We left off at Rodriguez's hiring, with the media continuing its negative firestorm without ever having seen an on-the-field product. Reader Bret points out in email that there were some errors in Rodriguez's resume, most notably a thrashing of Georgia Tech between the thrashings of Georgia and Oklahoma that I omit. His Georgia-beating team had one of his better defenses, not one of his worst. Suffice to say that Rodriguez was wildly successful at his previous stops, the point remains despite my clerical errors. On with the shew.
It would be easy to just write "…was a disaster" here and move on. Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet took the helm of a woefully under talented Michigan team that was running the wrong system with the wrong players. I can’t even say that Threet was the quarterback as walk-on Nick Sheridan, a coach’s son who appeared to be using his time as a Wolverine to further his own coaching aspirations not like, play, actually started that year against Utah. The Wolverines struggled mightily against every team they faced except, oddly, Minnesota, and finished dead last in the conference. The final record was 3-9, and nearly every record for ineptitude on a Michigan team had been shattered. First loss to a MAC team – check. Worst ever record by a Michigan team – check. Worst experience at Michigan Stadium in a futile loss in the rain/snow/sleet/hell frozen over against Northwestern – check. It was a bad year.
The toxic cloud around Rodriguez had now expanded to on the field, and after a season like that the local media had decided that they had their newest pariah. Rodriguez had always said that this was going to take time, but few seemed willing to give it that. Michigan – the Michigan that had dubbed a 7-5 season the "year of infinite pain" – was not used to losing, and not used to losing uncompetitively, and just who the heck is this hick anyways? Can we fire him?
Through the negativity, and this I believe is a genuine reason to be mad if you were a Rodriguez supporter, not once did Lloyd Carr offer his support beyond tacit admissions of always love Michigan football. Former players, most significantly Braylon Edwards after a snafu over the #1 jersey, came out and actively campaigned against Rodriguez. It’s not so much that any of these people had to be cheerleaders, but they were submarining the guy. Maybe it was out of embarrassment. Maybe those former players, most of whom still loved Michigan, found it easier to say "this isn’t MY Michigan." The bottom line through this is that Rodriguez never had the support of the athletic department or base of former players.
The toxic cloud buildup finally peaked during Rodriguez’s second season where he was hit with accusations from the Detroit Free Press of academic improprieties as well as major rules violations by having the players practice more than the NCAA allotted amount. The articles, spurned by out-of-context player interviews and jilted graduating seniors still mad over the Carr transition, made it sound like Rodriguez was running a sweat shop that Nike would be proud of. He worked his players to the bone, and forced them into easy majors with "pre approved" professors. This was the story in the Free Press. In actuality, eventually proven by an NCAA investigation, the Freep story was a hit job of the highest degree perpetrated by a media that had been determined since his messy divorce from West Virginia to sink the coach. The story did not only stretch the truth, it flat out lied. Those who followed the story, or were inclined to dig even one centimeter below the surface knew this. Unfortunately, this only constituted those fans who cared enough to do the digging. The blue hairs, the casual fans, and the national media latched on to the story as fact. Rodriguez tried to defend himself, but ended up tearfully explaining how much he loved the kids. The man, who did nothing but try to change jobs, had been broken by a media environment that was determined to find even the slightest reason to dismiss the guy, and make it go nuclear.
Michigan would begin to make amends on the football field. With true-freshman Tate Forcier at the helm, Michigan moxie’d their way to a 4-0 start including what many were praying would be a program defining win against Notre Dame. Unfortunately Michigan would not win another game that year save for Delaware State, a 1-aa program. Injuries mounted, the defense – which was seeing a new coordinator in Greg Robinson – wilted, and, well, Michigan just wasn’t very good. The squeals from the local media about practice-gate had been largely quelled during the 4-0 start, but as loss after loss piled up they began again in earnest.
In an entirely subjective point of view that you’re more than welcome to disagree with, it was during this season that the first legitimate rumblings of Rodriguez’s dismissal began. After back-breaking losses to flat-out bad teams in Purdue and Illinois, it became clear that Rodriguez was again not going to a bowl game. He also had a new boss in David Brandon, a seemingly no-nonsense corporate type who formerly was the CEO of Ann Arbor based Domino’s Pizza. Brandon publically supported Rodriguez as Michigan Football self-imposed NCAA sanctions for the first time in their history. This set off another powder keg of negative press despite the actual sanctions being little more than a wrist-slap. The issue, in yet another subjective point, wasn’t so much that "everybody was doing it" or "the Freep is out to get us." While both of those things may be true, the Freep did indeed uncover some wrong-doings in the Michigan athletic department. That is not disputable. The issue was more the media reaction to it insofar as it was the worst thing in the world and Michigan was running a sweat-shop of a football program, and THINK OF THE CHILDREN MAN. In reality, Michigan self-exposed their violations, cooperated fully with an NCAA investigation, and received just punishment for their transgressions, which were minor. This was not reported. Instead, we got "think of the children."
Rodriguez had entered his time at Michigan under negative pressure from nearly all sides. He had two seasons to reverse that negativity with his on-the-field product. Instead, we got the two worst seasons back to back in Michigan history. Rodriguez entered his third season with his job on the line.