the untied shoes capable of getting down it in a hurry though.
- Rich Rodriguez