After all the rumors have subsided, all the dust has settled and all the gnashing of teeth is over with, Michigan got their man. Not a “Michigan Man,” but their man none the less.
Monday morning, West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez changed hats and was introduced as the next Wolverine head coach. He’s the man selected by that institution up North to lead an aging program into the twenty-first century, albeit seven years late to the party. Though Rodriguez is without Michigan roots, he will be fully embraced as true blue.
“It’s a great crowd,” the new Michigan head coach said Monday morning at his introductory press conference. “Are they giving away free hats or something?”
And just like that, the Fort, and Lloyd Carr’s combated, secretive nature gives way to a more accessible, light-hearted kindred spirit. But the role of Rodriguez goes far beyond that of warm jokes, accessibility and the media stepping on egg shells.
This is about being elite. It’s about getting Michigan to where it’s accustomed to being – on top. It’s also about running neck-and-neck with Ohio State, who will be making its third BCS National Championship game appearance in seven years under Jim Tressel. Even if Michigan toes the company line that this was a hire to accommodate Carr’s retirement and continue along the same path he paved for the Wolverines, we all know this one carries greater implications.
In terms of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, Michigan fans hope this hire will restore balance to the force. To quote colorful WWE play-by-play man Jim Ross, “business has just picked up.” It’s the job of Rodriguez, a said offensive genius, to engineer competition into a series that had been completely lopsided since the arrival of Ohio State’s Jim Tressel.
Forget that this man was arguably the second, third or (possibly) even fourth choice of Michigan administration. Forget that this job was supposed to be for the prodigal son – Michigan alum and LSU head coach Les Miles. Unless Miles or alleged top choices Greg Schiano and Kirk Ferentz go on to Hall-of-Fame type careers and win many National Championships while Rodriguez fully flounders, he should pass the litmus test of time as an elite head coach, restoring Michigan to the proud tradition of excellence it felt it was lacking in recent years.
And if he does fail, he’ll be hung in effigy.
But if nothing else, Michigan already scored big. The sound out of Columbus you hear is the collective moan of Ohio State fans loathing the dismissal of Michigan’s recent mediocrity. Today, Michigan fans will sport their jerseys. They’ll hum The Victors. They’ll boldly and with a touch of confidence return to chiding Buckeye fans. Oh certainly this is no different from any other day in the greatest rivalry in sports, but perhaps now they’ll do so with their heads held high – there will be a pep in their steps.
Even if Rodriguez is unable to live up to title of self-proclaimed savior, dubbed to him by many Wolverine fans, he is destined to do no worse than status quo. For Michigan, perhaps that isn’t much of a consolation prize considering the program has lost six of the past seven games against Ohio State and dropped four bowl games in a row. But for Buckeye fans that know the percentages are stacked in their favor, unless Rodriguez is totally inept, by sheer coincidence alone he should win more often against Ohio State and in big games.
The truth is that a jury is still hung with regard to Rodriguez. The former West Virginia skipper has gone 60-26 in his seven seasons as head coach. He owns four conference titles in that span, though some would argue that feat is diminished by being in the conference so nicknamed, The Big Least.
By bringing world class athletes to Morgantown, running the spread option, West Virginia has been feasting on the competition for the past three seasons. However, the type of talent he’s attracted to Morgantown is unlikely to carry over into his Michigan tenure.
While the overall team speed enjoyed by Rodriguez for the past few years has been enough to compete near or at the top of the Big Ten, it also came with a caveat. Rodriguez has excelled in recruiting by taking several players that have had questionable histories, troubled pasts and in some cases, renegade histories.
Some may say Rodriguez has thrived by taking the who’s who of academic and social trouble-making.
One has to look no further than this past season’s freshman class to see an example. Star rookie running back Noel Devine is a big-timer in a small package but struggled with grades and keeping girls from getting impregnated while in high school. Though flunking a few tests and having a few kids by the age of 17 is hardly heinous, Pat Lazear has a little bit different rap sheet.
Lazear, a talented but troubled freshman linebacker from Wheaton, Md. already owns convictions of credit card theft and conspiracy to commit robbery on his record. Lazear might not have even received the opportunity to play for Rodriguez had he not pleaded down from the original charge of “felony robbery.”
