Sunday, December 12, 2010

Rich Rod & Michigan Football

Rich Rodriguez is the coach of the University of Michigan Football team.  He has been coach there since 2008.  It has not been an easy time for him to say the least.  Neither has it been an easy time for the Michigan fans.  We are a spoiled bunch, at least during the years I have been an active and avid fan.

Rich Rodriguez  took over from Lloyd Carr.  Lloyd Carr was a great coach at Michigan who won a share of the national championship in 1997 with a stifling defense and balanced offense.  He was part of the Bo Schembechler legacy of coaches that included:

Big 10 Titles
Bo Schembechler
Gary Moeller
Lloyd Carr

In the 38 years from 1969 - 2007, there was never a losing season.  The worst record was in 1984 when Bo’s team went 6-6.  So, in all those years there was only one season, 1984, that wasn’t a winning one.  Michigan went to a bowl game every year from 1975 through 2007:  32 years.  In those 38 years, we won or tied for the Big 10 title 21 times.  These statistics speak to why the Michigan Football Fans are spoiled.  We are just used to winning.  We are disappointed with three or four loss seasons.  We are disappointed when we do not win at least a share of the Big Ten title.

Rich Rodriguez took over from Lloyd Carr and summarily delivered two losing seasons in a row.  In his first year, the team went a gut wrenching 3-9 overall and 2-9 in the Big 10 placing the Wolverines in a tie for 9th place in the 11 team conference.  In 2009, the overall record was better at 5-7.  But in the Big 10, Michigan was tied for 10th, dead last, with a 1-6 record.  2008 was the first losing season since 1967.  2008-2009 were the first two back to back losing seasons since 1962-1963.  Fans and former players were not happy at all with Rich Rodriguez, his approach, and his staff.  

This year, 2010, Michigan returned to winning form with a 7-5 regular season with all losses coming in the Big 10.  The team will go to a bowl game and will have an overall winning season of 7-6 or 8-5.  The team has improved each year with Coach Rodriguez but it seems most everyone wants him gone.  There are blogs and websites dedicated to seeing this happen e.g. and others that advocate it e.g.  There is one site,, dedicated to supporting Rich Rodriguez.  The consensus of the fans and most sports writers is to fire Rodriguez and hire Jim Harbaugh the ex-Michigan QB who is the current very successful coach at Stanford.  It would be a return to Michigan Football.  It would be a return to the Bo Schembechler tone and tenor of football that everyone seems to want.

Yet, these are the same fans and sports writers who thought Lloyd Carr needed to go back in 2005 until 2007 when Carr “retired.”  Let’s step back a bit and look at the recent history of Michigan football and the influence of The Game:  The Michigan - Ohio State rivalry.

Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were assistants under Bo.  They all had the same football philosophy as Bo.  The philosophy was a show stopping defense and pounding running based offense.  They all believed in defense but with each coaching succession the offense became more balanced.  Under these coaches Michigan was a great source of offensive linemen, ends, defensive backs, and quarterbacks.  Basically, every quarterback from the late 1980s through 2007, from Elvis Grbac to Chad Henne, has played in the NFL with the most notable being, of course, Tom Brady.

The 1997 defense was amazing.  The defense in the national championship year was the best Michigan ever had since I have been a fan.  They put the stop on everyone.  They were led by Heisman Trophy Winner Charles Woodson.  Woodson was the best all around football player at Michigan since Tom Harmon in the late 1940s.   

While John Cooper was coach at Ohio State from 1988 - 2000 Michigan amassed an unprecedented 13-2-1 record in the greatest rivalry in college football.  It made the Ohio State fans more crazy than it gave glee to the Michigan fans.  Our success was even more bitter to the Buckeye faithful since the Wolverines did so with a fair number of Ohio players.  Charles Woodson was the premier example of this.  The Fremont, Ohio native single handedly beat the Buckeyes in 1997 with an interception in the end zone to prevent a Buckeye touchdown, running back a punt for a touchdown, and on offense he caught a touchdown pass.  He was simply amazing.

