Previously: Big Ten Media Days, The Take Away on Michigan Football: Part I, Offensive Lineman Mark Ortmann, Part II, Safety Stevie Brown, Part III - Zoltan Mesko, Punter and Space Emperor, and Part IV - Coaches and the Media.
It's rare in sports to have a coach at any level who is as open with the media as Rich Rodriguez is. After 13 years of calculated silence from Carr's regime, the ongoing dialogue Rich Rodriguez has created going into his second year as the University of Michigan's head football coach is kind of startling for Wolverine fans. We're not used to this. While Rodriguez knows when to play it coy, he also seems to have an understanding of the way the media's perception affects a program externally.
In a way, his personality seems well suited for this role of spokesman. Rodriguez is not a spit and polish chatter like a Saban or a Pete Carroll. But he's not trying to be. Rodriguez is himself. A kid from West Virginia who carved out an incredibly successful life in football out of hard work, a couple of good breaks, brains and charm. He is what he appears to be. There isn't a switch on Rodriguez that goes "PUBLIC/PRIVATE". While I'm sure his language on the practice field is a little different than when talking to media, I don't get the impression the intensity or the drive is any different.
At media days he was a controlled ball of energy in a suit. Not a cartoon character like Lynch was, or like Zook and Brewster appear to be. But a very intense, collected man, who wants the season to start so that the questions being asked can be answered by play on the field. Having met Rodriguez a handful of times in an "unofficial" capacity at alumni events and the like, when the camera are off and the mics are put away, he's a very amiable guy. He's also a very generous person with his time and is very appreciative of the Michigan fan base's interest and knowledge of and in the program. It shows. There is no difference between the the way he talks with a 24 year-old alumni and the way he talks with Mark Synder.
Watching him, it's readily apparent the one thing Rodriguez wants to do is win, and win the right away. For all the talk of his foregoing tradition, changing things, and plowing through Schembechler hall like a bull in a china shop, Rodriguez is a guy steeped in football lore and possesses a thorough understanding of the value of ritual and tradition in football. But more importantly, he's versed in the values of hard work, accountability, and respect. All these things seem to build up and bundle underneath that suit coat and tie as you watch him. answer questions. There's a palpable excitement when you talk to him, but it's not forced. If anything it's intentionally subdued. He's pumped, dammit. And you will be too.
During the Big Ten Media Kickoff I had two opportunities to speak with Rodriguez. On the first day, I managed to get a question about the differences between Schafer and Robinson asked and answered while the cameras were rolling (second question in the clip). After walking off the podium, I met Rodriguez along with the swarm of reporters out in the hall to record his every word. It's an amazing sight really, thirty people all jamming microphones in the guy's face and hammering him with questions both interesting and sublimely idiotic. And he stands there. Answering questions until everyone present feels they've gotten their pound of flesh. Occasionally, he'll shake his head, dropping it perceptibly, as if to emphasize the fact he's not going to discuss why someone will not return to the team. But the other 97% of the time, he offers direct answers to the questions posed. You know he'd rather be at practice with the players or at home with his wife and kids, but he takes on the gauntlet with a smile.
You can ask yourself, why isn't he more focused or intense? Doesn't he feel the pressure on him? Rodriguez must've been asked that question half a dozen times in two days. And his answer is one I greatly respect. "These are tough times. A family of five, lost their job, no pension, house payment car payment, now that's pressure." He acknowledges what a blessed life he's lead, "I've got it pretty good. A wonderful wife, two healthy children." But he also acknowledges the expectations of his job. But the word "pressure" seems to be overused. Pressure in college football, he says, comes from wanting to be successful. But that kind of pressure is nothing compared to the pressure faced by everyday people, especially people in Michigan, who are losing jobs, pensions, healthcare, and even their homes. Personally, I think this kind of perspective is a welcome change from the stock answers you get from college coaches. And to a man, his players will answer similarly. For a coach to instill that kind of perspective in his charges, and for him to remind us that pressure in sports and pressure to make a mortgage payment are two vastly different things shows tremendous character.
On the second day I sat with Rodriguez for the better part of 45 minutes; recording notes and asking the occassional question. He's a big guy in person. Shoehorned into a sportcoat and tie, he sat straight up for the first half hour and gradually relaxed into a comfortable lounge as the questions wore on. Below is a summation of what I caught with Coach Rodriguez.
(More quotes and insight from Rodriguez on Specific Players, the Quarterback position, Defense and more after the jump...)
