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On the Rivalry: Rodriguez vs West Virginia

In part of an ongoing series here at MnB, we're looking at Michigan's football rivalries from a fan perspective. Today, I discuss Michigan's embattled head coach, Rich Rodriguez, with WVUIE97 from The Smoking Musket, SB Nation's WVU blog. I encourage you all to go check it out if you're interested in what's going on in West Virginia sports.

So, let's flash backward a minute. Back before the days of 38-point bowl losses and 0-6 against our two biggest rivals. Back to the days when everyone was criticizing Lloyd Carr for killing the clock with 8 minutes left in the third quarter and a 17-14 lead. Back to the days when Michigan had several All-Americans on both sides of the ball.

(Pause, while Lloyd Carr cackles with knowing glee.)

Rich Rodriguez is content in Morgantown, happily mauling Big East foes as the head football coach of West Virginia University, a program he rescued from obscurity and turned into a national powerhouse, rising to #2 in the country and coming within a field goal of the national championship. All of a sudden, Michigan runs a hasty coaching search, Carr's out, Rich Rod's in, and Michigan's going to have a new offense that shreds everyone.

Three years later, things haven't worked out as planned. One winning season and the worst defense in Michigan history. But signs of progress are still there, even if it's hard to find them. A stud young QB, Denard Robinson, has two years of elgibility and thousands of yards left in his legs and arm. A developing O-Line and improving WR's make Michigan's offense relevant again. But that defense. Oh, that defense. It burns.

I thought I'd hearken back to RR's days at West Virginia, and find out how the fanbase felt about him then. Q&A after the jump.

(Ed note: Quick word on timing:, this is the unedited Q&A done before before bowl season began)

Remember Bo: Obviously, Rich Rodriguez had great success as the West Virginia head coach. The offense made great strides and he turned Pat White from an anonymous 3-star recruit into a 2nd-round NFL draft pick. What was it, in your opinion, that made the teams so good?

WVUIE97: I think it was just the combination of the perfect scheme for the perfect players at the time, but what Denard Robinson is doing right now (providing he’s healthy) is unbelievable.

RB: Rodriguez's Michigan teams have had a tendency to show flashes of brilliance, but they have been plagued by inconsistency in his three seasons. I know 2001's 3-8 season (his first at WVU) was a long time ago, but are there any parallels Michigan fans can draw to his time at West Virginia - how long did it take him to put together a cohesive, consistent team? How would you characterize the personality of the WVU teams under RR?

WVUIE97: I don’t think it was a consistent team until 2005, because up until then, there were still head scratching losses (see: Maryland)…but even that year, until the combination of Steve Slaton (VT, 5th game) and Pat White and took over full time late in the Louisville game (7th game), it was still a bit disjointed offensively at times.

Personality wise, I think they were used to playing with a chip on their shoulder, and when favorited, at times, tightened up a bit. This is a hard one to pin down for me.

RB: Part of that inconsistency has resulted from an incredibly high number of turnovers. Michigan's teams just can't hold on to the football. Were there any points during Rodriguez's tenure that you felt had a particularly high number of not just turnovers, but moments that made you want to tear your hair out? One of Michigan's favourite plays is to run Vinny Smith, a tiny running back, directly up the middle into the teeth of D-Linemen twice his weight. Sometimes, the playcalling leaves many fans confused and angry.

WVUIE97: South Florida every year we played them after the first, and the inability of the staff to change some tendencies against a decent Maryland team, esp with a former QB across the sidelines reading signals.

RB: Did anything like this happen at WVU under RR?

WVUIE97: Two words….bubble screen. Without a reliable downfield passing attack at WVU, this was done to death.

RB: One aspect of the WVU teams that has not changed since Rodriguez's departure has been the defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel (possibly under consideration to replace Greg Robinson as Michigan's DC). Obviously, Michigan has had some major defensive woes and 3 different DC's in 3 years. How would you describe the WVU defenses under RR, and has anything changed defensively since his departure?

WVUIE97: The defense tried using an attacking scheme with Phil Emassian the first year, then switched to the 3-3-5 after he left, first under Graham and Casteel, then Casteel exclusively. The problem with the D under RR was that the defensive recruiting was a bit laxed, they seemed to recruit almost exclusively to the O side of the ball and the D got the left-overs, and Casteel did wonders with those left-overs. Now that RR is gone, defensive recruiting is more emphasized and with a better pool of talent at his disposal, Casteel had the 3rd ranked D in the country this year.

RB: For some reason, special teams have also been a huge problem under Rodriguez, even with Zoltan the Space Emperor and a promising young Will Hagerup at the reins of the punting game. Looking most recently at Michigan getting torched KR touchdown by Ohio State and their four made field goals (the lowest total in the nation, I believe), would you say that special teams were a big problem under RR at WVU?

WVUIE97: Actually they were better under RR than they have been since he left, which is puzzling because the ST coordinator under RR was Bill Stewart, who still ran those after RR left. But no, ST were not a problem under RR.

RB: One of the big problems Michigan's fan base has with Rodriguez is his inability to beat (or even stay competitive with) ranked teams or Michigan's intense rivals. I seem to recall West Virginia doing well against Pitt during RR's tenure at WVU, and they won several Big East titles and a BCS bowl. How much credit for West Virginia's success does RR deserve? Or should Michigan be trying to poach another WVU coach?

WVUIE97: He deserves a lot of credit, no doubt, but he also couldn’t beat a 4 td underdog for a shot at a national title….that says something, mainly he’s stubborn, unwilling to deviate and adapt. You’re more than welcome to take Jeff Mullen, with recent events, he’s looking for a job.

RB: There are a lot of people at Michigan clamouring for Rodriguez's dismissal and the immediate hiring of Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh. When a head coach leaves a program, though, recruiting difficulties often make the transition difficult. How did Rich Rodriguez leaving WVU affect the team? And how was WVU able to seemingly instantly rebound under Bill Stewart (a man for whom this author has tremendous respect)? How has the culture changed under Stewart?

WVUIE97: It killed the team, but Stew was able to rally them in a way not many people, including me, thought possible. As much as it killed the team, it also bonded them to shock the rest of the country, say what you want about Oklahoma not wanting to be in that game, WVU should not have been able to do that regardless.

The culture changed in the sense that players didn’t have to face constant berating at the smallest mistakes. The kicker even said something to the fact that he enjoyed going to football practice for the first time in his life, even though they were still working hard.

There is something to be said about RR’s methods: WVU’s offense has not looked "crisp" ever since he left and I do think a bit of that has to do with practice environments changing. Thankfully they'll be changing again soon.

RB: Because this is also a blog about beer, I have to ask - what's the best place to grab a brew in Morgantown? When I was living in Parkersburg, WV, Yuengling had just started to hit the area and got really popular. Any local brews visitors should sample?

WVUIE97: Morgantown Brewing Company (originally West Virginia Brewing Company) is a microbrewery in Morgantown that has always had good reviews.

Best place to grab a brew (standard but wide selection) though, is Keglers sports bar. Consistently the best wings in town and probably the best looking and hardest working (I mean that sincerely, not in a snide, chauvinistic way) waitresses in town.

Thanks to WVUIE97 and the guys over at The Smoking Musket. If you're ever in Ann Arbor, a pint's on me.