But the list goes beyond this season. Chris Henry has been charged with drug possession, DUI, providing alcohol to minors and illegal gun possession since getting to the Cincinnati Bengals by way of West Virginia. Adam “Pacman” Jones, meanwhile, has been arrested no fewer than 10 times since being drafted by the Tennessee Titans for charges ranging anywhere from public intoxication to assault and vandalism. The most notable of his issues, the one that has him suspended this season by the NFL, was his role in a Las Vegas nightclub altercation, where allegedly he slammed a dancer’s head into a table and made a death threat to a guard.
However, to the credit of Rodriguez, he did decline a chance to land Miami linebacker Willie Williams, who bolted after a probation violation stemming from over 10 high school arrests for numerous charges including burglary. Whether Rodriguez passed up the chance due to a personal transfer policy or because Williams was a loaded gun is anyone’s guess, but he did draw the line somewhere.
All that said: life should be about second chances. Perhaps not third, fourth and fifth chances, but people should be afforded an opportunity to bounce back from a terrible choice. What Rodriguez did in taking these players was not even necessarily wrong. Football is a way for some kids to stay off the streets and out of trouble. As long as Rodriguez provided them structure, discipline and an alternative lifestyle to the one they were submersing themselves in, then applaud Rodriguez for being a modern day Father Flanagan.
But that won’t fly at Michigan.
No matter how noble the recruiting strategy worked at West Virginia, Rodriguez won’t be afforded the chance to screw up with even one outcast. The first behavioral reach that goes terribly awry in Ann Arbor could be one of his last – at least one would assume given the high standards Michigan claims to hold its institution.
Certainly Carr did walk the walk. While Michigan, like any major football powerhouse had its share of in-house problems with crime and misbehavior, Carr rarely if ever took players with questionable backgrounds and a penchant for trouble. That was why Carr’s career continued to flourish in the eyes of his administration – he was one of the good guys that did things the right way, in spite of his suffering on-field success.
But a coach needs to be a dual threat. He needs to win and he needs to do it the right way. Rodriguez appears equipped to get the ball rolling with more Big Ten Championships, more victories over Ohio State and more wins at the end of the season. Perhaps he’ll be far more immune to the silly September losses that have often plagued Michigan as well. But he could learn a thing or two about Carr’s way of conducting his program.
No coach is without skeletons in their closet. Not Carr, not Tressel and not Ferentz, Bob Stoops or any other guy with a good reputation. But all these guys are proof that even good guys can have bad things happen around them. Stoops and Tressel have been subject to criticism for booster activity during their tenures. Carr has taken heat for his bitter, grumpy attitude at times and perhaps not dropping the hammer on the few players that may have deserved it. Ferentz, meanwhile, has had a surprisingly large percentage of players have run-ins with the law.
This is where Rodriguez will sink or swim at Michigan.
By every account imaginable, Rodriguez is a good guy. He learned from Don Nehlen who learned from Bo Schembechler. Consider it “Blue” by association. The natives won’t tolerate too many black eyes, especially if Rodriguez is only able to slightly raise the bar from the past few years.
Will he recruit speed? Check.
Will he recruit talent? Check.
Will he win games? You bet.
Will he win enough? That one is a little tougher to say – yet. Clearly, West Virginia had their shot this year, as good as a shot as it gets, and they still lost two games. You can give them a pass for losing to South Florida because it was without starting quarterback Pat White, on the road, against a tough defense. But losing at home partially without him, against a mediocre Pittsburgh team and scoring nine points in the process simply didn’t cut it.
I doubt any Michigan fan will equate that with heartbreaking losses to a rival, as if it were indicative of things to come for Rodriguez against his enemy in Scarlet & Gray. However, it was a clinic on how not to finish your National Championship-contending season.
I suspect we won’t know for some time just how this hire will be gauged among the masses. Perhaps it will be deemed a success if in six weeks from now, Rodriguez steals super high school quarterback Terrelle Pryor right out from his rivals’ noses. Pryor, whom he recruited while at West Virginia, is thought to be bound for Ohio State and ranks as the No. 1-rated quarterback nationally by Scout.com.
Or if Rodriguez fails on that quest, perhaps he’ll still be regarded as a second-coming if he marches into Columbus next November and returns home with a victory against (what’s presumed to be) a top-5 team and potentially the defending National Champions. Even if doesn’t win, with a young team and being in his first season, he wasn’t expected to be a miracle worker, so few would deem it failure.
We know the questions, but it may take years to get the answers.
For now, we know one answer: Michigan finally got their man.
But will it be the man?