In the aftermath of David Brandon’s press conference announcing the decision to fire Rich Rodriguez and embark on a national coaching search, I was left with the question of how Michigan had arrived at that point, and why – despite all evidence that pointed to success – was the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan such a failure? The web of events that eventually led a coach who had been successful (and wildly so) at every other stop he’s made is so tangled that even the most plugged in Michigan Man in the world probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of it. It is with this in mind that I try to detangle some of the events that impacted Rodriguez, and eventually caused the failure of his tenure as a coach at Michigan. In essence, this is "what happened to Rich Rodriguez?"
Michigan was a much, much different program when Rodriguez took over than it is today. While "The Horror" cast a shadow over much of the 2007 season, Michigan still finished strongly and beat a heavily favored, Tebow led, Florida team in the Citrus Bowl to send Lloyd Carr out with a win. The regime change that was about to take place was not only one of coaching, but also one that saw the offensive triumvirate of Jake Long, Chad Henne, and Mike Hart make their way to the NFL. It was expected that Ryan Mallett, the 6’7" limestone statue with a laser rocket arm quarterback from Texarkana would take the reigns and Michigan would continue being Michigan; winning 8-10 games per season, maybe (finally) overcoming the Tressel hurdle, and generally being a respected, if dated, program.
It is here that then Athletic Director Bill Martin went on his own national coaching search, and flipped the script on everyone. Instead of hiring someone from the Bo/Mo/Lloyd tree, he went outside the program and hired Rich Rodriguez. Because we’ve done so for all the would-be candidates for the job in 2011, let’s look at Rodriguez’s West Virginia resume at the time he was hired.
Rich Rodriguez Offense
After bouncing around his first three years he finally got the quarterback/runningback combination he needed in Pat White and Steve Slaton, and his last two years at West Virginia were spent terrifying opposing defensive coordinators and leaving BCS Big Boys Georgia and Oklahoma wondering what semi-truck had just hit them only to find it out was a bunch of ninja's on tricked out sport-bikes. Defensively, Rodriguez's teams were quietly effecient:
Rich Rodriguez Defense
|Team||Year||Yards Allowed||Nat'l Rank|
Don't get me wrong - Rodriguez never fielded truly terrifying defenses that carried a team to a championship. The closest he came was his 2007 squad that finished in the top ten nationally, but his 2006 team that destroyed Georgia in their bowl game had one of his worst defenses. The point is that, as much as Michigan fans pointed to 2007 and said "he's not that bad," Rodriguez's defenses were just good enough to get the ball back to his offense, which was, again, a horde of ninja's on sportbikes wielding mac-10's. At Michigan, as you will see, a series of very unfortunate events would never allow him to have a defense that was even marginally good enough to tip the balance towards his offense.
If you had applied this resume blindly to coaching search 2011, the answer would be "yes please" and then some. Rodriguez was the hottest guy around, having turned West Virginia into Oklahoma-slaying speedsters who moved at the speed of light compared to, say, Michigan at the time, who moved more at the speed of smell. Bill Martin, upon hearing that Rodriguez was in play, did the only thing he could do in that situation; he hired the guy. You would have too.
Immediately upon his hiring, the trouble started. There were lawsuits filed regarding his buyout (which Michigan and Rodriguez ended up paying) allegations of document shredding where allegedly Rodriguez, under the cover of night, shredded the only copies of super-valuable student athlete documents, and the most vitriol I’ve ever seen from a school spurned by a dude who just wanted the next best job. The negative press was something that Michigan, and specifically the local media in Michigan, was not accustomed to seeing connected to the football program. What’s more is that Rodriguez was decidedly not a "Michigan Man." He did not know the words to the Victors, and David Brandon felt necessary to point out during his most recent press conference, and he seemed almost lackadaisical in his approach to the Ohio State game. The environment surrounding Coach Rodriguez’s move to Michigan – through very little fault of his own – had already begun to turn toxic, and would continue to plague him throughout his tenure.
In addition to the off-the-field jihad that had been waged against Rodriguez, he had current Lloyd Carr recruited players that were not happy about the impending transition from drop-back, pro style offense, to the spread and shred. First and foremost there was Ryan Mallett. The quarterback who Michigan had pinned their hopes of any sort of decent future on (there were, quite literally, walk-ons behind Mallett on the depth charts…) transferred to Arkansas after his Freshman year. Despite knowing the Mallett was going to transfer even if Lloyd remained the coach, and knowing that Rodriguez did what he could to keep the quarterback enrolled, the media, fueled by the swirl of negativity already surrounding Michigan, claimed that Rodriguez had "run off" the star, and only, quarterback on the roster. In addition to Ryan Mallett’s transfer, start Offensive Lineman Justin Boren decided that he was going to move on as well – to the Ohio State Buckeyes. On his way out, he cited "eroding family values" as a part of his reason for the transfer. Normally if an offensive lineman were to transfer, only a few people might even hear about it. After all, the sort of people who frequent sites like this and Rivals and Scout are only a fraction of the entire Michigan fan base. However, because he decided to transfer to Ohio State, and because he kicked the Rodriguez regime – who had still yet to play a game – on the way out, it was national news. The headline, despite (again) all signs pointing the opposite way, read "Michigan Guard Justin Boren to Transfer to Ohio State; Cites Lack of Family Values Under Rodriguez." Additionally, Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington, the two leading receivers from 2007, decided to take their talents to the NFL, which might have happened anyways, but certainly didn’t help.
At this point, Rodriguez had managed, through little fault of his own, to piss off the national media, put the local media on alert for an easy target, and make the casual fans of the program wary of this guy who didn’t quote Kipling and kind of sounded like he might be from the South. To emphasize, this was all before Rodriguez had ever even stepped on the field as the Head Coach at Michigan. If West Virginia’s "lover scorned" routine had started the toxic cloud, Mallett and Boren expanded it to critical mass. Rodriguez’s insistence that he only talked about "Michigan players" did not help the situation. He offered little to no defense to the media, claiming no comment about a good number of these issues. In hindsight, he would have done better to come out swinging against the Justin Boren claims, and called the Mallett Situation out for what it was. But he didn’t, and the media firestorm that really never let up throughout his tenure was allowed to continue unabated.
Later this week, we'll go through his three seasons in parts 2 and 3, and maybe reach some sort of conclusion as to how and why a coach who was successful literally everywhere else he stopped could not win at Michigan.