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The Trial of Richard Rodriguez

(This post isn't meant to make a case one way or another for Rich Rodriguez.  Wiser men than I are charged with that decision, and I leave it to them.  This post applies to the very worst of the internet trolls, the uninformed Rodriguez haters, and his naive supporters.  If you are offended because you think you apply, it is probably warranted, and I am certainly not going to lose any sleep over it.)

As the college football season winds down and I witness things playing out in a completely expected, yet none the less stomach churning way, I have recently started to look for other ways of spending time on the internet than simply reading the thousands of differently worded missives on blogs, websites, and twitter that bemoan the state of the program and cry that Bo would be rolling over in his grave if he became reanimated and heard that Wisconsin just ran thirty straight times in the second half and still got six yards a carry or OSU strolled to a four score victory for the 7th year in a row.  I'm sure everyone means well with their indignant cries to save the program from it's apparent death spiral, but there are only so many ways to phrase your displeasure before the sum of these critiques devolves into a jumbled mess of "Unacceptable...Michigan man...I-form...AARGHHH."  Things are bad and, frankly, we would all be a little crazy if we weren't disturbed by what we saw the last two Saturdays.  However, the world is not ending, and I need a respite from the frenzied cries of a thousand Chicken Littles.

I find it easier to let people vent in peace, lest I become caught up in one of the many squabbles that always seem to follow a loss.  The search for something that doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out has led me far away from college football---a strange occurrence in November---to two places in particular.  First is, a professional basketball blog that looks at basketball with the focus and depth of a graduate course on the NBA.  It is somewhat surprising that I only recently started to frequent Freedarko because it melds together two of my favorite things:  thinking deeply about sports---why I love them so much when there is really no rational explanation for a 25 year old man falling into a pit of sorrow for two days after his football team loses---and basketball.  I have followed college football at obsessive levels for a few years now, but before I graduated high school---and subsequently retired from a short and largely unsuccessful amateur athletic career---there was nothing in my life more important than basketball.  It gave me the sense of identity that I desperately needed as a teenager, and it was the one sport that I can safely say I was good at.  Too skinny for football, not fast enough for track, and equal parts uninterested in and just plain bad at baseball.  When I got to college I put my obsessive love of basketball on a shelf for a few years, only to rediscover it over the last couple years working in a high school and getting the opportunity to coach---somewhat poorly I might add---at the middle and high school level.

The other place I have started to go for sports writing that doesn't remind me that Michigan still has the worst defense in the Big Ten, is a little more out of character:  The Run of Play, a soccer blog that does such things as examine Pele in comparison to David Foster Wallace's wonderful portrait of Roger Federer and compare Mad Men's Betty Draper to famed Leeds United manager Don Revie.  My budding love of this site is strange not only because I was never a soccer player as a kid, but because I held an open and virile contempt for the sport for many years .  I have since softened to a general sense of respect and bewilderment at the most popular sport in the world, aided by enjoyable experiences watching the World Cup on television during the last two tournaments.  I realize that as a soccer neophyte, Run of Play is probably well above my comprehension level.  Something like taking a semester of French in college and moving to Paris.  You can pick out bits and pieces of what you hear, but a lot of the time is spent shrugging your shoulders while wondering what kinds of beautiful things you are missing out on.

One week ago Sunday, I clicked over to mgoblog just long enough to read Mispognon's always excellent weekly diary feature and soak up what little bit of sane perspective exists on the internet the morning after a loss.  I soon moved over to Run of Play and focused on a piece from a couple of weeks ago by Brian Phillips titled On Loyalty, about footballer Wayne Rooney and the different way that fans and players view the relationship between a player and a team.  While my interest mostly lay in the comparison of Wayne Rooney's situation to that of LeBron James, I was struck by a bit at the end of the piece that hit close to home as a Michigan fan dealing with three years of mediocrity, and the existential crisis that this has put me through:

After all, [it]’s the consciousness [of a child] that many of us possess when we first become sports fans and that we frequently turn to sports to help us sustain.  You can call the Fever Pitch model of fandom—the OMG ARSENAL ARE THE GREATEST CLUB EVER AND I HAVE THEIR POSTERS AND I LOVE THEM model—a lot of things, some good and some bad. But in its preoccupation with heraldry and its belief that the arbitrary group you happened to join possesses uniquely redemptive qualities as compared to other arbitrary groups that are self-evidently almost identical to it, it is paradigmatically nine years old forever.

