Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Coaching Quagmire (Part 1)
When the Michigan Wolverines won the 2008 Capital One Bowl and sent then-coach Lloyd Carr out a winner, it was the last time that the team seemed to still possess what was necessary to be a college football power. The three seasons that followed under coach Rich Rodriguez ended up being three of the most tumultuous years in the history of the school’s football program.
For many alumni and fans of Wolverines football, Rodriguez wasn’t their first choice, Les Miles was their first choice. Unfortunately, that fantasy ended up being kept solely in people’s minds when Rodriguez got the job. At the end of the day, it seemed that there was no way a deal with Miles returning to his aluma mater was going to happen since the two sides couldn’t agree on whether an offer was even on the table.
Miles would have been a much better choice than Rodriguez primarily because he satisfied alumni and fans on many levels. He is a Michigan Man, despite coaching down south with his playing career and the beginning of his coaching career taking place in Ann Arbor. A big reason people around Ann Arbor wanted Miles was the fact that he coached under the Wolverines’ only three coaches since 1969—Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, and Carr. Also, the kind of football team that Miles coaches on the football field and his philosophies on all sides of the ball are far more familiar to the Wolverines’ most passionate followers than anything Rodriguez ended up bringing.
What killed Rodriguez on the field in the Big Ten was his one-track mind toward the game.
Rodriguez’s over-dependence on a spread offense never left room for the defensive side of the ball to get the attention that it needs to be given if a team wants to be successful. The other big problem with Rodriguez in this area is that he really doesn’t know a thing about defense, and that definitely includes the people he puts in charge of it.
Rodriguez brought Scott Shafer in as his defensive coordinator when he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2008, and the relationship didn’t last. The Wolverines’ defense became a punching bag that season, giving up 35 or more points in six of their nine losses. The 42-7 drubbing the Wolverines experienced at the hands of the Ohio St. Buckeyes to finish the season sealed Shafer’s fate and he was fired. Rodriguez’s second choice turned out to be even worse.
Greg Robinson was brought in as defensive coordinator after an unsuccessful coaching stint with the Syracuse Orangemen. Robinson ended up doing nothing to improve the Wolverines’ defense and the team’s defense actually got worse than it had been during the infamous 3-9 2008 season. The team’s defense finished outside of the top 100 in Robinson’s second season as D-coordinator. This was the final straw as that year turned out to be his and Rodriguez’s last in Ann Arbor.
From the penalties for practice time to the first two seasons without a bowl appearance since 1969 to the most losses in a single season in team history, the Rodriguez years were an ugly time for Wolverines fans and the team itself.
Brady Hoke has been a great fit for the team, and was a fine choice as Rodriguez’s replacement. Hoke’s mind for defense is eons better than Rodriguez’s while at the same time, Hoke understands the importance of a good offense in the game. The bonus for Wolverines fans is that Hoke has already taken two teams–the Ball St. Cardinals and San Diego St. Aztecs–from years of despair and constant losing to years of success with him as head coach. Years of despair and constant losing to years of success? If you’re a Wolverine fan, that should hit close to home.
One question, one that I will address another day, that those three years have always left in my mind was whether or not Rich Rod and this whole experiment was doomed all along.