Jim Tressel became coach of Ohio State.  He has been the best coach Ohio State has had and I include the great Woody Hayes in saying this.  Tressel was brought in to keep the best Ohio players in the state, stop the bleeding against Michigan, and return the Buckeyes to national prominence.  He has done exactly that by winning an undisputed national championship and beating Michigan 9 out of 10 times with a current winning streak of 7.  It is like a flip-flop of the Cooper era regarding The Game.  While Tressel was brought in to get players like Charles Woodson to go to Ohio State instead of Michigan, it would not have worked for Woodson.  I met Woodson only once and liked him a lot, he was quiet but very nice and approachable.  I asked him why he chose Michigan over Ohio State.  He told me that he never considered going to Ohio State and was a Michigan fan as long as he could remember.

Lloyd Carr was a good coach.  He won a national championship.  He won five Big Ten titles in his thirteen seasons as head coach.  He never had a losing season.  His worst season was in 2005 when they went 7-5 and was the only season his team was not ranked.  Every other year, Lloyd Carr coached teams were ranked in the Top 20.

Carr’s problems began with the arrival of Jim Tressel at Ohio State.  Carr was 6-1 against John Cooper’s Buckeyes.  He was 4-2 in bowl games during the same time period.  The fans loved Lloyd Carr.  After Tressel took the helm at Ohio State, Carr’s record against the Buckeyes was 1-6.  His bowl record also flipped to 2-5.  The Wolverine faithful had less faithin their coach.   Many were thinking college football had changed and Lloyd Carr had not changed his style to match the times.  

It got worse in the 2007 season which was Carr’s last.  He lost to Appalachian State 34-32, the very first game of the season.  It was a major upset as Appalachian State was a Division Ia (or whatever they call it now) school albeit one of the best in that division.  Michigan was the joke of the sports media and college football fans.  Then they lost their second game to Oregon 39-7.  Both Appalachian State and Oregon used the spread, no huddle, offense.  Both teams seemed faster and in better condition.  Both teams seemed to have more talent and be better coached.  Michigan went on to win their next eight games only to lose to Wisconsin and Ohio State at the end of the season.   

There was a lot of speculation about Carr retiring or being asked to retire.  There was a lot of wishful thinking among the fan base that this happen.  Two days after the loss to Ohio State, Lloyd Carr announced his retirement.  The general media consensus was that it was not entirely voluntary.  Lloyd did coach the last game in the Citrus Bowl on January 1, 2008 against the powerful, talented, and reigning National Champion Florida Gators.  Quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart had not been healthy the last half of the regular season.  They were back at full strength for this bowl game.  Michigan needed to operate on all cylinders to have a chance against the highly favored Gators led by their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow and very talented wide receiver Percy Harvin.  It was a close and exciting game that Michigan won 41-35.  Michigan won with an aggressive defense despite committing four turnovers.  Michigan rolled up an impressive 524 yards while holding the defending National Champs to 399.  The score would have been more lopsided if not for the turnovers.  Florida scored off of two of the turnovers.  The game was a fitting exclamation point on the career of Lloyd Carr.  It marked the end of an era and really had me wondering if the era needed to have ended.

The Rich Rodriguez era began.  It was a change from the Bo school of football.  It was a move to the fast paced, open, and high scoring spread offense.  Michigan was embracing the offense of Oregon and Appalachian State.  Michigan wanted to move to the kind of speed that seemed to confound Michigan in bowl games against the likes of Tennessee, Texas, and others.  It was embracing the future and a move that would leap frog the Wolverines over the Buckeyes.  This was the hype, this was the promise.  This is what the faithful were hoping.for.

The knowing fans knew it would not be easy the first year.  Michigan was losing a fair number of offensive starters but were returning a rather stout defense.  The defense would keep the games close as the Rich Rod offense took hold.  Plus, we had sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallett who showed great promise filling in for Chad Henne during the 2007 season.  OK, he was not a spread style, Vince Young, kind of quarterback but he was one heck of a drop back passer.  

