ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Again and again Rich Rodriguez paused as the tears welled in his eyes, his voice cracked and he searched for words to defend himself. Not against the details of the allegations that his Michigan team exceeded NCAA practice hours, among other transgressions.
If anything, he didn't sound all that concerned about the charges.
No, this was about the idea that he, his staff and his strength coach don't care about their players; that somehow Rich Rodriguez is a bad guy, an uncaring man, someone out to hurt his kids, not help them.
This was about his core being, and that left him head bowed in front of a dozen television cameras, trying to gulp out an emotional explanation in a surreal press conference.
"The thing that bothers me the most is the perception out there that we [do] not care as much about our players' welfare," he said, pausing to contain himself. "That is disheartening."
This was Rich Rod laid bare and, in a way, about how college coaches are sold to fawning alums, how NCAA rules are valued and how arbitrary the system tries to make everything and everyone.
This is about how silly this exercise of coach worship is – how absurd it is to both hype these guys up as Mother Teresas with whistles and then tear them down based on a rule book that as important as it is, shouldn't define someone's soul.
You can be a good person, a caring coach and break NCAA rules. You can be an absolute abomination and point to a clean record. The relationship between a man's character and his compliance is rarely applicable.
Reality always falls in the middle. There are no black hats and white hats in college football. Just like in everything else, it's all a shade of gray.
Whether Michigan football players practiced too long and lifted weights too many times, as former and current players told the Detroit Free Press, will be determined by NCAA investigators. If it's repeated and purposeful, it's a major violation, as well as it should be.
The limits are needed to maintain competitive balance and player welfare. The kids might want to practice all day. The coaches may want to coach all day. But a third party is needed to define the acceptable limits. College players, unlike the pros, don't have agents or a union to protect them.
If Rodriguez's program ran afoul of that, then it should be punished. He implied Monday that the players making the allegations don't understand the details of the rule. Then there's the nebulous definition of "voluntary workouts." It's going to be a lot of he said, he said.
That part didn't move him to emotion though. What Rodriguez was upset about was the implication in the allegation. He's a coach, and in his mind, he cares unequivocally about his players and their development.
Some of his current and former players agree. Some clearly don't. Both sides have spoken out in the media.
His current team, counting walk-ons, runs about 125 deep – having them all think highly, in the heat of the challenge, about the head coach is impossible. It's probably not even beneficial.
Where was it ever written that you're supposed to love your coach, your parents, your boss, every minute of the day anyway?
Except that's how it's sold in college athletics. It's not enough for the coaches to just care about winning games. They are supposed to care about caring. They are marketed as father figures and role models. They have to first be driven by charity and education and family values. They wave their faith in people's faces. They write books about how everyone should live like they do.
If you believe the worshipping words used to describe college coaches, these are the nation's finest and most moral men, no matter how many times they get caught drunk behind the wheel or sleeping with someone who isn't their wife or work a schedule that makes them an absentee father.
In truth they are regular people. No one expects sainthood out of a NFL or NBA coach; they just expect a coach. It's business.
College athletics are a business too, except that it pretends it isn't. Rodriguez, the head of an "amateur" football team, spoke Monday in the shadow of a $226 million expansion of an 110,000-seat stadium.
By pretending to be better than it is, college athletics allows itself to profit as some pursuit of purity. It allows the NCAA to avoid paying billions in taxes. And it allows its coaches to be held up for canonization.
That's where Rodriguez's tears came from though. A false argument was knocking him from a fictional place. At most he's accused of making a football team practice too hard for too long, which may be in violation of the rules, but ranks fairly low on society's sin list.
It's quite possible Rodriguez broke the rules and cares completely about his players. It's quite possible he didn't and doesn't. One probably has nothing to do with the other. Outside of a cold investigation into the facts and the rules, this entire argument is a sliding scale of senselessness.
Maybe Rodriguez is simply a football coach.
And maybe one day everyone involved in college athletics can admit that's all any of these guys are. And it's all any of them should be.
- Rich Rodriguez