I had been planning to write about the Rich Rodriguez situation for a while now. I would like to say the last week has been spent in deep thought about his tenure as the coach of Michigan's football team, the team's performance in the bowl game, and the weeks of turmoil that lie ahead, but that would be a lie. The last three years have been spent obsessively thinking about the future of Michigan football and Rich Rodriguez's effect on it. Of course recent events have transpired to make this a more pressing issue. Despite starting every day with the intention of writing this piece, I usually found myself too apathetic--or honestly just plain lazy--to sit down and put anything together.
Part of that can be attributed to the last week and a half I spent at home. I am notoriously slow at recovering any positive momentum after holiday breaks. After the last eleven days of home-cooked meals, holiday desserts, and altogether too much time spent laying in bed watching The Larry Sanders Show DVD's on my laptop I have had gotten soft. I took me a while to pull myself back into some sense of reality lest I fall into a spiral of negative behavior that leads me to gain fifteen pounds and start to breathe heavy after walking up more that two flights of stairs.
While the drag of the holidays has been a contributing factor in my reluctance to look back on the Rich Rodriguez era, the biggest reason I didn't gotten around to writing anything is that I found myself waiting in vain for a suitable ending. I'm not like most Michigan fans I know--simply begging for a merciful end to the Rodriguez era--I just craved some sort of neat wrap up to this whole tale. I wouldn't think to write about a movie before seeing the last fifteen minutes, or write a review of an album without listening to all the songs. So there I sat, waiting for some sort of closure.
I suppose this is a very human trait. There are very few things humans absolutely need to survive: food, water, and shelter are the obvious ones, but I would venture to guess that just below those basic needs is a desire for everything around us to happen in neat little narratives with beginnings and endings, rising action and climaxes, heroes and villains. We spend our lives fitting every sequence of events into a story, from a trip to the convenience store to buy milk to one's own long journey through life. It's just how the human mind deals with the slow current of time. It's how we make sense of everything that is happening around us. We crave the kind of order, the predictable tropes, and the clean resolution that we really only get from finely crafted stories. It is why we spend hours sitting in dark movie theaters or in front of the TV. We want the story. We pick through all the chaff of our menial lives and try to pull out the important moments, and if life doesn't unfold into a neat narrative, we shift the lens until it seems like it.
Usually this is where I would jump into the story of Rich Rodriguez, and I guess I'll oblige. Maybe Act I is his humble beginnings in a small West Virginia town, his experience as a walk on at West Virginia, and his eventual realization that his is called to be a football coach. A leader, innovator, and a molder of young men. This storyline is as classic as it is tired and outdated, which is probably why you will see something very much like it made into a movie within the next twelve months (Need a screenplay Mr. Hollywood Executive? I've got nothing but times and worn out sports cliches).
Acts II & III would certainly see him rise through the coaching ranks, developing his system, come to Michigan and ultimately fail. Some might see him as an anti-hero. A coach so hell bent on winning that he breaks the rules, so full of himself that he refuses to acknowledge his faults, so obsessed with offensive output that he ignores his defenses and leaves that responsibility solely in the hands of his coordinators--some of whom can handle it (Casteel) and some of whom cannot (Robinson). All of this building toward his eventual failure as the Michigan coach, justice reigned down upon a guilty man. If I had to assign a narrative, I would argue the story has unfolded more as a tragedy than anything else. A coach who works his way up to a dream job only to falter as luck, circumstance, and his own poor decisions doomed him to failure. Ultimately done in by his own nature. A former college safety turned offensive guru who was utterly incapable of creating any positive momentum on the defensive side of the ball, even as his offense began to bloom into the beginnings of a juggernaut.
Today we got the final curtain, and I have no more excuses.
Unfortunately this kind of thinking doesn't really take us anywhere. Real life isn't so easy to form into a narrative fit for Hollywood or even this humble blogger looking for an new angle in which to view our bruised and beaten ex-coach. Rich Rodriguez has been relieved of duty, and by any and all sane measures, rightfully so. In three years Rodriguez has compiled a record of 15-22, presided over two bowl-less seasons, fielded the worst defense ever to don the winged helmet, and through it all he only claimed one win over a solid Big Ten program (Wisconsin '08). It has been a hard week, so I won't go into detail. If you are feeling especially masochistic just read this. However, at the same time that he submarined the defense, he guided a three year turnaround on offense that has been remarkable, put together a team that averages more than 500 yards per game, and developed arguably the most exciting player in the nation.
