I just finished reading John Bacon’s book Three and Out, about Rich Rodriguez’s tenure as the University of Michigan head football coach. Anyone who follows college football knows “public” story: Rich Rodriguez left his alma mater West Virginia to take the head coaching job at the winningest program in college football history. Michigan was replacing outgoing living legend Lloyd Carr, who had won five Big Ten titles and one National Championship in his 13 seasons as head coach. Rodriguez had turned West Virginia into a national power and was thought of by some as a pioneer of the spread offense. He was going to come into Michigan, with his “new school” offense and lead Michigan back to glory. Until he didn’t.
Lots of things went wrong for Rodriguez. He didn’t seem aware of many of Michigan’s traditions. He went through several controversial incidents related to his exit from West Virginia, including being accused of shredding team documents and also had to pay, with Michigan’s help, a hefty buyout. Then Michigan was investigated by the NCAA for violating limits for the amount of time players can practice.
He ended Michigan’s streak of non-losing seasons and bowl appearances. He could not end the streak of losing to archival Ohio St., lost to Michigan St. three times and never sniffed a Big Ten title. After three years, it appeared that Rodriguez’s was tenure was nothing but a train wreck and he was fired, but it wasn’t until now we got more of the story.
Bacon shares a mutual friend with Rodriguez and was contacted shortly after Rodriguez’s hiring about writing a book based on pretty much unrestricted access to him and the program. Bacon had written a book about Michigan’s most well known head coach Bo Schembechler, and was plenty familiar with the program. Shortly after the process began Bacon realized the transition was not going well and that this book could end up being something that neither Rodriguez or their mutual friend had bargained for. Rodriguez gave him the go ahead to keep writing and the result is an interesting look at the whole story.
I don’t plan to rehash all the details of the book because if you are that interested you should buy it and read it, but it definitely gave me a new perspective. I should preface this all by saying the following, I am not a Michigan alumnus, just a fan of their football team. Also, I do not believe that Rich Rodriguez should have been fired after just three seasons.
The book itself was pitched by mgoblog, at least in my opinion, as non-partisan look that didn’t take sides but rather just “told the story.” Part of what made this difficult is that two of the key players that likely would have buried Rodriguez, former Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin and Carr declined to be interviewed.
The entire situation that landed Rodriguez at Michigan was one of the most interesting parts. He walked out on West Virginia essentially because the school seemed to be railroading him out of fear that he would become bigger than the school or deep pocketed boosters, and did so by failing to follow through on promise after promise. Michigan came calling at the 11th hour and forced Rodriguez to make a decision very quickly before visiting the campus or talking to players and coaches.
Much of this last minute craziness was a result of the school not wanting to wait for Les Miles to coach LSU in the National Championship. According to Bacon, Miles would not have turned Michigan down but didn’t want to make anything public until after he coached his team in the title game. Even after Kirk Herbstreit “broke” the story on ESPN, Miles still planned to come, he just wanted it to be on his timeline.
Most people who follow Michigan football know that the program was already in a downward spiral before Rodriguez was hired. They were coming off one of their worst seasons ever, which included the embarrassing loss to Appalachian State and Lloyd Carr hadn’t been recruiting as well during his last couple of seasons, so the talent level was down. When Rodriguez came in Carr didn’t discourage any of his players from transferring and didn’t seem to go out of his way to help out the new coach.
It became clear with each passing incident that Rodriguez wasn’t getting the support he needed to succeed. It seemed like part of this was on AD Bill Martin, and as Bacon continues to point out, Martin is one of many college ADs who came from the business world, not the college world, and didn’t really know the optimal way to run a college athletic department. The complete lack of public support from Carr only fueled the fire, allowing longtime “Michigan Men” to publicly go against Rodriguez without repercussion. Many references were made to the fact that if Bo Schembechler had still been alive he would have not allowed former players and other people close to the program to get away with the public insubordination.
The complete lack of support, coupled with steep uphill battle of both restocking the cupboard and teaching players a new offensive system were a perfect storm for Rodriguez. His inability to bring in his first choice for defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel, set him back as well.
When it was all said and done though, it became apparent that the vocal group that didn’t want Rodriguez there from the start never wavered even slightly from that mindset. The lack of on-field results paired with all of the off-field issues, most of which, if you believe the book, were not Rodriguez’s fault, were enough to sway the people on the fence to the anti-Rodriguez side. Most of those who supported Rodriguez seemed to do so until the end, but after another rough season and an awkward end of the year football bust1 seemed to convince all but the most loyal supporters that it was time for a fresh start.
I chose to believe the book for the most part, and now believe even more reverently that Rodriguez got a raw deal. It is true that he made some missteps, but based on the performance of the team this season I continue to believe that with the right defensive coordinator this team was primed for a turnaround. My guess is that 5-10 years from now both sides will look back and say that the split was the best for everyone.
Of course the Rodriguez detractors have all the fuel for an “I told you so” as you could ask for with Brady Hoke’s inaugural season success. The news last week that Rich Rodriguez was hired by Arizona, which came as no surprise to me, is going to make the next few years interesting. I suspect that Rodriguez will succeed, and succeed mightily. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t win a couple of Pac 12 titles over the next 10 years. It’s yet to be determine if Hoke be able to equal that success. I fear the Greg Mattison isn’t in this for the long haul, and by the time Hoke brings in his own players, Mattison will be gone.
Hoke is given a lot of credit for turning this team around to 10-2, but the team is mostly made of Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez recruits. It seems unlikely that Rodriguez could have landed Greg Mattison, but who knows who he would have hired and how they would have changed the defense.
It’s clear from the book that Rich Rodriguez was not a “Michigan Man” when he was hired, and that was enough for many people to be against him from the beginning. But it’s also clear he was becoming one, and was in it for the long haul. We will never know if he could have become the same kind of one as the last outsider hired as Michigan coach, one Bo Schembechler.
Sometimes no matter how great two pieces are independently, they just don’t work as a pair.
- Which included Rodriguez breaking down during a Josh Groban song [↩]