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Hindsight is 20/20: Looking Back at Michigan's Firing of Rich Rodriguez and Hiring of Brady Hoke

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I'm glad I'm not Dave Brandon. Over the last month he's had a head football coach literally coaching for his job, faced a fan base ready to explode, dealt with unmet expectations on the field, parsed through the unrealistic expectations of those off it, watched as the media fawns over a hot coach on the rise with Michigan ties, said no thanks to an old name with a long track record, and made two decisions that were damn near impossible to get 100% right.

I don't envy the man. A month of nauseating scrutiny followed by a week in the very flames of media hell. No sleep. No time to rest. Only constant research, review, analysis, and action. I've got to imagine he's got the beginnings of cauliflower ear after having a phone glued to it 240 straight hours. You could've stuffed groceries in the bags under his eyes yesterday and you could tell that his trademark patience and coolness under fire were on life support as he answered the media's questions. As much as we like to romanticize it, being Michigan's Athletic Director is not an easy job. Sometimes, as we saw yesterday, it can be downright brutal.

Writing is often an exercise in hindsight. We review, we analyze, we bitch, we moan, we cheer, etc. But we do it with imperfect information. In a strange way, this is where modern economic theory and sports journalism intersect. We assume we have perfect information and make our judgments based on such. We also assume that those making the decisions, analyzing the decisions, and implementing the decisions have perfect information as well. Only we, and they, don't. As the economic downturn and the spotty coverage of Michigan's coaching search has proven, no one has a clue what's going on.

So we turn to review as a means of predicting the future. Will this pay off? Was it the right move? Could it have been handled better? These are all questions asked in hindsight that truly have no correct answer. All they have is supposition. But they're questions we ask anyway, as if kicking the dead horse over and over again will not just bring it back to life but change it into a unicorn.

Personally, I don't think there was a right or wrong choice Dave Brandon could've made in the two weeks following Michigan's disastrous loss to Mississippi State. The options before him were fairly straight forward:

1. Keep Rodriguez; or,
2. Fire Rodriguez.

That was it. Set aside your predispositions about having a coach in hand before the decision, I'll get to that in a minute. Three years in to Rodriguez tenure, it was apparent that something wasn't working. Each defense Rodriguez fielded over the past three years was worse than the year before. The team was last in turnovers and turnover margin for three straight years. The offense racked up more yards than ever before but was inept against even marginal defenses. These aren't opinions, they're facts, and they're the facts Brandon had to weigh. Along with those facts, he also had to consider that in year four Michigan might finally reap the rewards of Rodriguez' improving offense and that his defense would somehow improve even though. There was the possibility that a new Defensive coordinator could improve the defense. 2011 was a more manageable schedule. Rodriguez was and is a good man.

Weighing these factors, Brandon had to come to one final conclusion, whether Michigan would be better off with or without Rodriguez, irrespective of who was "available" or who would be Michigan's next head coach.

And that seems to be lost in the discussion. Was Michigan better off with or without Rodriguez? In my view that was what Brandon's decision was based on. I truly believe he looked at everything that Rodriguez' did for the University and everything he failed to do, and came to the conclusion that Michigan was better off without him. And this decision had to be made in that vacuum. Basing his decision on anything else would be foolish and derogation of his duty to the school.

The whims of personnel outside Michigan are not what you want to base your decisions on. A "yes" one day can quick turn into an "I'm going to the NFL" the next. It all comes back to imperfect information and rational decisions. To fire a coach based on the possibility that someone may be available and may consider the former coach's position is as irrational as you can get. In effect you are ignoring the data in front of you in favor of an unknown. Further, as outsiders, we don't know anything that was discussed between Harbaugh and Brandon. Our information on this subject isn't just imperfect, it's non-existent. It's based on hope, delusion, supposition. Not fact. Based on what we know about Dave Brandon, that's not how he operates. He has been methodical and well educated in his decisions up to this point. Given that, it's not a stretch to suggest that Brandon's not going to rush a decision or ignore the key question based on outside stimuli. Taking all this into the equation, I think Brandon reached the conclusion that Michigan was simply better off without Rodriguez. But this is a guess based on imperfect information.

Following the this, the issue becomes the availability of an acceptable coaching replacement. Many people have suggested that if you're going to fire someone you have to have a suitable replacement waiting to go. I disagree. If you've got a driver that is consistently running your truck into phone poles, you're better off firing him first in order to preserve your truck and cash spent repairing it rather than waiting to find the perfect driver while the old one drives the truck off a cliff. You take care of the problem child first, then you find his replacement.

This is a bias of my own that I must admit, we're talking about the position of Head Football Coach of the University of Michigan. It's a job that will be filled by a qualified individual because there will always be able candidates for it. It's not like this position will remain open because no one will take it or that no one knows how to coach football other than the two people the fan base wanted. Dave Brandon was aware of that and was in a position to make the decision to terminate Rodriguez knowing he would be able to find a qualified head coach. It's a nice luxury to have.

