Castigated at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez is finding redemption at Arizona

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

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Rich Rodriguez has led Arizona to a 3-0 start in his first season with the Wildcats. (AP)

Shaun King will tell you he's played under some of the sharpest offensive minds in recent NFL history. Then the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter will list them: Mike Martz, Jon Gruden, Dennis Green, even Mike Shula.

And then King will say something emphatic:

"I still think Rich is the best."

That would be Rich Rodriguez, the new head coach of the Arizona Wildcats. The stats are hard to refute:

• In his only full season under Rodriguez, Michigan's Denard Robinson became the only quarterback in NCAA history to run and throw for 1,500 yards in a season.

• Pat White ran and threw for more than 1,200 yards in two of his three seasons under Rodriguez at West Virginia.

• Clemson's Woody Dantzler threw for more than 1,500 yards and ran for more than 700 in his only season under Rodriguez, who was offensive coordinator at the time.

• King set the single-season NCAA passing efficiency record while Rodriguez was his coordinator at Tulane.

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Track Facts

Michigan vs. Notre Dame

Having fallen from grace under big-name coaches, Michigan and Notre Dame got back on the path to respectability by putting two relatively unknowns in charge.

Before arriving in South Bend two years ago, Brian Kelly built successful programs at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.Prior to his arrival in Ann Arbor last season, Brady Hoke cut his teeth as a head coach at Ball State and San Diego State.

Despite lacking the flashy resumes of Charlie Weis and Rich Rodriguez, Kelly and Hoke brought these storied programs back to national prominence in 2011. Now, after back-to-back 8-5 seasons that ended with bowl games, Kelly's Fighting Irish are 3-0 and ranked 11th in the country after hammering Michigan State 20-3 on the road. Hoke's Wolverines, who went 10-2 and won the Sugar Bowl last season, are 2-1 and ranked 18th going into Saturday's showdown at Notre Dame.

The Irish will attempt to snap a streak of three straight gut-wrenching losses to the Wolverines, who have scored winning touchdowns with 11, 27, and 2 seconds left in the last three contests. Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's game, both iconic programs have endured the long journey back to the top echelon of college football.

– Eric Ivie

See John Elway talk about his Journey to Comfort

It's not too much of a stretch to say Rodriguez mentored the all-time greatest quarterback at all four schools where he's coached. And none came to college as highly touted recruits.

But if you took a poll, Rodriguez might not even be picked as a top-five coach in the Pac 12. Chip Kelly, whose Oregon Ducks host Rodriguez's Wildcats in a battle of unbeatens this weekend, is regarded as a coaching genius, while Rodriguez remains unproven at best. Mike Leach, who has never coached in a BCS bowl game, was regarded as a higher profile hire over the last off-season.

Why is that? One-word answer: Michigan.

"RichRod" was viewed as a catastrophic failure at Michigan, leading the Wolverines to their worst-ever season (three wins), saddling them with self-imposed sanctions and getting canned after three bumbling seasons. The man who led West Virginia to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in school history and (reportedly) turned down the head job at Alabama had gone from rising star to "RichFraud" in three short years. There was even a book written about the soap opera of his time in Ann Arbor.

[Related: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is tougher for being a mama's boy]

Asked what he learned from his time at Michigan, Rodriguez is blunt: "I used to think you'd have five or six years to build something. Now it's two or three years and they kick you out."

But now revisionist history is being revised again, based on Rodriguez's new team scoring 139 points in its first three games. That includes a 59-point outburst against Big 12 power Oklahoma State. Suddenly, Saturday's tilt against Oregon is looking less like a boat race and more like, well, a speedboat race.

Arizona is off to a fast start because of a fast learner. Normally Rodriguez has to mesh with the quarterback he finds at a new school (Dantzler) or recruit one who can thrive in his system (Robinson). That has caused static in the channel before. King is not afraid to say he thought Rodriguez was "an [expletive]" when he first met him. But the nomadic coach has found a kindred spirit in Matt Scott, a quarterback who (like King) can throw well and read defenses even better.

