Get me out of this.
Warren Zevon certainly didn't write the song about Michigan football, but it's strikingly apropos right now:
I'm the innocent bystander, somehow I got stuck, between a rock and hard place, and I'm down on my luck
That line could apply to anyone from fans to Rich Rodriguez himself at this juncture. It's impossible to feel that Michigan's football program is once again standing at a crossroads regarding its future. I still don't know the answer to the Rich Rodriguez question. I like the man, I don't doubt his prior coaching record, and I understand the obstacles he's had to face in Ann Arbor since his arrival. I want him to succeed, but my confidence in his ability to succeed here has been shaken over the course of this past year, and this is despite the fact that the team finished almost exactly how many had predicted back in the summer. It is also despite the fact that I've adamantly stated over and over again that he should get four years here almost regardless of what years one through three yield. He has won more each year, he has turned an abysmal offense into one that is somewhere between decent and fantastic depending on how much you care about the ratio of yards to points, and he has Michigan back in a bowl game. He also has managed to consistently field the worst defensive unit any of us has ever seen year after year. We can't kick field goals, we can't hold on to the football, and we can't manage to do much more than swing uselessly at air an arm's length away from truly solid football teams yet. There are no easy answers here, and I won't pretend to have a great battle plan, but here goes my best shot of how we got here and what it is we should do about it.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
I remember feeling nothing but trepidation in late November and early December of 2007. It was really difficult to try to comprehend how we had arrived at that point, the slam dunk coaching candidate (at the time) somehow wasn't to be, we watched flight trackers in horror, and each day caused that pit in the stomach to become increasingly harder to ignore. Time wore on and exponentially less exciting candidates appeared on the radar. It sucked. To think that but one short year prior we had spent 11 weeks at the pinnacle of the college football world was nearly inconceivable. Bo, crushingly, was gone. Sean Crable's helmet came somewhere approximately near Troy Smith's helmet and we had fallen again to Tressel with a national title on the line. Then with the most loaded team of my lifetime returning, I numbly stood in the stands and watched App State knock the most storied program in college football off course in a matter of just 60 minutes. One week later Oregon finished off what remained in brutal fashion. Looking back, there are a lot of people that skip the next part of the story, which makes sense because we're Michigan fans and even successes must be met with an unrelenting pessimistic eye, rote-rehersal of what could've been done better, and a generalized airing of grievances against play-calling, strategy, and execution. I'll never forget the fans after the Vandy game in '06 bitching about how we hadn't won big enough and how ND would absolutely pants us in South Bend. I long for the days where we bitched and moaned about a win not being flashy enough. I also long for the days where we crushed the number two team in the nation at their house.
Soon what many had thought to be a mere formality of a coaching search was turning into a slow-motion car wreck, and the previous 40 years of stability, winning, and Michigan football seemed to hang in the balance.
I don't know, it must have been the roses
My formative years of Michigan football for all intents and purposes consisted of one coach: Lloyd Carr. I was youthfully aware of the teams that preceded his, but Lloyd was the first coach that I was truly there (as a fan) for from beginning to end. From Dreisbach to Hayes all the way to Henne, Hart, and company running all over Florida. Sure I had my gripes about losing to inferior teams and playing too conservatively, etc. But I loved the guy regardless. He was everything we could hope for in a coach for this particular program. He smoked top 10 teams, he won bowls (early on at least), he brought in talent, and he ran the program the way we all wanted it to be run. He had a doghouse and a book with pages that his players had best be on. He turned Chris Perry into 51-Carry-Doak-Walker Chris Perry and Braylon Edwards into simply Braylon. He owned Joe Paterno. He thrashed Ohio State when they were at their pinnacle. He provided one of the single greatest halftime question responses I've ever seen. He was as far from Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio as one could hope for, and that was a great thing. Lloyd spent nearly 30 years in the Michigan program; he understood the intricacies of this ephemeral thing we refer to as the Michigan spirit, all of the traditions, the quirks, etc. He got it. He quoted Kipling and would often have something thoughtful to say about a player that would involve the word tremendous at least six times. He fiercely defended his players, his team, and he took the blame even when he didn't have to.
