With Spring Practice a Week Away, Let's All Take a Deep Breath: A Counterpoint on Rich Rodriguez and the NCAA's Michigan Investigation

After Markus' outstanding hot seat piece on Rich Rodriguez, it seemed like an excellent time to take a look into what this whole "practicegate" debacle really means to Michigan Football fans rather than the program. I don’t agree with Markus on everything in his post. We’re going to be at odds on many things there. But I consider that a good thing. The discussion about how Michigan deals with the coming season and the pending NCAA decision isn’t one sided. It’s multifaceted, with so many nuanced permutations that it makes the Healthcare debate look manageable. It’s only when we consider perspectives different from our own that we can actually come up with a full grasp of this situation and where we go from here.

From a fan perspective, the effects of Practicegate on the program’s on-field capability are fairly obvious. Potential loss of scholarships, loss of recruiting privileges, probation, etc. While there’s nothing program crippling in there, or anything worthy of punishments worse than a slap on the wrist for being sloppy with your paper work and pushing the envelope a little too far, it’s still embarrassing.

But embarrassment is overrated. Ask Alabama how their sanctions and the shame associated with them effected the Crimson Tide faithful. I think you know the answer. Our buddies at Roll Bama Roll are laughing at these so-called infractions while puffing on national championship cigars and burying their faces in a mound of coke provided by a former player who actually completed the coke deals he promised. Let the "Jimmy Johns, Cocaine So Fast You'll Freak!" jokes commence.

On field, the infractions may amount to a scholarship or three, maybe fewer official visits and some negative recruiting. But in reality? It’s not going to affect the program too much. This is Michigan after all. Just like Alabama, Texas and Notre Dame, Michigan will always be a powerful name in college football. It’s just the way it is.

Winning Cures Everything

Going past the effects of these potential sanctions let’s be clear, the thing that hurts the most right now is our won-lost record. You can say all the sucked, but if we won two more games I’m willing to bet people would be a lot more forgiving.

It’s easy to point to the every transfer, the West Virginia buyout nonsense, Justin Feagin, the Free Press articles and say that these were all indicia of things to come. But I’d disagree. If you look, for every Justin Boren there's a Brandon Graham and Zoltan Mesko. For every complainer there are two to three other kids who would lay down in traffic for their coach. For all the bitching about privileged athletes Rodriguez' teams have posted the highest GPAs of any Michigan football team in the last 20 years. After three years of horrible recruiting on defense we've got a cadre of linebackers, corners and safeties ready to contribute immediately. All the nonsense that pre-dated the NCAA investigation was just that, nonsense. Rich Rodriguez is a good man and a good coach. I still believe, though that faith has been shaken somewhat, that he is the man to lead our team.

Think about it. If Michigan pulls out one or two of the close games they dropped in 2009, the hot seat isn't even in the discussion. The investigation would be a nuisance rather than a cause celibre. We’d be getting amped for a Big Ten Title run.

Only we're not.

(More after the Jump....)

 

Instead, a week away from the start of spring practice, we’re shooting flaming arrows of anger at the Coaching staff or blindly circling the wagons. Or, in some instances, acting like nothing really happened. That’s not what should be going on. We should be looking at this with a clear, cynical eye and ridding ourselves of our passions and biases so that we can judge this situation based on the facts.

While I don't agree with Markus on every point he made, I do agree with him on this one:

It's one thing to emphatically state that you not only know the NCAA practice rules and that you follow those rules, but it's quite another when a university and NCAA investigation eventually uncovers that you, a) either don't know the rules; or b) really didn't follow the rules.  It makes you look incompetent and dumb. That's a hot seat of one's own making.  It was avoidable.

It was avoidable. Repeat that phrase a few times to let it sink in. If you're looking for a reason that so many Michigan fans aren't just sweeping the infractions under the rug as "everyone's doing it," that's the reason. Practicegate stems from a series of dumb mistakes that has allowed a dying newspaper to drag a proud program through the mud. If you want to know why so many of us are upset, there you have it.

Shattering the Illusion

Outside of the program related irritations, the one thing that’s driven me up a wall in talking to other Michigan fans is this delusion that before Rodriguez Michigan was a holy land covered in gumdrop forests and constantly sprinkled in WIN from the football fairies. That Michigan was a place of RIGHT not wrong. For so many years we’ve prided (and sometimes comforted) ourselves by saying "We don't do things that way. We do them the RIGHT way." And for so many years, from outside Schembechler Hall anyway, that's how it seemed. Michigan was doing it the right way, and winning while doing it the right way.

How easily we forget the truth in the face of adversity.

As much as we love pointing to the Good ‘Ole days, the fact remains that Michigan possesses only a single national championship after 1948. And that one was shared. Year in and year out between 1948 and 1996, Michigan would field capable teams that never lived up to expectations. Even Bo's teams would disappoint. Dropping the inexplicable game or getting trounced in a Bowl Game. Even though Michigan  fans love to point to the glory days of Bo Schembechler, they really weren't "glory days" in a national championship sense:

If there are questions regarding Bo's tenure, they revolve around his Rose Bowl record 2-8, his postseason record of 5-12, his style of offensive coaching, and his performance against top ten teams. During his tenure Bo went 7-27-1 15-20-1 (thanks to Don to pointing out the error) against top ten teams.