There have been a great number of complaints that have been leveled at Rich Rodriguez over the past three years, but the more I thought about this quote the more I began to understand a lot of the underlying idea behind most of them.  The rest?  That is just stubbornness, but we will get to that later.

*  *  *

When Brian Phillips speaks to the consciousness of a child perpetually coloring fandom through an undying loyalty not only to the team, but to the belief that the team is somehow "better" than all the rest, he perfectly sums up the world view of the Michigan fan base.  I am, admittedly, one of the many who grew up with Michigan pennants on my wall, watching games every Saturday with my father who instilled a love of the maize and blue in me early enough that it would take A Clockwork Orange style brainwashing session to divest me of those feelings.  It wasn't hard to get caught up in the belief that Michigan was god's gift to college football if you were a child anywhere from the late 60's to mid 00's.  An almost unwaivering prosperity will melt away any perspective that the occasional losing season can provide, and inflate the idea that there really is something different about "my team".  Some came late to the party but for those freshmen with no connection to the team when they stepped on campus, all it took was a fall immersed in Michigan football.  While the two groups of fans have divergent origins, they share an unmistakable belief that over the past one hundred and some odd years Michigan football has set itself on a higher plain of existence with the select few elite college football programs.  History has in fact been kind to the Wolverines.  The list of accomplishments is equally long and impressive, and certainly needs no recounting here.  When we say "the leaders and the best" we mean it, even when it results in schmaltz like this:

(h/t: mgoblog)

Watching that video for the first time I experienced equal parts pride in Michigan football's rich tradition of excellence, and revulsion at what a bad, bad piece of sentimental propaganda the video is (at least there was no sign of Freekbass or ex-players rapping poorly).  Yet my disgust with the Athletic Department's lame attempt to remind me, "hey, you know, Michigan football is still pretty great," still cannot sour my deeply held belief that, "yeah, Michigan football is kinda great."

Before the Wisconsin game I wrote about the expectations that Michigan fans have for the team.  These expectations have arisen from years of success at the highest level of college football.  This team has won national championships, produced Heisman winners, co-owned the Big Ten for the better part of four decades, and set a standard of excellence so high that the last three years have been hard to stomach in comparison.  Yet this standard of past success is hardly a fair one by which to judge the current incarnation of the Michigan football team.  People decry the state of the football team today when 7-5 is considered progress because of a blind devotion to the idea that Michigan football is somehow above losing seasons, that there really is something different about Michigan, and that aura has been eroded away under the failed tenure of a coach who doesn't "understand Michigan".  This is most certainly anathema to some, but the past history of greatness has no bearing on the future of this program as a whole, and clinging to this idea of football superiority makes us no different than Notre Dame for much of the past fifteen years.  To scream and cry that what you see on the field is not up to your standards of what Michigan football should be and should therefore be grounds for immediate dismissal---with tar and feathering optional---is no different than Cleveland Cavalier fans clinging to the notion that their emotional "fan" relationship to the Cavaliers is in any way similar to LeBron James' professional "employee" relationship to the Cavaliers. In the end you are just setting yourself up to disappointment when you learn there are no guarantees of greatness simply by virtue of what the history books say or the jersey on the players' back.  

It is a strange world that sports fandom creates, a world in which rational adults can indulge their many past incarnations:  the adoring nine year old fan, the hyper-competative sixteen year old jock, the drunken twenty-two year old tailgater, all without any hint of social stigma.  "Act your age" goes out the window on football Saturdays when thousands get drunk with their friends around a tailgate eating brats and drinking cheap beer.  Nobody thinks twice when grown men paint their faces and march into stadiums to scream for three hours and cheer.  And when an outcome betrays our own childlike sense of belief in our team's superiority it is somehow perfectly acceptable to lash out.  To be a hardcore fan is to in some ways distort your own view of reality to fit with the worldview you have created, one that exults your team above all else, or as Brian Phillips states it:

Being a fan, particularly in the hardcore club-loyalist sense, is in many ways a matter of deliberately sustaining a set of fictions. 

It is this set of fictions that bolster the belief that Michigan is "better than 3-9, 5-7, or 7-5" by virtue of the wings on the helmet and a century of dominance, and as Phillips says, when we are confronted with results that are contrary to our beliefs, "it becomes harder to sustain some of those fictions, so we get mad."  Fans yelling obscenities at players on the field for mistakes, message board posters calling for a coach's firing because they disagree with playcalling, and fans booing college athletes because the results on the field do not match up to the dreams of greatness that those fans have for the team.  Some despicable things have been done in the name of fandom, and they are all examples of when our zealotry as fans crosses the line.  It is alright to indulge the side of you that is feels like a nine year old sports fan, just don't indulge the side that is a spoiled brat.