I've always abhorred hearing doubters and all-caps-unacceptable-ists droll on about how Rodriguez doesn't get things like The Game and other Michigan traditions, it still irks me. I don't for a second think that he is unaware of the import of the traditions. But now I'm forced to say that perhaps more than an just a simple understanding or knowledge is required. Perhaps not at the Boise State's and TCU's and South Florida's and yes even West Virginia's of the world, but at places truly steeped in tradition it carries some weight, strike that, a lot of weight. Ask Nebraska.
Of course this is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the fact that at the end of 2007, I felt we needed a change in philosophy, a change in how we approached football games, an overall change in attitude. The Horror and Oregon were symptoms of long dwelling problem at Michigan, and we all thought we could treat the disease without affecting all that we were still doing well. At the time, I was truly excited at the prospect of bringing in someone who would never punt on 4th and 3 from the 34 yardline when a first down brings a series of kneel-downs and another epic win against a much better Ohio State team... I think a lot of outside fans miss out on was how simultaneously great and frustrating it was to watch that '07 squad go out and dominate Florida in the Capital One bowl. It's all too easy to say that was the team and approach we should've had all year, but that's how it felt. In fact, it was the way we should've played for years plural, and for Lloyd's swan song, he finally took off the blinders and let them fly. With Rodriguez I thought we had found that guy that would do that every game. Now I wonder if we put the cart before the horse in our selection, if we focused too much on the change in philosophy and X's and O's and not enough on the general gestalt of a Michigan football coach. If in our greed for offense and teams that would crush inferior opponents we forgot just what went into a program that hadn't had a losing season in 40 years. I've followed the situation as closely as the rest of us who care about such things have over the past three years, I fully understand how Rodriguez inherited a dirth of talent to start his career here, I am acutely aware of the injuries and the defections that have torn the defense asunder. I could understand 3-9, I even predicted 8-4 this year, but the problem is while I see 7-5 in the record books, what I see on the field has me more worried than ever before.
My concern goes beyond just that though. Lloyd's teams rallied. That '07 team came out and punched a top 10 Penn State team in the mouth at home. For that horrible string of first road-game losses year after year, the team responded, rallied, and knocked off tough competition. I used to sneer at Notre Dame fans when they would praise Charlie Weis, the response was easy: "who the hell has he beaten since he'd been there?" Absolutely nobody that's who. Now I'm forced to ask the same question of Rich Rodriguez, and I don't like the answer I keep coming up with. By the by I'm not one of those fans that discounts the ND game after-the-fact. I hate that. It's a rivalry, it's a huge game despite the fact that they haven't been great in a long while. When you've won twice in South Bend in 16 years you don't discount wins. But aside from two nice wins over ND and a shocking win over a middling Wisconsin team, where's the victory that Maize and Blue fans can point to and say "ah-ha there's the flash of brilliance, that's what waiting for us just over the horizon". Right now all we can point to is a pile of yards, a smaller pile of points, and a pile of losses that's way too damn big. This football team says all the right things and it has a tremendous amount of character. There's a LOT to like about this football team and its makeup, but to deny that it has had trouble responding would be disingenuous.
Where's the counterpunch?
When we hired Rodriguez I grinned ear to ear thinking about how his West Virginia teams buzz-sawed squads like Georgia and Oklahoma on the big stage. Now I wonder if West Virginia at the time wasn't a version of Boise State and TCU... a decent team that had to get up to play one or two games a year. That's simply not the case in this conference, and so far our conference track record has been abysmal. I can't point to one game where Michigan punched above its weight class and beat a solid Big 10 foe, not one in three years. Think about that. How can I reconcile the fact that now three years in we still haven't beaten anyone worth talking about in a conference that we own 42 titles in? There's a rational portion of me that agrees with Brian when he points to our offensive numbers and to the leaps and bounds we've made, and there's another portion of me that watched that same beast of an offense fail to carry the pathetic defense in any meaningful contest this season and wonders just what those stats are missing. How many times did the offense get the ball with a chance to tie, or a chance to put the team up two possessions early, and how many times did it stall? Dave pointed out very astutely the complete no-show our high-flying O made in conference games this season until we were in such a deep hole that a miraculous performance was required to even make the game competitive. Most of those games were spent with me praying for the defense to make but one stop late in the game... perhaps I should've been praying for the offense to pull its head out of its tail in the first half.
