Disclaimer Portion of FUN
This is the final installment of the story of Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. The conversation surrounding Rodriguez has recently become something of a mud fight with nobody winning because reality has forced us to move on. The recent discussion has gotten so contentious that I thought about not completing this series - as surface level as it is - because frankly that discussion is beating a dead pterodactyl. Supporting, skeptical, awesome recruiting class, Rodriguez could have gotten Dee Hart: all those arguments are not addressed here. It is meant to be a surface level look at Rodriguez's tenure, and the various pressures that eventually led to his dismissal. Part one is here, part two is here, and on with the show.
Wait, first here's another quick note. Throughout this series, I've referred to the "casual fan." What I mean by this is the non-internet dwelling, non-Rivals subscription holding fan. Like it or not, and I know that many around the internet are fighting this every day, people who love Michigan, care about Michigan, give money to Michigan, buy apparel from Michigan - they all have a voice as well. My guess is that those fans outnumber those who follow every story in all outlets. These are good people who only get their sports news from ESPN occasionally and the local papers. This is the constituency, if such a word can be used, that was most hurt by the outlandish media treatment of the various issues facing Rodriguez because they never went deeper into the issue, and it doesn't matter how much this blog, or mgoblog, or Adam Rittenberg screamed on the internet. My dad is an example. Yours might be too.
Rodriguez entered his third season at the helm with still more questions than he had answers. Tate Forcier, the previous season's starting quarterback, had been stripped of his wings in a motivational tactic, and was publicly called out by Troy Woolfolk for not being prepared to play football. Nearly immediately after, Woolfolk - heralded as nearly the only serviceable member of the Michigan secondary had his ankle explode spectacularly while running a non-contact drill. If you're counting, that means that Michigan entered the 2010 season with their starting quarterback in obvious turmoil, and the only player standing between a real secondary and doom in the hospital and out for the season. If you want to throw in the fact that Brandon Minor and Brandon Graham had graduated, feel free. Eerily similar to Rodriguez's first season, we had no idea what to expect from the Wolverines as they entered the season.
What we did know was that Michigan was going to get a good test right out of the gate. Uconn, Notre Dame, Umass, and Bowling Green were up first, then on to the Big Ten season that had tortured Rodriguez over the past two seasons. Most expected Michigan to drop one, or both, of the opening games, as Uconn was the darkhorse pick to win the Big East, and there was no way we were getting lucky again against Notre Dame. What happened was unbelievable even to the most unshakable Rodriguez supporters. Denard Robinson came out and blistered Uconn, and repeated his performance against Notre Dame. Everyone was on this strange-in-hindsight Denard Robinson high (like Meth, but you keep your teeth) four games into the season. He was leading Heisman ballots, and doing things that literally had never been done before in NCAA football. Rodriguez had found his quarterback, and everything was going to be all right.
However, while we were all celebrating our new offensive howitzer, the defense loomed ominously. They looked ok against Notre Dame's third-string QB, but barely squeaked by Umass - an FCS team. Perhaps more ominous was the pounding that Denard took during those first four games. He missed the majority of the BGSU game, and got dinged in every other game. When the Big Ten season opener started against Indiana, Michigan was ranked in the top-20, and fueled by dilithium, but everyone paying attention knew that there were some serious flaws. Indiana proceeded to shred our defense, with Michigan managing to hold serve until the end. The offense was explosive, the defense was among the worst in the NCAA.
However, the tide had definitely turned for Rodriguez. His offense was everything that WVU in their prime was, and his team was 5-0 headed into the Rivalry game with Michigan State. Even those mouth-breathers who claimed that Rodriguez didn't "get it" were pretty quiet. Predictions for the team quietly crept up into the 9-10 win realm. Then reality struck. Over the remaining conference games, it became clear that the defense - as undermanned as it was - was also under coached. There wasn't a single thing that the defense did well. Whether it was moving from 3-4, 4-3, 3-3-5 or having the Middle Linebacker pointlessly line up 3 yards off the nose, it became clear that Greg Robinson was either wholly incompetent, or at least incompetent at running the 3-3-5 that Rodriguez seemed to shove down all his defensive coordinator's clipboards. Even simple things like goal-line defense were not only executed by players thrust in playing time before they were ready, but schematically "knuckle-headed."