Specific Player Mentions
It was funny watching Rodriguez talk about some of the players on the team. At one point he remarked "It's hard to try to remember how many true freshmen played last year." I think we all forgot, or chose to ignore, just how young this team was last year. Even with all those returning players there are still going to be a lot of young guys carrying the load for Michigan this year. Rodriguez gave a little insight into some of the new guys and the veterans.
Will Campbell - Will apparently put on a pretty good show when he enrolled early. Naturally, the big defensive tackle had to get in shape after coming in a little heavy. Despite all his natural talent and excellent coaching, Rodriguez mentioned that high school to college is "still a leap." However, Rodriguez said "Will's a great guy. He's working his tail off." The early enrollment helped the freshman considerable and just watching him its obvious he's got "a lot of natural ability and a lot of natural strength." Because he enrolled early and got that extra practice time and weight room time, Rodriguez thinks Campbell has an "opportunity to help us this year" and see some playing time.
Vincent Smith - Another player that enrolled early. He's a great change up, a smaller guy that can make people miss. But, like all freshmen, he's still learning. One note Rodriguez mentioned that caught my ear was the Smith, isn't afraid to mix it up a little bit. Small or not, every now and then, it sounds like he'll truck a defender who's going at halfspeed.
Mike Martin - "Mike played at a high level [last year] and he's even stronger now." Rich did admit in speaking about the defensive line " we're not as deep as we'd like to be."
Terrence Robinson - Looks 100%. Robinson spent a good chunk of last year banged up, and looks like he's now in pretty good shape. That said, the coaching staff is being careful. "When he's healthy, he can play. Terrence can help us" this year.
Mike Shaw - "Best he's looked in his career." Rodriguez told us that Shaw has no pain from his hernia surgery. One thing Rodriguez mentioned was that no one really realized just how bad the injury was last year. It bothered him quite a bit. But now that he's healthy it looks like he'll be able to contribute this year even more.
Mark Ortmann - This one surprised me:
"Ortmann had a bad elbow [towards the end of last season], he could hardly play."
I hope I caught that right, but it did come as a bit of a "wow, I didn't know that" moment. I think a lot of the injury problems we simply didn't know about last season are coming to the surface now. Judging by the number of injuries we knew about, and how many we're just finding out about, this team was really banged up last season.
Brandon Graham - Takes everything to heart. Going to have a huge year for us.
Donovan Warren - Healthy.
Fitzgerald Touisant - recovering from hernia surgery. Should be 100% by fall practice.
Rodriguez talked briefly about the academic status of the team. He indicated that all the freshmen had qualified and were enrolled at this point. With regard to players already on the team, Rodriguez told us that a "couple of guys have some work to do. If they do what they're supposed to do things will be alright." There are a couple of weeks left, so Rodriguez anticipates from speaking with the kids with work to do, that everyone will get done what they're supposed to. Obviously, Rodriguez did not name names. But indicated there shouldn't be any surprises academically.
Rodriguez said that he and the coaching staff sits down with every player when academic issues come up and address that immediately. He stressed just how important the academic side of the program is:
What we try to do is to challenge our guys at compete academically. Make them feel that sense of accomplishment academically.
This isn't lip service. I've heard from Bill Martin that a player missed a class once and word of that got back to Rodriguez. The next class the player was there, and so was Rodriguez, sitting in the back of the room making sure his player got the message that you do not screw around with your academic responsibilities. Rodriguez takes academics seriously and I think he deserves a lot of credit for that. As Rich points out, "They gotta do the work." But it looks like this coaching staff is creating an atmosphere that encourages and requires academic competition and success. As a Michigan graduate, I find that to be a great indicator of the program he's building.
The Quarterback Position
A number of questions focused on how the quarterback competition is shaking out. Rodriguez indicated that he expects to have Focier and Robinson competing against Nick Sheridan for the starting position. One thing that got lost in the shuffle was Rodriguez mentioning that Sheridan is a lot stronger and faster than he was last season, even with the broken foot. While I personally expect Forcier or Robinson to win the job outright, it's heartening to hear of Sheridan's continued improvement.
Rodriguez made clear that the diversity of the offense will depend on what the starting quarterback can handle. Because the quarterback is required not just to be able to know the plays, but make split second decisions based on the defense he's up against, whatever the processing ability of the QB is at that point will determine the extent of the offense. He said that If the quarterback can handle 75% of the offense efficiently, and we can execute that 75% of the offense, then that's what we'll run. However, the converse appears to be true. If the quarterbacks are operating at a 45% level, that's where the offense will run.