So back to my point from earlier: Lloyd's teams rallied. They rallied in '03 when things seemed bleakest at Minnesota on a god forsaken Friday night, they rallied in '07 when no team has ever had a worse start to a season, they rallied early in his career to destroy the psyche of an entire state. I look at Rodriguez's squads and I wonder where that same response to adversity is. I don't for one second doubt the heart, I don't doubt the desire. But we haven't experienced this phenomenon before of starting out seasons at 4-0 and 5-0 and then barely scratching to all of seven wins. The explanation quite easily could lie in the fact that we're a football team starting 25* true freshmen on defense, players that shouldn't see the field in this conference for two years at least, and are still (people forget) playing with another QB who is starting for the first time this season. We Michigan fans forget that freshmen making an enormous impact are the rare exception. Sure we had Henne and Hart, but goodness, everywhere else on the field, the freshmen got to learn and practice while we had upperclassmen leading the way year in and year out, and that's how it was, we (just like OSU) would reload every year. In the seven years prior to Rich Rodriguez we started a grand total of three quarterbacks if you're inclined to count Ryan Mallet in the tally. In his three years here we've started four. In 2008 the chamber was empty, period. There was nothing to reload with and unfortunately on defense, it still is. So perhaps the rally isn't possible, not with the inexperience on this team. But geez, it's hard to conceive of how we haven't managed to do so on more than one occasion: Wisconsin 2008.
I look at defensive rankings and statistics and I just become angry. Without wanting to try to set the bar too high, let's look at the teams that occupy the 60s for total defense in the nation: SMU, Purdue, Toledo, Oklahoma, Central Michigan, La-Monroe, Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky, Navy, and Middle Tennesse... Now then, let's all take note that 2 and goddamn 10 Western Kentucky has a defense ranked 42 spots above ours. In what way is any player on Western Kentucky's team someone who would be better than their counterpart in Ann Arbor aside from age? The defense has experienced a lot of attrition, but there are teams out there with far less talent and far less pedigree that still manage to field a unit that can actually still play defense. Level of competition, blah blah blah, win you win two freaking games your demonstrably worse than your level of competition, and you're still fielding a better defense than Michigan. Of course, we could also look at Indiana's performance against the two units. Ben Chappell had a banner day against the Hilltoppers with 366 yards and 3 TDs, overall the Hoosiers accumulated 466 total yards. Michigan's D managed to limit Chappell to 480 yards and let IU pick up a grand total of 568 yards. Just look at those numbers.
It goes beyond a simple scheme if you were to ask me, the boilerplate of "the 3-3-5 doesn't work in this conference" is utter bullshit. If we had lined the '06 defense in a 3-3-5, it most assuredly still would've been a buzzsaw of a unit. The problem is that the 3-3-5 definitely doesn't work for the assemblence of talent that we do have, and it definitely doesn't make sense against every opponent we see, particularly a team that will put seven players on the line of scrimmage nearly every snap (ahem Wisconsin). We've seen two different DCs essentially forced to run the scheme... and at no point has it been viewed as an effective approach. This lack of recognition or lack of flexibility to adapt to the defensive group we have is more damning argument against Rodriguez's coaching decisions than any idiotic rant about the 2008 offense that had IM level talent across the field. The subsequent offenses have proven the point in that argument... as have the subsequent defenses.
The answer here is simple. There needs to be a wholesale change on the defensive side of the football, and there needs to be no resistance to it from Rodriguez. This can't be a debatable point, and if I'm Dave Brandon, this is the make or break point in my overall decision for the direction to take with this program. Rodriguez has had three years to see that his defensive approach has wholeheartedly submarined his football team's chances in game after game after game. It started with allowing a Purdue WR to have a Heisman-esque day against us... at quarterback no less, and has continued ever since.