The end result was that Michigan got destroyed by every good team they played. The offense was great, but without a field goal kicker or a defense capable of getting them the ball back, their yardage explosions often ended in a 4th and 6 incomplete pass. On November 4th, Rodriguez got something of a reprieve. The NCAA had essentially agreed with Michigan's self-imposed sanctions, and their official report amounted to a fraction of the allegations that the Free Press had, well, alleged. Like everything associated with Michigan Football, the NCAA's findings managed to make the ESPN crawl, and made their rounds across nearly every media channel. Except for blogs, however, there was no attempt (that I can remember) to clearly detail that the NCAA's final findings were slight. What casual fans, and those not associated with the program in the least, got was a nice reminder that Michigan was in trouble for the first time. Educated fans knew better. Casual fans did not.
The season ended with the most uncompetitive game against Ohio State that I have ever seen (I turned it off after the INT/fumble-non-call sequence). However, the final record stood at 7-5 and Michigan was going to a New Years bowl game. Despite the fact that this was considered by many commentators (media or alumni) the minimum requirement to grant Rodriguez a fourth year, the debate raged on whether he should be retained. It was no easy question, primarily because of the glaring deficiencies that his team still displayed, 3 years into his coaching tenure.
The defense, while definitely decimated, was also obviously poorly coached and regressing. The Special Teams play, particularly at kicker, was a laughing stock. Even the 7-5 record, when viewed through the lens of a 5-0 start, was pretty thin. If there was a contest to see how underwhelming a coach could make his "minimum requirement" this was it.
Meanwhile, out in Palo Alto, Michigan Alum Jim Harbaugh was becoming something of a hot commodity. His Cardinal were on their way to play in the Orange Bowl after another stellar season. His coaching resume actually read "Made Pete Carroll ask me what my deal was after kicking his face in repeatedly." Most importantly, it seemed that Harbaugh was ready for the next challenge. Even staunch supporters of Rodriguez were facing the possibility of his dismissal. Mgoblog's self-proclaimed "last to die on Rodriguez hill" Brian Cook:
If Rodriguez is broomed and Harbaugh installed here my reaction will be "meh" quickly followed by "what about Denard?"
Rodriguez should get broomed and Harbaugh should be installed here, but if that doesn't happen my reaction will largely be "meh."
This caused a swell of media attention towards the program, with most proclaiming that if Harbaugh was available, Rodriguez should be fired. The tide had turned against Rodriguez one final time, and Michigan was throttled by Mississippi State in their bowl game. Rodriguez was dismissed shortly thereafter. The story after that has been dissected to the point of nausea.
So what happened to Rich Rodriguez?
[B2 - subjective portion here, if not obvious]
To use a baseball metaphor, Rodriguez came up to bat with two strikes already called on him. The messy divorce from WVU, the minor player academics scandal, and the major "Michigan Stretches Too Damn Much" scandal turned the environment hostile before he even had a chance to prove himself on the field. Compounding this was the previous coaching staff's seeming reluctance to support him beyond a tacit "I support Michigan Football." If you're reading this blog, then you're three steps ahead of some fans, and the national perception of Rodriguez. It certainly wasn't all bad, but the overwhelming perception of Rodriguez was negative from the national media. Worse, most fans probably didn't get the full story reported by numerous blogs - taking what the local papers and West Virginia media said as truth. How much of it was Rodriguez's own making? Some, certainly. It could have been handled better. Did he deserve the vitriol he got just for changing jobs? No.
Throughout all of this, however, he could have won. He could have ultimately been successful if he had just won some of those games. He survived the NCAA allegations and two consecutive losing seasons, but couldn't ultimately survive the fact that his defense and special teams - no matter how decimated - were not only sub-par, they were sub-Mariana trench-par. I would contend, however, that his on-the-field performance alone was not enough reason to fire him. Michigan knew what they were getting into with that transition. He had met the minimum requirements, and with some defensive overhauling would have probably tipped the scales towards winning significantly in 2011.
It's foolish to say that Rodriguez never had a chance. But with his job was hanging by a thread, the overall negativity surrounding his tenure had become too much for the program to bear. Dave Brandon had to do what he did to give Michigan a break from the negative pressure exerted from the media, the fanbase, and the internal stakeholders who never supported the hire to begin with. There comes a point where no matter how the on-the-field product looks, you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater because that bathwater had turned so toxic that it was poisoning the program.