The Boxer: Michigan's Rich Rodriguez and The Fight Ahead of Him

When I look at Rich Rodriguez these days I see a tired man. Not tired in the sense that he is broken, resigned, or half asleep. Tired like a boxer at the end of the fourth round, stung by a right cross he didn't see coming, and covering his noggin as he absorbs shot after shot to his mid section, waiting, praying that the final four seconds on the clock tick down and allow him a moment to collect himself. Looking at him, I get that sense. Not that he's out of fight. Far from it. He just needs a breather. A break from the constant stream of questions about CARA forms, stretching time, and his future as Michigan's head football coach. Each one a repeated jab or hook he's glanced off time and time again, but each one costing him something.

But he knows that bell is still a long way off, no matter what the clock says.

No matter what happens between now and September, 4, 2010, this particular round won't end for Rodriguez until two seconds after kickoff. Then, mercifully, he'll finally have a moment in his element to recoup his strength as the ball sails towards a returner's waiting arms. Until then he'll keep absorbing blow after blow, staying on his feet in spite of how badly some in the crowd want him to go down.

For me it's not hard to picture Rodriguez as a fighter. There's something in his demeanor, his words, and his eyes. Whether he likes it or not, the man simply can't take a good photograph. His photograph smile seems forced and artificial. Instead, the photos we get of Rodriguez seem almost menacing or downright goofy. Unlike his predecessor, Rodriguez doesn't have those charming jowls or old man aura. He is stocky, physically imposing, and (at best) dressed in a mediocre suit/sport coat. All these things conspire to keep him etched in peoples minds as somewhat of a ruffian. Uncouth or unrefined. Where Carr would quote Rousseau, it is perceived that Rodriguez would quote Dagwood Bumstead or Archie Bunker.

He is almost seen as a villain. But for no reason. It is just that he has been painted as one and the public persona doesn't immediately refute it. He isn't slick like Calipari. He doesn't have Saban's Armani or PROCESS. He lack's Mack Brown's drawl. I think of Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world, who was painted as a "Gorilla" by Ali. Yet, Frazier was NOT a bad guy.

Frazier attended numerous tribunals, hearings, and public relations functions in support of Ali throughout his three and a half year exile from boxing, which occurred after his draft refusal. Frazier's support of Ali extended beyond Ali's legal difficulties: Frazier ardently supported Ali in his attempt to have his boxing license restored. Frazier also provided Ali some financial support during his exile.

What Fraizer was not, was a powerful public presence like Ali was. Fraizer couldn't command a microphone or an audience in the way his opponent could. Fraizer's flaw was he wasn't Ali. Rodriguez flaw is similar, he's not everything everyone wants at once.

But that doesn't stop him from being himself. Rodriguez, for all his faults, is still the right man for this job. While he may look tired, his resolve remains constant. I have no doubt that when the season begins, Michigan will come out swinging for its coach. This team is now an extension of Rodriguez rather than the remnants of programs past, and it will be Rodriguez counterpunch to all the critiques and jabs that he is not the right man for Michigan.

Rodriguez is a good man, despite the attempts to paint him otherwise. He is charitable. He is friendly. He cares deeply about the kids in his program. He is not the Gorilla he has been depicted to be. Perhaps if those who only see his photographs in the papers could see him on the practice field or see him at an alumni event, they would see something, someone, different. See him as he is, not as he has been portrayed.

In the 1930's a fighter named James Braddockfractured his hand badly during a fight, forcing him from the ring into the waiting unemployment lines of the depression. Braddock eventually tired of hunting day to day for work to feed his family, and returned to the ring as the ultimate underdog, eventually becoming the heavyweight champion of the world in one of boxing's most famous upsets.

Not too long ago much was made of the Lloyd Carr's use of Ron Howard's adaptation of that story, how Carr and Russell Crowe became friends because of it. But the real story is how Michigan in 2007 resembled Braddock. How they got up off the canvas and fought back. Now, the story is how Rodriguez will respond. And perhaps after three years of bitter complaints that Rodriguez and Carr have nothing in common, maybe now those complainants can find a link between the coaches.

I see a lot of Braddock in Rodriguez. He's been hurt. He's been written off. But his best fights are still ahead of him. Right now he needs a moment to gather himself, much like Braddock did. Whether Rodriguez falters like Fraizer or succeeds like Braddock remains to be seen, but he is capable of both.

Either way, come August, he will come out swinging.

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