Ok that's a lot of pontificating, what do we need to do?
Fair question. I've tried to weigh this out with reason and tried to reconcile the fact that I'm usually an optimist. There's this large portion of my thought process that thinks that a bowl game was enough this year and that an older/wiser and less injured Michigan team finally makes the leap in 2011 back into the top of the conference. And then I look at things like Western Kentucky being the '97 D compared to our current unit, and I'm forced to wonder if in fact it will get better. I'm forced to look at the makeup of the current "top of the conference" and know that not one player on this football team has had anything resembling success against those teams. We are nowhere near Ohio State, nowhere close, the first time that can be said in my lifetime.
Now here's the tricky part, you have people arguing that had we hired someone to maintain the status quo Michigan likely would've kept on trucking along, possibly struggling to 7-8 win seasons in '08 and '09. That's all fine and good, but what that theory negates is the fact that the second we hired Rodriguez we committed ourselves to a restructuring. Not only that but we also committed ourselves to seeing it through the initial phase. To me, a relative simpleton who's not a college football coach, that is a very easily defined period of no less than four years. That gives you four recruiting classes and plenty of time to make adjustments on staff if needed. To this point I have consistently argued that Rodriguez deserved four full seasons in Ann Arbor before we can legitimately say "yes" or "no" on the guy. Now the glaringly obvious issue to everyone is that we have gone through two defensive coordinators and the D has done nothing but wholeheartedly sucked. Two different DCs have turned out high school level performances. The question is do you keep Rodriguez for his fourth season with dire consequences in the balance and change just the defensive staff, or do you look at the onfield performances against quality teams and decide that enough is enough, let's not just change the defense but let's bring in someone new? All through the season I would've said the obvious thing to do is to scrap the defensive side of the ball and move on. Now I think the decision depends on Rodriguez's approach to it and his receptiveness to the idea that hey, the defense has been awful, you're responsible, what are you going to do. His answer determines his future in my mind.
What makes me hesitant to just say we should've stuck with someone like Debord is that all of our complaints towards the end of the Carr era were that the team never played to its potential, never played up to its otherworldly talent level. To an extent this was true, see earlier reference to horrifying road-game losing streak and the incredibly frustrating losses to lesser foes over the years that ruined what-could've-been seasons ('03, '04, '99, etc). My feeling is that we made the coaching hire with a new ceiling in mind, this wasn't a hire to keep going 9-3, this was a hire to give us a legit shot at 12-0, and to make runs towards BCS bowls. I can recall Beauford and I excitedly discussing how we were no longer going to be out-schemed any more and how we would attack other team's weaknesses without so much as the slightest hesitation. Now then, clearly we're not there yet. I'm not exactly sure how many people expected us to be after three years, but we're not close yet. I can say I expected us to be further along at this point, but again, I think that judging this before four seasons is dangerously premature. It's easy to say things like "attention to detail" and cite turnovers and poor kicking and the like and hypothesize what this team looks like with Mike DeBord (SERIOUSLY?!!) at the helm, but I would argue that bringing Rodriguez in meant a long term commitment towards the possibility of a much higher ceiling with a higher risk for struggle initially than sticking with someone like Mike Debord (which again, SERIOUSLY?!).
Yes the attrition on defense has been ridiculous, but with two and a half recruiting classes in, we shouldn't have this astounding lack of depth either. I would certainly concede that the talent on defense is not close to what we've had in the past, but it's damn sure better than whatever they have at Western Kentucky. The defensive performance cannot be tied to simply youth and talent alone. Players like Kenny Demens and Carvin Johnson have provided a much much needed glimpse of promise heading forward, but we HAVE to make changes now. Two DCs have come through and have done nothing with the D. It's inherently obvious we need a third DC, and we need a stipulation that you leave that third DC the hell alone in-so-far as his ability to install whatever scheme/plan/regimen and staff that he wants. Those arguing that a defensive staff overhaul won't fix the problem would do well to look at other programs around the country: Syracuse and Illinois certainly would be counterpoints to your argument...