The first crack I felt in the Rich Rod era was that Mallett left Michigan and returned home to play at Arkansas.  Rich Rod did not keep Mallett, he did not give the young man assurance that he would design an offense around Mallett’s strength.  Instead he was committed to his program, his offense, and decided to let Mallett go and maybe even encouraged him to leave for all I know.  Rich Rod pinned his hopes on getting Terrelle Pryor who touted as the second coming of Vince Young.  We did not get Pryor.  He opted for Ohio State which was insult on top of injury.  Michigan was stuck with two unknown third stringers.

All I could think of was why wouldn’t a good coach create his offense around a blue chipper like Mallett rather than let him go in lieu of expecting to land a hot prospect like Pryor.  

Both Proyor and Mallett made the right decisions.  Pryor was part of a team that has gone 10-8, 11-2, and 11-1 in his three years at Ohio State.  After sitting out a year due to transferring, Mallett has led the Razorbacks to 8-5 and 10-2 seasons.  I am sure neither quarterbacks has any regrets not being at Michigan.

There were rumbles that former players were not entirely pleased with Rich Rod either.  It seems he was just too different from what they were used to.  From what I read, he did not endear himself to the former players.  I had the opportunity to chat about this with two ex-players.  They just shook their heads and basically said Rich Rod was not their cup of tea.

I tried to be open minded and waited to see what the team would look like on the field.  That after all is the final arbiter.  I wished Rich Rod success.  I was excited to see his first game against Utah.  I was anxious to turn the tide against Ohio State.  I was full of hope.  We lost to a very good Utah team.

Opening day was a sign of the 3-9 season that was about to unfold.  To say it was ugly or that it was tough to watch is a total understatement.  Michigan fans were used to something more.  We were used to winning seasons and new coaches coming in and doing very well in their first season.  Heck, Bo took over in 1968 and capped off his first season with a huge upset over Ohio State that was touted as “the team of the century.”  Rich Rod’s team only won three games:  Miami of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.   The defense was dismal and the offense did not have the skill players to execute the Rich Rod scheme.

OK it was a building year.  We heard the cupboard was bare and it would take time to get the skill players in to execute the fast paced Rich Rod version of the spread.  You have to give the guy a few years.  But, no one in the fan base was enjoying this at all.  We got thumped but good by Ohio State and Penn State.  In all the other loses, we either inept looking on offense, defense, or both.

Rich Rod had a good recruiting year and landed some talented offensive players.  Predominant in this were two quarterbacks:  Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.  Both were highly touted and could be the center of something good, something we could build around.  I recall thinking that most of the recruiting was on the offensive.  I was not impressed with that part.

The 2009 season started off with a bang.  Michigan zoomed out to a 4-0 start centered around a very impressive win over Notre Dame.  The fans were feeling good.  We were 1-0 in the Big Ten having beat Indiana in the Big Ten opener.  It was what we were used to.  Cool.  This guy, Rich Rod, may be OK after all.

Then reality set in.  We lost 7 of the next 8 games beating only Delaware State, essentially an exhibition game.  It was as ugly and depressing a finish as the start was uplifting.  We lost heart breakers to MSU in OT and 2 point loses to both Purdue and Iowa.  There were signs of improvement on the offense, but in the Big Ten, the defense was simply giving up too many points and too many yards.

Two years in a row without a bowl trip.

2010 brought about a return to more wins than losses.  The team went 7-5 and is playing in a New Years Day Bowl, the Gator Bowl, against Mississippi State.   Even if they lose, it will be a winning season.  Denard Robinson emerged as the starting quarterback having improved his passing and using his blazing speed to run the spread offense.  In the blazing 5-0 start, there was even talk about Denard winning the Heisman.  He was putting up spectacular numbers in rushing, passing, and total offense per game.  He broke the Michigan record per game a few times and set a season record as well.  He was just named the Big Ten Most Valuable Player.  It is an appropriate and well deserved honor.

