ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The first-year coach of the historic national power had that blindsided look on his face. He was trying, fruitlessly, to explain an inexcusable home loss to a weak team from a lesser conference.
Oh sure, him too.
"About 4 a.m. [Sunday morning] I kept turning over, couldn't sleep, and my wife Rita said, 'You know, Nick lost to Louisiana-Monroe last year, and look how that's changed,' " Rodriguez said Monday.
Nick is Nick Saban, who was in the same position a year ago at Alabama as Rodriguez is this week. Saban's first season remaking an ancient power had descended into a series of distressing losses, one more frustrating than the next. The UL-Monroe defeat was enough to make at least some once-worshipful fans wonder about their head coach.
Saban was so mentally shot he compared the loss to Pearl Harbor and September 11. It was meant as an analogy – an example of how sometimes change requires a shock to the system. Predictably, it went over poorly. Things spun from bad to worse.
Just 11 months later Alabama is 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. It received 26 first-place votes this week and, by SEC standards, has a favorable schedule from here on out. Saban's statue outside the stadium is all but ordered.
It's about the only solace Rodriguez has these days. It's comforting to think the depths of despair cannot just be forgotten, but celebrated as some kind of necessary step toward greatness.
UL-Monroe wasn't a negative for Alabama; it was a necessity. Or so legend may one day say.
Saban's Crimson Tide are merely the most recent example Rita Rodriguez could offer her husband. If Saban can win the BCS championship this season, he'd be the fourth coach this decade alone to do it in just his second season at the helm of a once-underachieving super power (Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Urban Meyer at Florida).
"I told Rita, 'Yeah, that's true with Nick, but that doesn't make me feel any better,' " Rodriguez said, smiling. "I felt Nick's pain, but it's not helping me right now."
Gallows humor is all that's left for the program with the most wins of all time. The Wolverines are 2-4 and in danger of their first losing season since 1967, their first eight-loss season ever and their first bowl-less postseason in 33 years. Veteran athletic department staffers joke about the groundbreaking idea of being home for the holidays.
Michigan has struggled from the start – a combination of a new system (Rodriguez's spread offense) and new faces (six of 11 starters on offense are in their first year). They've been particularly inept at the basics – turnovers, penalties, defensive coverage, etc.
Even so, Michigan never had lost to a team from the Mid-American Conference. This was a chance at a precious victory. Toledo entered the game 1-4 and had given up an average of more than 40 points a game in the losses.
Michigan managed just 10 points. To add insult to injury, UT's only touchdown was a 100-yard interception return. Then Michigan missed a final-second game-tying kick. UT 13, UM 10.
The question was whether this was worse than last year's historic, cataclysmic defeat.
"Some of the players were saying, 'Appalachian State, at least they won three national championships at their division,' " offered defensive end Tim Jamison.
The booing from the stands and frustration on the radio shows were predictable. It is one thing to struggle, but this level of futility? Yes, there were heavy personnel losses so it wasn't like Lloyd Carr would have won a Rose Bowl had he returned for a 14th season. Still, a loss to Toledo?
All the preseason preaching of patience sounded good. Try practicing it, though.
Factor in Rodriguez's embarrassingly silly off-season contract squabble with West Virginia and a few step-on-the-toes-of-tradition moves, and Year One has been anything but smooth.
"I think it's fair for everybody to question (my approach)," Rodriguez said. "They're going to question everything I do. I think they've questioned everything I've done since I've been here, the last eight, nine months. …
"I couldn't have foreseen this situation. Everybody says, 'You have to be patient.' So we're being patient, but at the same time we want results, too."
If history is an indicator, those will come quickly. Rodriguez himself won just three games in his first season at West Virginia, back in 2001. The next year he won nine.
Michigan can do even better. There's a reason these monster programs can reload quickly. The recruiting might, the in-house talent and the institutional commitment can get programs moving rapidly under the proper stewardship.
Rodriguez still is that kind of coach. He's an innovative offensive mind, a tireless recruiter and a master motivator. He turned West Virginia into a perennial national contender. At age 45, he was one of the hottest young coaches the last few years; he even turned down the Alabama job that eventually went to Saban.
He's had so much success of late, he has a difficult time remembering when he didn't.
"You say, 'Well, I never want to go through this again,' " he said.
It's unlikely he will. You don't combine one of the best programs and one of the best coaches and not experience success.
As impossible as it is right now to imagine Michigan could be ranked No. 2 next season (not that we're predicting it), it was just as impossible to dream it in sullen Tuscaloosa last November.
Saban used 2007 the way Rodriguez appears to be using 2008. The Tide finished 7-6, but Saban set the tone within the program, used the setbacks to motivate offseason workouts and spent the rest of the time relentlessly recruiting his kind of players.
It's the same formula of other big-name coaches. Stoops and Tressel went 7-5 their first seasons and won it all the next. Pete Carroll was 6-6 in his USC debut and has won at least 11 games every season since.
This may be new to Michigan, but it isn't new to programs just like it.
"As far as building a program, the steps you have to have to have a top-10 program for the future is done," Rodriguez assured. "It's just that it's not showing on the field right now. Eventually it'll show up in the games, and everyone will be happy."
With that he smiled weakly and left to go watch game tape. His wife's middle-of-the-night pep talk had helped, but just a little. All the positive words about the future, about staying the course, is necessary but not enjoyable. One day, he knows, he'll look back and draw something positive from these dark days.
Right now it's just a nightmare that keeps him up at four in the morning.
- Rich Rodriguez
- Nick Saban