To say that the search process that led to Michigan hiring its first football coach from outside the program in over 40 years was disjointed would be an understatement. Those zig-zags are too numerous and too painful (even now) to relive in print. The most unfortunate byproduct of that bumpy process is not the coach that was hired … it is the well defined factions that subsequently appear to have developed within the Michigan family. The divisions were/are so pronounced that regardless of which coach was named, that man was liable to take his fair share of heat.
Lost in the in-fighting has been the reality that the search process and the qualifications of the coach born of it are mutually exclusive. Who knows where Michigan would be had Rodriguez's agent not picked up the phone late in the game to contact Bill Martin so he could insert his client into the equation? Who knows… and who even cares at this point? In reality it's just water under the bridge – and the main point is that Michigan got a guy that was highly coveted. Those that try to trivialize what Rodriguez did at West Virginia and his ability to mold offenses at Clemson and Tulane before that must simply know more about football than Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, and the numerous other coaches that have based their schemes on his concepts.
That being said, Michigan's 3-8 record (thus far) this season is certainly not evidence that Rodriguez will lead the Wolverines back to the promise land. On the other hand: to those predisposed to disliking the program's new headman – the record isn't definitive proof that the Maize & Blue will be relegated to purgatory under his watch either.
What 3-8 signifies is a test of faith for the believers (of which I am one), a test of patience for those on the fence, and a test of restraining the ‘I told you so' reflex for those that have been waiting in the weeds to make that comment all year long. Reasonable people can disagree on whether Rodriguez was the best man to begin with, but those same people should also agree that is it far too soon to tell that he is not the right guy now that he is here. Are those itching to jump to that conclusion merely frustrated by the horrible fashion in which this season unfolded? Or are they still stuck in neutral, and in the past, constantly thinking of what might have been had things gone their way?
"You learn to accept certain things and you look positively at them, so I'm optimistic," said former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard t o yours truly on Thursday. "Once that hire was a done deal, it was like, ‘Okay, we need move forward … we need to support this coach because he is donning the Maize & Blue now. He is in charge of those guys who are wearing the winged helmets. You support him.' But (fans) are going to have to be patient."
"If Rich Rodriguez is able to stay in Ann Arbor, I tell everybody, he'll be in the national championship game in five seasons," Howard continued. "That's real talk. I put that on everything I love. I said (in an interview on Columbus radio), ‘I don't know if he can stay that long because the cupboard isn't full, so he has to build up that cupboard.' I said, ‘I don't know about the patience in Ann Arbor because they're going to experience something now that they haven't experienced before… ever. So if they can be patient enough and let this guy stay there for, I think, three seasons… that means he gets three recruiting seasons under his belt… to me within five seasons he'll be in the national championship game.' I didn't say he's going to win it, I said he is definitely going to be in that game within five seasons. He'll have what he needs."
Is Howard's confidence that Rodriguez will lure talented players to Ann Arbor misplaced? This year's recruiting effort while saddled with a 3-8 ‘monkey on his back' would seem to reflect a bit of recruiting prowess. Howard certainly agrees.
"I think he is a hell of a recruiter," the former Wolverine great said of Rodriguez. "I think that Rich Rodriguez and his staff … they pound the pavement like the foot soldiers for Obama who were out there registering voters doing that type of thing… they get out there and get after it. I think they are a hell of a recruiting team. I think once he does that for three seasons – I said within five they should be in the national championship game."
Some surely believe that Howard is simply towing the party line. Is it too outlandish to believe that in all of those plays that were clearly left on the field this year, that Desmond sees a stencil for offensive prosperity in the future? Could it be that he sees how personnel upgrades at key positions + experience will lead to more explosiveness? Objective people would say it's not outlandish at all. And, on the other hand … similarly objective people would argue that questions and skepticism about the defense are not only understandable, they're necessary. During the offseason Rodriguez will have address how best to remedy the worst defense in the 129 year history of Michigan football (in terms of points against). Saying the play of defense has been a major disappointment – even more so than the offense – is an extremely fair criticism. However, other critiques of Coach Rod, like this "embracing the rivalry" ridiculousness, are not.
Just for the sake of argument, by what subjective measure has Rodriguez not embraced the rivalry? Is it simply because he hasn't produced sound bites or doesn't have a countdown clock? Would more fans think differently of his opinion of the rivalry's significance if they knew of the symbolic focus on the Buckeyes in practices dating all the way back to fall camp? A perfect example is the fierce, yet comical abuse of Ohio State tackling dummies during offensive line drills. I suppose it would have been beneficial for him to trumpet every such instance to the media, but of course then he'd run the risk of his comments being called forced like they were when he gave his take on the game's significance during his Monday press conference. It's clear to me that he's better off being himself and focusing on winning games, since the win/loss column will be the ultimate measure of just how much he embraces things.
So what now?
Patience has never been a virtue of fans in general, and it certainly isn't one for a fan base that has not suffered this level of futility in its history. The natives are restless and want assurances that this thing is headed in the right direction. That's where the Michigan Men would, it would seem to me, come in. In the past there was always a shield present at slightest hint of underperformance. There was always an ambassador or emissary present to step up to deflect attention or vouch for the coach/program to help foster patience in the masses. From an outside view, it was obvious that Michigan Men stuck together. Right or wrong, it's what they did. Imagine the surprise when none were willing to do the same for Rodriguez … or so it seemed.
The deafening silence was broken this week by Howard and Rick Leach. They both brought up a very salient point. Both are former greats, both admitted supporting the hire of Les Miles, and both have asked a question that I will paraphrase in the following way: if you dwell on the search outcome that you wanted, and continue to pine for it at the expense of support for Rodriguez, are you really for Michigan … or are you more for yourself? It's an important question because "Rich Rod" probably won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
And so, every person that claims to support Michigan has a decision to make. Are they going to root for his demise – and in turn become instruments of it – or are they going to support him, hope for the best, and wait until he either proves he can do it or that it's obvious that he can't?
If you're for Michigan, the choice for now, especially for this week, especially for this game, seems clear: One Coach, One Team, One Michigan.