Yet, this does not seem enough for most Michigan fans.  Convincing losses to Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, and Wisconsin have most everyone clamoring Michigan to can Rich Rod and bring in Michigan Alum Jim Harbaugh who has had great success at Stanford building an old Michigan style, a Bo heritage style, football team.  Even with a positive win loss record, people are fit to be tied about not being able to play with the Big Ten elite teams.  The defense was inadequate for sure in all the losses and this particularly rankles the fan base.  But, it must be noted that the offense was pretty much contained as well in the loses to Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Recently, on December 2nd,  the University of Michigan football team had their Annual Football Bust.  It has always been called a “bust” and is no reflection on the Rich Rodriquez era.  It is simply the end of season award dinner.  Anyone can attend and I suppose it is ticket sales to the general public.  When I lived in Detroit, I always thought about going, but never did.

There was buzz about this event both before and after the Bust.  This year was the 25th Anniversary of the 1985 team and the players on that team planned a reunion at the Bust.  Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback of that team and, being the very successful coach of the Stanford Cardinals, the coach everyone wants to replace Rich Rod.  The press was drooling over possible next coach being at the Bust.  It did not happen.  Jim Harbaugh decided not to come claiming that he had to focus on both recruiting and bowl game preparation.

At the Bust, in his speech, Rich Rod got all overemotional.  He emoted about wanting to be a Michigan man.  It was a plea, an appeal, to all.  He wanted to stay.  He was dedicated to his job and mission.  He wanted all to know this and be aware.  He was on the verge of tears or did actually shed tears, it doesn’t matter.   There is no crying in baseball… er football.  There is especially no crying when you are being paid $1M plus.  At that point, you are, no matter how you cut it or whatever spin you want to put on it, you are being paid for performance.  You are being paid to get a job done.  Pure and simple.  We give you $1M a year and you build a football team that is competitive that contends for the conference championship every year and has national prominence.  Pure and simple.  Sure you can be emotional and passionate in your job.  You are after all a football coach.  But don’t whine, hem, and haw if your job is on the line because you have not delivered.    Praise your players that is what the event was about.

The bottom line is that Rich Rodriguez is half a coach.  He has built an exciting and potent offense.  That offense was pretty potent against most opponents this year except Ohio State.  We scored enough points to win every game except Ohio State.  

We scored enough points to have won every game except Ohio State if we had a defense that could actually hold the other team to 20 points or less.  That is what Ohio State and Wisconsin are capable of.  That is the kind of defenses Michigan used to have and I do believe the fan base is clamoring for.  Coincidentally, it is the kind of defense that Jim Harbaugh seems to have at Stanford.  Rich Rod had a good defense at West Virginia but it was clearly the doing of his defensive coordinator and current head coach there:  Bill Stewart.

So, what is to happen to Rich Rodriguez?  I think he is gone.  Athletic Director, Dave Brandon, is a no nonsense results oriented manager.  He has not given Rich Rodriguez the “he is our coach and we have a contract with him we are delighted to honor” kind of endorsement.  I believe like many he is waiting until after the Gator Bowl in which Michigan is playing Mississippi State on New Year’s Day.  If Brandon was to sever ties with Rich Rod, the buy out on his contract is $4M versus $2.5M after the end of the year.  I would wait for two weeks to avoid having to pay $1.5M.

The problem is that waiting hurts our recruiting.  We have lost a few because no one is sure if Rich Rod will be there next year.  Oddly, the two I have heard about are offensive players:  a quarterback and running back.

I would have loved this experiment to have worked but something needs to be done to stem the losses to MSU and Ohio State.  When I feel a little bad for wanting him gone, I simply remind myself how much we are paying him and how much we will have to pay him to leave.  Rich Rod will be just fine no matter which path Dave Brandon takes.

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