What Was That All For?
Commentary on Three and Out
Most Michigan fans, myself included, have occasional fits of amnesia and may disavow that the last three years of the football program ever happened. It is a strange thing, then, as a Michigan fan who has never before seen Michigan fall so far -- due to youth -- to finish the book and feel very little, but that’s what happened. The book itself is fantastic, but I am stuck trying to place it in context, and the lingering question is: what were the past three seasons for other than to make me want to pull my hair out?
‘"Well, as expected, they fired me," he [Rodriguez] told them [his assistants]. "They said they did an evaluation, and they didn’t like all the ‘negativity surrounding the program’" … "It was a bad fit here from the start. They’ve tarred and feathered us from the day we got here. But we’re still standing."’ ~ From Three and Out
Most Michigan fans, myself included, have occasional fits of amnesia and may disavow that the last three years of the football program ever happened. To some, there might as well have just not been a college football season for 2008, 2009, and 2010, but low and behold, there the games are in the record books and being replayed on television (looking at you, 2010 Illinois game). Seems appropriate then that in the first year sans a lot of Michigan football drama, Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon, has arrived to take its place and imprint those dark times into the lore that we hold so sacred, making it a part of the Michigan story for better or for worse.
It is a strange thing, then, as a Michigan fan who has never before seen Michigan fall so far -- due to youth -- to finish the book and feel very little, but that’s what happened. The book is fantastic, but I am stuck trying to place it in context, and the lingering question is: what were the past three seasons for other than to make me want to pull my hair out?
The recent history of the entire college football landscape has not been great, and Michigan inadvertently thrust itself into the thick of it by authoring the manual, "How Not to Conduct a Coaching Transition: The Bill Martin Story," and serving as the guinea pig for how not to commit an arbitrary NCAA violation. Michigan is still Michigan (fergodsakes), but to get back to this point where hopefully all will be well, it had an ugly road that split the fans in two, tinkered with the morale of the players, and likely drove a good and decent man and coach to an almost-nervous breakdown. If the point of this journey was to see how close it could get to the fire before yanking it to safety, someone repeatedly fell asleep.
I suppose I didn’t feel much after completing the book partly because the existence of the Internet yielded me an instant platform during the calamities from which to vent my feelings. But it’s surreal to know I watched the most trying time Michigan’s football program has ever known, and still no love has been lost. The point of all this seems to be that someone had to get Michigan into the 21st Century, and that person had to be Rich Rodriguez. But the catch-22 of modern-day college football is that true success is only measured by number of victories and, also dear to Michigan, how the program looks to the rest of the world.
A trifecta of events hit Ann Arbor in 2006 that inevitably led to where we are now. Bo Schembechler passed away, Michigan narrowly missed out on a spot in the BCS Championship game that November, and Lloyd Carr began to plan his exit. What I’ve learned about the nature of the Michigan Athletic Department is that it needed a leader, but it had none, especially if Carr would be retreating to the shadows after the following season. Bacon makes it painfully clear that Bill Martin, the sitting Athletic Director, was not that leader; pair that with a few other errors and missteps, and we got the 2008 season.
In a way, the Rodriguez era was just the second phase of the growing pains to get Michigan into the 21st Century. It served as the magnet for Denard Robinson and a bundle of amazing players who are still with the team, because in the end they decided they wanted to play for Michigan no matter who is coaching them. It filtered out some of the detractors who were never fully committed to the health of the program (see: rumored dicey relationship of Les Miles and Llyod Carr, former players shunning the program, and Jim Harbaugh’s arrogance). Multiple people are quoted pointing out that anyone who was speaking out against the program was not worthy of being connected to it in the first place, and without Schembechler around to keep order, it was a feeding frenzy.
The focal point of the saga that made me tired of the negativity was the now-debunked claim by The Detroit Free Press that Rodriguez ran a loose program and was guilty of fostering an environment of non-compliance. It exposed the arbitrariness of the NCAA rulebook, made fools out of Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder, and only harmed the football program’s ability to concentrate on getting better. Rodriguez repeatedly points to the lingering effect it had, but in my mind, carrying that baggage with him for the rest of his days in the Big House only hurt his chances at being successful. Focus on the negative for too long and that becomes all one sees (despite continuing to only stay positive with his players). To me, Rodriguez couldn’t get over having his reputation attacked, and it affected how he acted at times.
The greatest redeeming quality of how his three seasons played out, and the way I best remember it, is that Rodriguez kept his players, save Tate Forcier it seems, with him to the end. So much pressure on the whole lot of them, and it merely allowed Denard Robinson to have one of the best seasons a Michigan quarterback will likely ever have. Regardless of how everyone felt about Rodriguez, it certainly proved that the players were Michigan Men, because Robinson and his teammates are all still wearing the winged helmets even though the man who recruited them is gone.
Michigan’s odyssey of finding the right coach for the next great era of the football program was probably meant to include the short stint of Rodriguez. The debate doesn’t hinge on who is or isn’t a Michigan Man, either, it’s more about the longevity of the program and success of its (student) athletes. I suspect we were all subjected to three seasons of hell to be that much more grateful when down the line there are more championships in Michigan’s name, because the story in Bacon’s book is the context for that future success.
And so we are back to that artificial label that haunted Rodriguez for three seasons that, to him, probably felt like thirty. Ryan Van Bergen, a defensive lineman, told a reporter from The Detroit News that he wondered where all the former players who were gleefully welcoming Brady Hoke as the newest football coach had been up until then. A legitimate question, but if Three and Out is any guide, there are likely still detractors out there no matter who the coach is. What was it all for? It was all for the benefit of Michigan, and the rest of college football would do well to replicate Michigan’s desire to preserve itself, because Three and Out isn’t going to be the title of the book about the newest era of Michigan football.