"I knew in the first couple days that this guy can make all the throws," Rodriguez says. "The hardest thing about our system usually is the pace of it. It doesn't give you time to think of what you're supposed to do. But when we wanted to go fast, it didn't hinder his progress at all."

Scott, a 2011 redshirt left over from Mike Stoops' regime, was a gift to Rodriguez. To hear Scott talk about an offense that has been known to befuddle both its own players as well as opposing ones is almost amusing.

"It wasn't that hard, honestly," Scott says. "It's real easy. Everything is pretty basic."

Even against Oklahoma State?

"We just kinda played and had touchdown drives," he says. "At the end of the game, we started getting more and more."

Scott's advantage is that he's used to Rodriguez's kind of offense. He played a similar style in high school. It was in college that he felt stagnant, learning from three different quarterback coaches in as many years. So he actually finds the zone read Rodriguez invented to be easier than going through progressions as a passer, which is unusual considering quarterbacks rarely make any decisions on running plays.

"Certain run plays you might have to make just one read on the DE [defensive end]," Scott explains. "Certain plays I make more than one. Some plays it's more than one read and more than one decision. I like that in this spot. I kind of have a good grasp. I see everything on the field. I'm really not confused."

Once a quarterback reaches that level of clarity, Rodriguez's offenses are deadly. Robinson has nine of the top 10 single-game performances (total yards) in Michigan history, and five of them were set under Rodriguez.

"Offensively, if you execute the defense will never be able to stop you," explains King. "You know what you're doing and they're always guessing.”

Not many are picking Arizona to beat the machine that is Oregon, and Rodriguez is quick to say "they're more explosive than we are." But Scott sounds like someone who – much like Robinson, Dantzler, White and King – knows he's on the precipice of something unstoppable.

"With this team," he says, "I feel we can beat any team on the schedule."

That kind of optimism is coming refreshingly early for Rodriguez. In his first season at Michigan, players were transferring and calling out his "family values." He was ripped for using foul language and suggesting the jersey No. 1 go to a non-wideout. Then came a Detroit Free Press report uncovering Rodriguez breaking rules by keeping players past the NCAA-mandated practice time. The fact that Rodriguez never put together a respectable defense only made a bad situation worse.

He was fired at the end of the 2010 season after getting walloped by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Suddenly the man entrusted with one of the greatest traditions in the sport was just another ex-coach commentating on TV. Arizona offered another chance in 2012, but this was hardly the same tier as Michigan.

Here's the thing, though: Rodriguez won big everywhere he went before Ann Arbor, which begs the question if he was the problem or was it just the wrong fit?

"He never had the support of the University of Michigan," says King. "Half didn't want him, trying to nitpick at everything he had done. When has a coach ever got criticized for practicing too hard? Really? Just think about that. Let that sink in. Then Brady Hoke goes in and wins 11 games with Rich's players and he didn't get any credit."

Rodriguez doesn't want to talk about those days, saying "we've all moved on."

"My biggest disappointment was we didn't get a chance to finish the job," he says, "especially with Denard coming back."

He'll likely have the opportunity to finish the job in the desert, where expectations are low – just beat Arizona State, for crying out loud – and opportunity is high – California recruits are only a short flight away. The blowback at Michigan about the workload isn't paralleled at Arizona, where Scott says he was happy to put in a brutal summer of 300-yard shuttles and strength training to "get us right."

"We have everybody pulling for us in the same direction," Rodriguez says. “Complete buy-in and tremendous support. That really helps."

King says he speaks to Rodriguez "all the time" and never hears any bitterness about what's happened to his reputation. All he hears is how happy Rodriguez is in a place that couldn't be farther from the West Virginia coal mining town where his Spanish grandfather immigrated to and eventually passed away from black lung.

"He loves it," King says. "This is what he always wanted."

It's been a rough road for RichRod. But maybe, deep in the desert, the wandering coach has found a place that will love him back.

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