When asked if he sees a little Pat White in Robinson or Tate? Rodriguez smiled and laughed, "I hope!" But Rodriguez also cautioned everyone about that Pat White comparison, because White red-shirted. Here "we want Tate and Denard to battle Nick for the job." White got the opportunity to sit a year, develop and learn the offense. Instead, Michigan is going to have to throw Robinson and Forcier into the mix even though they'd prefer to red-shirt them.
However, Rodriguez did comment on the QB's individually. He said "Gonna be fun to watch these kids compete." On Tate, Rodriguez said "he's got a little something special." He told us that in watching Forcier play, he noticed that Tate played "faster" in the bigger games and in the bigger moments. He also said that the extra reps expedited the learning curve. However, because they did not run a lot of contact drills, in the fall they're going to have to let the QB's get hit a bit so that the coaching staff knows how they react. See what Forcier and Robinson can do. Rodriguez stressed ball security. They'll monitor Tate over the fall and see how he does, "see if he's got the fundamentals down."
On Robinson, Rodriguez said he hasn't "seen Denard yet with us." However, he does hear that Denard has immediately come in and worked hard in the weight room and is reportedly working hard to learn what he need to compete for the starting job. Rodriguez was quick to stress that they've seen Robinson from his film and think he can be a special player in this offense.
On depth, Rodriguez mentioned that they hope to have extra QB depth, hopefully will have answers to that by end of week. Jason Forcier was mentioned as one of those potential answers.
Why Run the Spread Last Year Instead of a Conventional Offense?
Rodriguez chuckled at this question a bit as well. He pointed out that with so many freshmen and first time starters, nearly everyone coming in had never been in any type of system. The obvious question became, what other system would we run? Rodriguez said that, no matter what, Michigan was eventually going to have to change to Rodriguez system. So, because no one had a system under their belt, the coaching staff felt they better off implementing their own system so that they didn't waste a year teaching one system, only to have to teach another system the next season.
Switching to the 3-4 Defense
Rodriguez said that Michigan will run a base 3-4 but also play some 4-3. The switch to the 3-4 is partially to counter the spread nature of the new offenses that the Big Ten is shifting to, but also on the recommendation of, his new DC. When Robinson came in, Rodriguez told us that he did a thorough evaluation of the players, depth, and positions. Robinson then came to Rodriguez and said "This is what I have, strengths and weaknesses. Let's put in a package that fits them." As a result, Michigan is implementing the 3-4.
Hey Coach, What About Night Games?
There were a number of questions on this subject so Rodriguez talked about it for a while. One thing he mentioned is that ESPN would like Michigan to agree to do night games at Michigan Stadium and Rodriguez acknowledged that a portion of the fanbase would really like night games as well. However, he pointed out you can't just say woo, night games, and do it. There are a lot of considerations, and the biggest appears to be security. At night you've got to have lighting not just for the stadium, but for the parking lots, golf course, and other portions of the campus where people park and tailgate. What I took away from Rodriguez' comments on night games is that the University isn't going to agree to do them until there is a plan set in place to ensure that people can get home in one piece from the games and the "Security/Public Safety" aspect of lighting and coverage is taken care of.
Another interesting thing was Rodriguez resopnse to the question of whether he'd like to play night games. His reponse was:
"From a preparation stand point you'd like to play every game at noon or 1pm."
Rodriguez stated that he'd played a bunch of games at night in the past because his program needed exposure. Things are different now at Michigan and exposure isn't as big a deal. It's Michigan. However, he acknowedge that night game were part of the ongoing to discussion.
Another interesting tidbit, there is not an allowance for lights on the Stadium redesign. Rodriguez said Michigan can bring in lights as necessary and light the entire field without issue. Again, the takeaway is that Michigan would not need to install lights to host night games in the future. So all you night game fans can happily chew on that for a while.
On the "New Media"
There were a handful of questions about the coach's and coaching staff's use of Twitter and Facebook, which sort of surprised me. What surprised me even more was that those questions were coming from journalists and not from bloggers like me. Rodriguez admitted to being using with Facebook and Twitter, but admitted that he'd fallen off from his Twitter heyday. "I'm probably better [at Twitter] than Joe Pa, but not much." "I was on Twitter for two or three months, I don't know if they kicked me off or what."
With the new restrictions on Text Messages and Emails, Twitter and Facebook are good communication tools that Michigan is using as the medium develops. Rodriguez admitted he's not as "in" to Twitter as Facebook, but said that the staff has to keep up with these new communication methods. "As coaches you'd be learn how to do it or you're going to be behind," Rodriguez said.
One of the more interesting things he said, was comparing the development of this new media to the Jestons. Laughing and reminding us that all those space age things we saw in the Jetsons, well, they're starting to happen. Minus the flying cities and cars, of course.