In the coming days there will be a lot of different stories floating around. Some will argue that Rodriguez was never the right fit for the program and that this experiment was doomed from the beginning. Others will argue that Rodriguez is an egomanical control freak who meddled with his defense to the point where it was ineffective, but was unwilling to take any blame. Still others will cast Rich as the sentimental figure who took his dream job only to find it was actually a nightmare of youth, attrition, injuries, and media witch-hunts.
In the end no story fits because each strips away too many important details in order to produce a clean narrative. In the real story, Rich is playing bits and pieces of all the roles we see him occupying. We look toward the big moments and ignore what doesn't fit. Because of this we ultimately we lose sight of the difference between reality and the stories we concoct: all the little things. Rich Rodriguez got out of bed every day with the goal of once again building a perennial powerhouse in Ann Arbor. He devoted himself to the young men he coached and by all accounts was loved by them. He made good decisions and bad decisions. He caught a few breaks and saw quite a few more slip away.
But we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Despite his best efforts, Rodriguez was never able to create a situation where his defense was effective. The failure occurred on every level. Assistants were unable to instruct the team in the most basic football fundamentals--and subsequently we witnessed a team that gave up contain on a regular basis, broke down in pass coverage, and failed to consistently wrap up tackles. At the coordinator level the defensive schemes never seemed to force other teams out of their comfort zones, and halftime adjustments were mostly ineffective or non-existent. Rodriguez compounded these problems by pushing his coordinators to switch schemes mid-season, and coach his preferred defense that was outside of both their area of expertise.
Of course not everything was his doing. Rich Rodriguez had to throw together a patchwork offensive line upon his arrival on campus. There was rarely a game when at least one running back wasn't suffering from some sort of lingering injury. The holes at quarterback in 2008, safety in 2009, and the entire back five in 2010 meant the team was always dangerously thin and young at some crucial position. He hasn't had the luxury of a two year starter at quarterback, or even a fully healthy quarterback for an entire season. Some highly thought of players have washed out, while experienced contributors haven't improved as much as anyone would have liked or expected to see. This is to say nothing of Angry Michigan ______ Hating God, whose latest victims were the two most important pieces of the defense this year.
On top of that, none of the above takes into account the initial wave of transfers or this fall's exodus of players. I never mentioned Demar Dorsey's thug past and failure to qualify or Boubacar Cissoko's thug present and failure to not rob people. I even bit my tongue at the great Freep Jihad of '09--the less said on that subject, the better. One thing is certain about Rodriguez's time in Ann Arbor: there has hardly been a dull moment.
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We live in a day and age when seemingly everything worth saying gets compressed into a cable news sound-byte or 140 character tweet. When it comes to Rich Rodriguez's short three years at Michigan that simply isn't enough. You wouldn't know this from watching ESPN or reading the newspaper today. Craig James tells me Rodriguez never "fit" at Michigan (Like his son fit in a utility closet. Ba dum cha. Thank you, I'll be here all night). Jackie MacMullan says that Rodriguez's failed because he wasn't a "Michigan Man". It's a good thing the television format only gives these people a minute to speak or they might devolve into repeating some tired cliche or phrase to fill time.
Rich Rodriguez wasn't destined to fail because he was an outsider, he wasn't the victim of a conspiracy inside Schembechler hall, and he wasn't doomed by a ridiculous streak of bad luck. Rich Rodriguez was a good man and a good football coach who failed to live up to the standards set out before him. His failed tenure was the sum of everything that has happened over the last three years, good and bad. There just seemed to always be a little bit more bad than good.
There is no grand takeaway from Rich Rodriguez's time in Ann Arbor. No villains or heroes--save perhaps one young quarterback, but more on him later this week--and no morals or life lessons. Rich is simply a man who isn't perfect who was put into a situation that wasn't perfect either. Mistakes are just as fundamentally human as the stories we tell ourselves.
Regardless of whether you liked the man or wanted him run out of town, one thing any Michigan man should be able to agree on is that Rich deserves a hearty thank you from the entire fan base. Not for what happened on the field, but for giving himself fully over to this team and university. Rich Rodriguez devoted himself 100% to the program, cared about his players like family, and did the best he could every day. In the end that is all we can ask of anyone, standards or performance be damned.
That is, until we decide to see if someone else's best might be good enough. But that's the next story to be written. Let's hope it has a happier ending.