As with everything else in life it is important to keep perspective on what you expect from this team.  Has Rich Rodriguez underachieved compared to the high standards that Michigan holds it's football program to?  Yes.  Have there been mitigating circumstances (injuries, transfers, youth) that have placed the ceiling for success lower than it has been for the past 40 years?  Yes.  That is not to say that Rich Rodriguez is an innocent victim, but rather a man who was given a tough situation and made a few mistakes along the way (GERG, cough).

But Rodriguez came into the job three years ago with a divided fanbase, a thin defensive depth chart, a pieced together offensive line of underclassmen and position switches, and a quarterback situation that was so bad that two years later other fan bases take umbrage at comparisons of their current situation to Michigan QBs in 2008.  There wasn't a coach in the world who could have sewn together a n acceptable "Michigan" season with the spare parts left over, even before the wave of transfers that follow most coaching changes (although in this case it was more like player transfers TO THE EXTREME, amirite?).

This year Texas entered the season on the heels of an appearance in the national championship game with three top 5 recruiting classes in the last four years (the outlier was a 14th rated class in 2008, per Rivals).  There was no coaching change, no radical shift in philosophy, and certainly no rumors of shakeups in the football program.  How did that work out for the Longhorns?  Despite having the 8th ranked scoring defense Texas finished 5-7, the first season below ten wins since 2000.

Florida came into the season fresh off a close loss to eventual BCS champion Alabama in the SEC championship game and similarly high recruiting classes waiting in the wings to step up.  Today the Gators are 7-5 with blowout losses coming at the hands of Alabama, FSU, and South Carolina.

No team in college football is infallible.  Even in a perfect world where there are no staffing changes or adversity a dominant team can fall on hard times.  Don't let the maize and blue blind you, the team that took the field the last three years has been equal parts bad, unlucky, and inexperienced.  As fans we cannot cling to notions of inherent superiority to guide our view of progress toward the ultimate goals:  Big Ten and BCS championships.  The arguments you make have to be based on the players on the field, not the wings on the helmet.

*  *  *

If you ask my mother to describe me as a child in one word I have a pretty good feeling that she would settle on, "contrary" (as she has used this word many times before).  I am certain that this is just a nice way of saying that I was a pain in the ass know-it-all who argued simply for the sake of argument.  This probably puts me in the same boat as about every other early elementary school child in the history of the western world, but the way she tells it I may have been more of a load than most.

I never really outgrew my headstrong origins, but I learned enough to come to terms with just how insufferable I can be when someone doesn't agree with me (Half of my readership is probably nodding vigorously right now.  The other half will be joining them by the end of this I'm sure).  I have gotten to the point where I avoid discussing the kinds of "hot button" issues that will set me off.  I know the people I can talk politics with, and I know the people I need to quickly walk away from if the subject arises.  I have no problem with political discourse, but in my experience any rational discussion quickly melts away and leads into an impassioned shouting match, for which I have little patience anymore.

Strangely enough I have not yet learned how to avoid college football conversations that involve the kind of topics that make my blood boil:  Rich Rodriguez not being "right" for Michigan, the ineffectiveness of the spread and shred in the Big Ten, the supposed dominance of Michigan State recruiting in Michigan, and all those damn "midgets" that can't handle a full Big Ten season.  Not only do I subject myself to these arguments repeatedly, I often find myself seeking them out.  I want to tell people that the spread and shred offense can not only be effective in the Big Ten, but downright dominant.  I feel compelled to defend the things this staff has done hiring, recruiting, and game planning.

I got on board with the Rich Rodriguez hiring after Les Miles fell through.  I wanted Les, but given the circumstances I thought Michigan made the best hire possible.  Those West Virginia teams were fun to watch and downright dominant on offense.  I wasn't crazy about shifting away from the pro style offense that I grew up with, but a few Pat White highlights on Youtube did a lot to assuage any concerns I had.

Just after the hire I moved into a house in East Lansing with a group of die-hard MSU fans, and I found myself barraged with questions at every corner, "do you think that gimmick offense will work?" (ask Oklahoma) "how can you support such a slime ball for a coach?" (because he took a better job he is a slime ball?) "How can you expect to win in the Big Ten when Richrod can't coach defense" (touche).  For support I turned to the internet and soaked up all the information I could to combat the anti-Richrod propaganda.  Soon I was defending the still young Rodriguez regime to anyone who would listen.  I believed, and just like anyone who believes that strongly in something I felt the need to set the record straight every chance I got.