BUT I am also very hesitant to sit here and say "blow it all up" when you consider that we, for the first time in Rodriguez's tenure, will have legitimate experience and something approximating depth heading into 2011. While the team has struggled, there has in fact been progress: 3 wins to 5 wins to 7 wins and a bowl trip. My patience has certainly been stretched to the limit. The performance against Ohio State was simply not good enough, especially considering the way we played the first 15 minutes of that football game. The performances against all of the better teams in the conference thus far have simply not good enough. Losing to one loss top ten teams is one thing, losing to thoroughly mediocre squads like Iowa (particularly at home) and Penn State are a lot more concerning.
Here was the rub heading into the season if you were to have asked me prior to August: a two year run of 3-9 and 5-7 pales in comparison to the opportunity to set up a program that turns out a monster every season. At that time I whole heartedly believed Rich Rodriguez could accomplish that goal in Ann Arbor, and I believed he deserved, if nothing else, the 2011 season to show that potential. That confidence has been shaken despite the team going the nearly universally predicted 7-5. It's the way it happened, the way we fell way too far behind to every decent team we faced, and the way that we gave away football games. It's seeded in the troubling realization that for some reason we can't manage to locate someone who can kick a football through the goalposts despite the fact that small D3 schools manage to accomplish that task year in and year out... that we can't manage to hold on to the goddamn football STILL. Yes the offense has improved, but the mistakes that lose you football games have not. Alarmed? I sure am.
What isn't clear is that whether bringing in just a new DC and just a slight improvement on defense gets this team over the hump to where it's a relevant contender within the conference stage next year, let alone on a national level. And make no mistake, next year is the deadline now. It will be year four, there will have been enough time to have experience in the system and depth on the roster, it would be put up or shut-up time. I honestly can't say whether or not Rodriguez will produce a team that makes us all go "phew" next year, but the question is does he deserve the opportunity?
The Harbaugh Parallax
Jim Harbaugh makes a ton of sense. My feeble arguments against his installment as HC are as follows: First, he was an idiot and slammed his alma mater. It's something that simply shouldn't have been done. This is fixed with a simple, "I was wrong, I shouldn't have spoken about that issue in that way and I shouldn't have spoken poorly about my school". Secondly, and far more concerning to me, is that this team is not in a position where it can endure another mass exodus of talent. A very legitimate question is how stable will the roster be if Harbaugh were to come in? I don't know, that's why I ask.
After the Penn State debacle Beauford and I spent way too much time on the phone outlining in a some pseudo-statistics-objective-and-qualitative-things-be-damned argument that Harbaugh likely gives you at least 80% of the offensive acumen that Rodriguez does, and hey look, his teams play defense and make tackles and do things like kick the ball well. At the time, a slight downgrade in offensive potential for the reward of overall competence seemed like a no-brainer. To be honest, it still does.
The Final Verdict
This has to be a decision for the long-term good of the program.
Rodriguez gets his fourth year with the stipulation of a new DC and their staff with no questions asked. He is fired if we don't finish above .500 in conference. The offense has the potential to become lethal. It is not yet there, it's not yet even excellent, but the potential for it to get there and get there soon is inherently obvious. If we can shore up the defense, I don't see how this is anything but a top 15 football team.
Dave Brandon is able to get Harbaugh, he is able to talk with the players and prevent the stampede out the door that occurred three years ago, and he brings him in this offseason. The fanbase unites, the press loses its scapegoat, and the overall health of the program is immediately on the mend without playing a single game. The reception would be deafening. He is the only candidate out there that makes this work though. If we fail to get Harbaugh, who on earth would want to come here with the precedent of three years and done set before them? Ask ND how that's worked for them.
For the first time since Rodriguez has arrived in Ann Arbor, I think that the second option is just as attractive as the first one. This means that I am with Dave Brandon in whatever he decides. There is enough support for either side here; we just have to hope that we have installed the right AD to make the decision.