That said it sounds like Facebook has been a useful communication platform and it's good to know the Coaching staff is keeping up with the trends.
Talking with the Media
I was impressed with Rodriguez on this subject. When asked, he said he tries to be pretty open with media. He admitted that at times last year he was a little too vocal, but that he's had media attention both ways in his career. Put simply he said he's not going to change his approach. If he's pissed off he won't talk as much, if he's happy, he'll be a little chattier. But he said he's always going to be open when talking with the press.
Voting in the Coaches Poll
Along the lines of openness with the media, Rodriguez was very candid about the Coaches Poll Balloting. He told us he has a staff member watch all the games, break everything down, and prepare information for Rodriguez to review every week. After that's prepared, Rodriguez sits down with the staffer and goes over all the details, the rankings, and asks questions. Generally the ballot is ready to go and Rodriguez makes his changes and signs off on it. He said this system has been in place for a number of years, and they've got it down to the point where they can get a lot of information exchanged quickly and efficiently for poll purposes.
One thing he made clear is that the last regular season poll is the most important. "We'll take quite a bit of time, sometimes talk to other coaches, watch film. It's important, particularly that last poll." Rodriguez said that if you're going to take part, you have to take the poll seriously and pay attention. However, he also indicated that he doesn't favor the open ballot because of "why'd you vote this one not that one" questions it generates. Rodriguez intimated he'd rather answer questions about his own team than about his ballot.
Players Taking Shots at the Program as They Leave
Rodriguez admitted it's tough to bite your tongue when people say things about the program in that manner. "Talk to our players, they like the guys that are on the team, they like the direction we're going in, they like the guys they play with." It's tough because he sees everyday that the players really do get along, and are committed to one another. I think this sums it up perfectly:
Michigan is not a place for guys who want to be average. It's a place for guys who want to be challenged athletically and academically.
On the Fans' Support
"Our fans are educated. They're upset at the games we didn't win, but so was I. They're isn't anything wrong with that," was Rodriguez' response to questioning about how Michigan fans reacted to last season's 3-9 campaign. Rodriguez told us that Michigan fans have almost universally been positive and supportive of the program and of him in particular. But they also expect results. His answer "I'd rather be at a place with high expectations," and the "Best way to ease everybody's concerns is to work, and get things right."
Reflecting on his career
Rich admitted that after the games, he enjoys looking back on some of games against coaches like Paterno and Bowden. But must of all, he says, he likes reflecting back on beating those types of coaches and not saying "wow, I just coached against so-and-so." What can you say? The guy's a competitor
Concerns going into the Season
Critical we keep guys like Graham, Martin, Van Bergen healthy.
Finding your Identity
Places a huge value on it. Identity is always something they're going to work on.
Improving the Game Day Experience
Rodriguez said he'd like to fix some little things to improve the game day experience. He seemed to indicate that there were things the program could do to "bring people into the game." He said there is more we can do to make the experience better for everybody. As for piped in MUSAK, I'll let Brian deal with that.
Rodriguez indicated the players like the stuff Adidas is supplying. He also indicate there shouldn't be any visible changes to the uniform. Any changes will likely be material based. But if they change anything is will be very subtle, and involve the little things.
College Players Head Hunting When Tackling
This is apparently something Rodriguez is fairly concerned with. He said "The head shouldn't be a part of any tackle or block." At the college level Rodriguez doesn't think head hunting is an epidemic or a large problem, but is something that the NCAA is looking got control before it becomes an issue. I he told us the NCAA was looking at implementing a head hunting rule similar to the NFL in an effort to nip the issue in the bud, before it becomes one.
On a personal level, Rodriguez said that If player of his looks like he's head hunting, they take that player aside, talk with them, and correct the issue.
The Take Away on Rodriguez
Like I said in the Intro, I've got a lot of faith in Coach Rodriguez and speaking with him at the press conference did nothing but strengthen that faith. Rodriguez is a coach that seems to have two feet firmly planted in reality. He knows this year is going to be both exciting and trying, and he's not attempting to dance around the fact that Michigan is still lacking depth at critical positions. By that same token, I think he's proud of the progress the kids have made under his and his coaches tutelage.
It's an exciting time to be a Michigan fan. And I think we've got the right coach to lead Michigan back to its righful place in the College Football world.
Also check out: Big Ten Media Days, The Take Away on Michigan Football: Part I, Offensive Lineman Mark Ortmann, Part II, Safety Stevie Brown, Part III - Zoltan Mesko, Punter and Space Emperor, and Part IV - Coaches and the Media.