Almost three years later and the explanations are beginning to run thin.  The defense has regressed three years in a row, and while injuries and a lack of upperclassmen in the secondary has a lot to do with this, so does the ineffectual hiring of Greg Robinson, the debacle that was Scott Shafer's year at the helm, and the continued insistence on running a 3-3-5 with a defensive coordinator who doesn't know how to properly coach the scheme.  Offensively the team has made giant leaps in overall effectiveness in each of the last two years, but is still plagued by turnovers and scoring lapses.  Then there is the laundry list of grievances against the special teams.

As the legitimate arguments against Rodriguez begin to add up I find myself even more solidly in his corner, but I am beginning to realize that it isn't because I believe 100% that he will deliver the MNC that the fan base has so impatiently waited for.  Instead my defense of Rodriguez is partly grounded in my ego.  I have been campaigning for him for so long, defended his systems and philosophies from every insult, and given even his worst decisions (hiring Robinson) the benefit of the doubt far beyond what is warranted.  I am beginning to find that I am the same as my nine year old self who didn't want to admit when I was wrong, only now no one is going to sugar coat it by calling me "contrary".  As a 25 year old who sometimes clings too tightly to his beliefs, I am simply a stubborn ass.

*  *  *

Looking around at some of the arguments I feel safe in saying that I am not alone.  Many of those fans who ardently supported Rodriguez have bunkered down for the final assault, and many of the fans who were against him from the beginning never took any argument to the contrary seriously.  Everyone is beholden to their own line of reasoning, be it statistics, win-loss records, the "Michigan difference", or simply their own ego.  The whole mess has devolved into a giant shouting match between bitter factions clinging blindly to their beliefs and discounting what the other side has to say.

I am tired of telling people how to feel about Richard Rodriguez.  I don't have any answers.  The man was given a situation with no room for error and he proved he was human by making a few.  The numbers show progress on the offense and regression on the defense.  Almost the entire team returns next year, but the coach that most want probably won't be available much longer.  The roster has been young, but key recruits haven't made it on campus or haven't stayed.  I can't see into the future, and I am tired of pretending that I can.  I am done arguing for or against for the simple sport of it.  The sum of all the discussion in bars and on message boards has done nothing but waste a bunch of oxygen and megabytes.  In the end I am glad it is David Brandon's decision and not mine or anyone else's. His only concern is for the future of this football team, and not what the raving message board lunatics think.

We love to use hindsight to justify or deride our choices.  If Rich Rodriguez is fired next month it will be easy for many to look back and say, "he was the wrong man for the job from the very beginning", and if this team turns into what some of us feel it is capable of, in twenty years it will be just as easy to say, "he was the right man for the job from the very beginning.  There are no guarantees of greatness, no mandate that the rich stay rich and the poor in the gutter.  Boise State and TCU have risen from obscurity over the past ten years to demand a seat at the table while the most storied program in history has slowly become an irrelevant sideshow over the past fifteen years. This isn't your father's NCAA, and it isn't your father's Michigan team.

History is just that, and so we must look forward.  There is a case to be made both ways, but that case must be devoid of emotion, personal allegiances, and the fact that the last three years were painful to live through.  Craig from Hoover Street Rag summed it up the best last week after the Wisconsin game:

You want to tell me that Michigan needs a new coach, I will listen, but you better have your plan thought through, because I will have questions.  You want to tell me that Coach Rodriguez deserves another year, I will listen, but I want to know how you think the defense will improve. You want to tell me you just don't know and throw up your hands in despair, I will welcome you as a friend and kindred spirit, because you're probably the most sane Michigan fan I know right now (unless you're David Brandon doing this, in which case, I will be deeply deeply worried.  I wouldn't blame you, but I would be worried.) If you're upset that your fellow fans seem to have lost their mind, all I will say is, I can't blame them, because there really are no answers right now.

So if you happen to see me walking down the street and you feel compelled to discuss Michigan football with me, I will listen to what you have to say.  I might even offer my own opinion on the situation.  But you had better make a good case, whatever side you are on.  Don't talk about the last three years being unacceptable, how we need to go back to a pro form offense, or how we need a Michigan man as a coach.  Don't tell me that Lloyd left the cupboard empty, that special teams will fix itself, or that the defense is all Gerg's fault.

If those are the best things you can come up with, then I pity you, but I won't argue with you.  I'm too tired to do that anymore.

(Beauford has a good, level headed post on Rodriguez that I half agree with.  That half is the "meh" part)