Worse:

During Bo's 21 year tenure, Michigan came close but never captured a National Championship. However, Southern California who Michigan played in the Rose Bowl several times captured 3. Perennial foe Notre Dame took 3 National Championships home.

Ten trips to the Rose Bowl, two wins. 21 years and no national championships. And that's just on the field. Then you go to Gary Moeller, who was summarily dispatched by Michigan after one bad night out on the town and, arguably, some iffy seasons. And it's not like things were peachy under Carr either. Chitownblue put together a full list of Carr's disciplinary problems, all 29 arrests ranging from drunk and disorderly to allegations of sexual misconduct and rape. Hardly a paradise of doing things the "right way."

Why am I bringing all this up? Because our memories and reality seem to exist on two separate planes. This is not the first time Michigan has been in trouble. Nor will it likely be the last. Whether its players being stupid or coaches acting like fools, Michigan has not led the celibate, holy life on field and off that we'd like to believe.

If that's doing things the "right way", this administration hasn't strayed to far from the norm.

My point is, before we as a fanbase get all holier than thou on anyone, especially our current coaches; we need to recognize the team's and university's failures in the past rather than sweeping them under the rug. Frankly, from time to time, Michigan fans have dismissed poor seasons or performances with the twofaced refrain of doing things the "right way." It makes us sound like Charlie Weis. "We don't recruit thugs." "Tough academics make it tougher to recruit." "If I was at Florida, I'd win too." Doing things the "right way" has been a favorite excuse for years. Now, mercifully, we should be able to see it for what it is. A hollow refrain.

The Stuff that Brought the Investigation Never Should Have Occurred

That said, none of this excuses Rodriguez or his staff for some colossal errors in judgment. I'm not talking about monitoring athletes to make sure they're in class. If that's an NCAA violation, screw it, I'll lose a scholarship or two to make sure players are going to class and punishing them when they don't. That's something Michigan should stand for.

But the staff's failure to know the rules after years of telling us they did is a problem. All you had to do was email the Compliance Guy. He'd tell you. And, it's not like the NCAA doesn't have staff there to answer the occasional question. That's what's galling to me. These are reading mistakes. Mistakes Michigan is not supposed to make. Reading. To that extent, Rodriguez and the whole athletic department need to be taken to task. This isn't failure to monitor. This isn't loss of control. This is just failure of reading comprehension. And that's something Michigan students, alumni and fans are not used to, and something we shouldn't accept as being okay.

Let's Be Honest

In my estimation, it's okay for everyone to be pissed about the staff screwing the pooch on reading the damn rules. Further, everyone should be annoyed about the QC staff gone nuts. You can’t run an asylum when the guards are nuttier than the interned. I've got a real problem with that.

But it's not okay for Michigan fans to say "we've never done that before" or this never would've happened" under so-and-so. Maybe they wouldn't have, but we'd have a string of other problems we'd be dealing with. Before we deify Rodriguez' predecessors in an attempt to tear Rich down, take a look at the facts that predated his arrival. The arrests. The sub par seasons. The horrific recruiting. Problems staring us in the face that we were willing to overlook to maintain the illusion of doing things the "right way." Be honest, this wasn't paying players. This wasn't taking recruits to strip clubs. It was just dumb.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Everyone knows my position on Rodriguez, but I'll state it here again anyway. Rodriguez should get four full years to show what he can do. Given the on the field disaster he inherited, anything less than four years is patently unfair and would make us look like Notre Dame when they fired Ty Willingham. Frankly, it would make us look even worse because Willingham flat out stopped recruiting or caring after the end of year two and sandbagged his job. Rodriguez has done the opposite. He's working even harder than ever and has stockpiled enough talent and experience to compete for a Big Ten title in 2011.

Not giving him the opportunity to truly show what he is capable of would not only be unfair to him and his players, it would be unfair to the coach who would replace him. And what if the guy was a dud? Look at Charlie Weis (again), he inherited a program in the fourth year of recruiting for his system. The team was ready to explode and he got to parlay that into a "return to glory" and a 100 zillion dollar buyout-impossible contract. Ask your favorite Domer how that turned out.

Crucifying Rodriguez isn't going to fix things. Further, the sanctions the University is expecting aren't that harsh. Both of those things are obvious. If the opposite had been true Mary Sue Coleman and Dave Brandon would've canned Rodriguez rather than sit next to him at a press conference.

What we need to do, as fans, is acknowledge what's going on. Acknowledge the screw up for what it is. Not a nefarious attempt to circumvent the rules, but a really dumb series of minor mistakes that snowballed. We should recognize that the implications of the infractions aren't program crippling, they're just annoying. Realize that the golden years weren't so golden and that Michigan, like any other program, has had its fair share of screw ups on the roster or coaching staff over the last fifty years. Acknowledge that whether Rodriguez is here or not, our opponents are going to keep yakking until we beat them again. Recognize that the best response is winning.

And if you want to win, I still say Rodriguez is your man.

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