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The Bold Choice: The Michigan Coaching Transition Before Year Four

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As an athletic director there are few decisions in your professional life that carry as much weight as hiring a new football coach. It's really a zero sum game if you're an athletic director. If the coach is awesome everyone will forget that you hired him. The coach is elevated to God-like status and everyone looks back at the decision to hire coach X as an obvious choice. If the coach fizzles or outright fails, the athletic director is crucified for making a stupid hire. Fans ask the obvious hindsight questions about "knowledge of tradition," "fit," "personnel," "the conference," "winning enough," and they're all generally right. In hindsight. The bottom line, you're either a goat or someone who competently did his or her job. No more. No less.

There is a caveat though. Sometimes an athletic director will take a chance. They'll hire the guy that no one is talking about. The guy with potential, but no track record. The otherguy on the hiring list or even the other guy that wasn't on everyone else's list. Fan sometimes call it stupid or insane or even desperate. Maybe if the hire fails, then they're right. If the hire works out well, the athletic director looks like a genius. But at the time it all goes down it's just one thing. Bold.

Irrespective of how you felt about Rich Rodriguez, one thing remains fairly clear. Terminating a coaching staff before it completes its fourth year at the helm is a dangerous proposition. Going into year four just about every player on the roster was recruited by that coaching staff. They are all familiar with that coaching staff's play book. And they are all finally ready to play at their highest level in that system. Say what you want about players making plays, but on field excellence comes from every player on the field knowing what they're supposed to do and executing it without hesitation.

In reality, it takes about three to four years for any kind of coaching transition to bare legitimate results. Obviously, you want your team and staff to be on an upward projection. As a team improves through years one, two and three, you expect to see the big payoff in year four. In year four you have seniors raised in the system. In year four you've got an entrenched coaching staff with stability. In year four you're deep at critical positions. In year four, well, at Michigan, you're supposed to compete for a championship. As everyone's well aware, Rich Rodriguez never got to year four at Michigan.

It's debatable as to why. Supporters point to the potentially planet crushing offense that was set to reign hell-fire on the Big Ten as a reason Rodriguez should've stayed. Detractors point to the soul crushing defensive failures over Rodriguez' tenure as a reason he deserved the axe. Supporters point to the steady improvement in the wins column as proof the coaching staff was on the right track. Detractors point to the three straight blowout losses to legitimate teams to close the season as proof the track Michigan was on had derailed. No matter your position on whether Rodriguez and his staff should've been let go, there are arguments for and against.

Here's the thing, there wasn't a clear answer to whether the coaching staff should've been retained. It's not like this was the end of Willingham era at Notre Dame, when Ty considered recruiting and coaching as "things that interfered with nap time." Rodriguez was busting his behind on the recruiting trail. But, he also hired GERG and the defense looked like it couldn't put out a smoking barbque with a fire truck. The staff was working hard but the consistent results didn't show on both sides of the ball.

As a result, Michigan's athletic director was left with the unenviable task of making the difficult, final call on Rodriguez and his staff. Play it safe and stay the course or make the bold decision to move on, arguably without a successor lined up. He chose the latter.

It's not like it was an easy choice. Michigan had one definite prospect in Jim Harbaugh, one fan favorite in Les Miles, and a lot of people suggesting that seppuku was a requirement if neither were retained. Dave Brandon went another director, and chose to put his stamp on the program and his butt on the line. Willingly. There were easier selections. There were easier directions. Instead he made the bold choice to go with the man whom he felt would the best fit for the program. He went with, to an extent, his gut. Trusting that his research, interviews, contacts, and har work had led him to the right decision.

As it turned out, initially it wasn't a popular one. But over time fans and alumni have started to see why he made that choice. The hiring of good football coaches. The embracing of Michigan's traditions and history. The outreach to former players and degree to which many have returned to the program. The recruiting, oh good God the recruiting. Thus far, Brandon's choice to move on has proven prescient.

It wasn't the easy choice. It wasn't the one everyone agreed with. It was the Bold choice. And only wins and losses will tell for sure if it was the right one.