Almost immediately after being hired as the head coach at Michigan, the former head man from West Virginia was painted as a person who had little grasp of the importance of beating Ohio State in a rivalry simply known to its citizens as The Game. His first foray into Columbus to face the Buckeyes resulted in his team's most lopsided loss in the rivalry in 40 years.
Now preparing to square off against OSU for the second time, Rodriguez told reporters on a Tuesday teleconference that he understands what the rivalry is about, thank you very much.
"I kind of expected it the first year coming from outside, but even then it's like, ‘Jeeze, I think anybody in college football understands it,' " he said. "Certainly after you're here for a while, whether it's a year, a month or a day, you're going to hear about the rivalry and the importance of this ballgame. It's amusing, but it will pass in time, I'm sure."
A good first step toward getting there would be defeating the Buckeyes and making the Wolverines eligible for a bowl after a one-year postseason absence. Michigan trailed the Buckeyes 14-7 at halftime of last year's game before the Buckeyes scored 28 unanswered points to earn a 42-7 victory that set Michigan's record at 3-9.
Securing a victory this weekend would be important not just because it would come against the Buckeyes, but also because it will be senior day at Michigan Stadium, Rodriguez said.
"I know they're going to be excited to run out of the tunnel for the last time and we've got a tremendous challenge, but with that also comes a tremendous opportunity," he said. "I'm sure our guys will be ready to play."
The coach said there was a players-only meeting called during the week but that he was not privy to the details. In Columbus, however, it has remained largely business as usual for head coach Jim Tressel and his Buckeyes.
"Now we move on to what we feel is the greatest rivalry in all of sports, the Ohio State-Michigan game," Tressel said. "Our kids are anxious to have a chance to compete with the Wolverines and go up to the Big House. It's an exciting week and something that if you're ever fortunate enough to be a part of, you never forget it."
Tressel's counterpart up north said he is not forgetting recent history that has seen the Buckeyes bring home victories against Michigan in five straight seasons and seven of the last eight.
"Obviously you don't want to lose and I don't think you can be a revisionist," Rodriguez said. "It's been several years since we've beat the Buckeyes and that's always a sore point for us and for our fans and everybody that follows our program. You've got to look at what's immediate and what's going on right now. I'm very excited about the future. One loss is going to upset us, but it's not going to deter the progress we're going to continue to make."
That progress on the field has been hindered by off-the-field allegations filed by several former players indicating that the coaching staff required players to attend non-mandatory workouts that exceeded NCAA time constraints. This week, the university revealed that the program did not track how long players spent on football during Rodriguez's first year on the job.
Tressel said he does not feel such distractions will have much of an impact when the game begins.
"The only things Rich are worried about is what happens on the field on Saturday," he said. "Rich has been there one year and he's been building and building and developing his program and the expectations of the kids and developing relationships with the kids. He's only concerned about six minutes after 12 on Saturday what happens for the next 3½ hours.
"Whatever happens for Ohio State or Michigan, you keep building what you're trying to do for your kids. He'll work day by day, play by play."
Rodriguez knows that trying to write a positive note for his team in the rivalry could go a long way toward how the program is viewed.
"We talked about if we're going to put it all together, let's do it this week. Let's have a great week of practice, a great week of preparation and give everything we have on Saturday to try and win the game.
"I told our players, ‘There's a lot of legends that have been made in the Michigan-Ohio State game.' "
If he wants his name to be added to the list, Saturday could go a long way toward proving not only that he belongs, but that he understands what it means to be there.