I've said this before, I don't think Brandon was going to fire Rodriguez until after the Gator Bowl debacle. Certainly, I'd heard the rumors about how Rodriguez was dead man walking, how Miles was target number one, or how Harbaugh and Brandon had been communicating. I don't believe those rumors one bit. They're all based on supposition and hearsay. And none of them proved to be even remotely correct. The simplest, and perhaps safest thing for the program prior to the Gator Bowl was to keep Rodriguez on board. Recruiting was going well, the offense looked to be a juggernaut next year, etc. But the debacle forced his hand. Look around the internets, you're not going to find anyone who predicted a 52-14 blowout. I think Michigan's performance in the Gator Bowl shocked everyone, including Brandon. As a result, he was caught somewhat flatfooted in the "race" to find a new head coach.

From here out the information available to the general public and the media becomes sketchy at best. It wasn't until yesterday that most people had any idea that Brandon had spoken with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. It wasn't until last night that I finally realized why Les Miles would never be Michigan's head coach. It wasn't until yesterday that I realized just how quiet Dave Brandon had actually been during his search. It also wasn't until yesterday that I realized most of my assumptions about the coaching search were wrong.

To us, the options appeared to be as follows:

1. Hire Harbaugh immediately;
2. If not Harbaugh, then hire Miles as soon as possible;
3. If not Harbaugh or Miles.... duuuuurrrrrrrrrrrr......

Again, it's fairly obvious the information we now have from Brandon's Press Conference that our intial list of options was not even remotely close to the truth. Brandon made reference to numerous coaches and personnel he spoke with over the course of his search, and also made reference to the secrecy in which he attempted to carry the search out. We have no idea who he spoke with. We have no idea when and where he was. Technology has enabled us to follow this process to the point of following planes arriving and departing from Ann Arbor, Baton Rouge, and California. But we never knew who was on those planes. Further, we never knew whether Brandon or anyone else actually representing Michigan was actually on board those planes. Everything was circumstantial. Brandon even went so far as to address this at his press conference, saying that he wasn't on the planes some of us were tracking. The reality is, none of us really know what went down in Brandon's search.

It's also been reasonably questioned that if Hoke was Option One from the beginning, why the dog and pony show? The clear answer is that Hoke was one of many candidates that needed vetting before a decision could be made. Brandon admitted yesterday that he only tangentially knew who Brady hoke was before his search began. Brandon said that as he continued in his search, Hoke's name continued to come up from other coaches and targets of his search. Brandon also told us that he interviewed coaches (yes, with the plural) that simply did not fit the values of the University. To me, this limited information should lead us to believe that Brandon actually went about his search in a diligent manner and came to the conclusion that Hoke was the best fit after a full week of interviews, phone conversations and travel to meet and speak with potential candidates and advisers. As I've said before, this is a supposition based on the imperfect information I have accumulated, but to me it is the most logical conclusion.

No one knew that Jim Harabaugh would take the Michigan job if offered, forsaking the California coast and NFL money. We assumed it. Everyone assumed Les Miles would take the Michigan job if offered, but didn't think about the money or the other factors that led to Rich Rodriguez hiring in the first place. Over the last 24 hours I've confirmed that Les Miles did not become Michigan's head coach now or three years ago for reasons internal to Schembechler Hall. You'll have to trust me on this one, but my sources on this are extremely trustworthy, reliable and have no reason to make this up. As MGoBlog has said, perhaps for similar reasons or other ones, Les Miles was never going to be Michigan's coach.

We have over simplified the search on the basis of the result. If Brandon had hired some big name guy after a comparable search we'd be praising him for "doing it the right way" and taking his time to make the right decision. Instead people complaining that the search wasn't good enough because all it got us is Brady Hoke. They're complaining that if it was always Hoke, why not hire him immediately and on a PR binge to support him? The answers to this are above and the question itself is somewhat silly. Do you really think a man as accomplished as Brandon is, who has run Fortune 500 companies and is still young enough to screw up his career, dumb enough to needlessly put himself in this position? I realize I'm answering a question by posing another question, but the point is valid.

Up to this point Brandon's handling of just about everything has been nearly flawless. The NCAA investigation. Player discipline. The Big Chill. Lights at Michigan Stadium. Disciplining/removing the people responsible for the NCAA investigation. Dave Brandon's track record as Athletic Director speaks for itself prior to this hiring. It's amazing to me how quickly people lose faith when a predisposition isn't fulfilled. I'm as guilty of it as the next fan, but I'm willing to admit I was wrong.

So no, I don't agree with MGoBlog's assertion that Brandon "admits" that his search/"dog and pony show" was pointless. I think the whole process was necessary, whether we got the result we thought we wanted or not. Dave Brandon had two incredibly difficult decisions to make and he made them with more information before him than we'll ever know about. He did what a CEO is supposed to do. He gathered as much information as possible germane to each decision and made them.

Hindsight is 20/20. But the more I look back, the more I think Brandon did it right.