Rich Rodriguez has had a wild ride during his coaching career. At one point, he was the hottest name in college football thanks to his innovative offensive philosophies and aggressive play calling. Overnight, he became the man who brought one of college football’s most storied programs to its knees.
Now, he’s leading the Arizona Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game this Friday as the conference’s Coach of the Year and showing he’s still the same man who took college football by storm all those years ago.
Everyone remembers Rodriguez from his time as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, but RichRod had to earn that job first and he did so leading the West Virginia Mountaineers. It was there in Morgantown where Rodriguez broke into the business of being a head coach at the FBS level and started putting his personal style onto the Mountaineer offense. After a sluggish start at WVU, Rodriguez got things rolling and turned the Mountaineers into a perennial top-ten team with a high-powered, up-tempo offense that put up points in bunches.
With his read-option attack humming, Rodriguez built West Virginia into one of the most exciting teams in the country and a powerhouse in the Big East conference. Under his watch, the program enjoyed their first back-to-back 10-win seasons in their history as they won at least a share of four conference titles in five seasons. The team qualified for two BCS bowls, winning the Sugar Bowl in 2005, under Rodriguez and finished ranked in the top 10 of the postseason Coaches’ Poll in three consecutive seasons. During his run in Morgantown from 2001 to 2007, Rodriguez posted a record of 60-26, including an impressive 31-5 mark in his final three seasons there.
His success in building the West Virginia program made Rodriguez a very popular man when bigger programs were looking to hire a new head coach. In 2006, it was reported that the Alabama Crimson Tide were prepared to hand their program over to the WVU alumni and many reports had Rodriguez taking the job. Ultimately, RichRod would return to Morgantown after signing a rich extension to stay with West Virginia. That extension would infamously not mean much after Rodriguez bolted to take the Michigan job the very next offseason, an action that still stings many West Virginia fans when they are reminded of it.
The sour note that he left West Virginia on would be a theme for his stay in Ann Arbor. Michigan is one of the most tradition-laden programs in all of college football and Rodriguez’s brash, innovative style immediately started to ruffle feathers. Things only got worse for Rodriguez when his team hit the field, starting his debut season off with a 25-23 loss to the Utah Utes (then of the Mountain West Conference) in the Big House. That team would go on to finish just 3-9, finishing with the worst season in school history and snapping the program’s 33-year bowl game streak.
Those struggles on the field led to some uncomfortable offseason headlines for Rodriguez as Michigan saw a number of quality players transfer citing conflict with the coaching staff. There were also allegations of NCAA violations levied against Rodriguez by his own players that would end up resulting in five major rules violations being found by an NCAA investigation, marking the first time ever that Michigan had been accused of major rules violations.
Even when Rodriguez started to get it done right on the field, he got it wrong for Michigan fans. In year three under RichRod, the Wolverines finally got bowl eligible, winning seven games heading into their regular season finale against the rival Ohio State Buckeyes. And just like he had in previous years, Rodriguez was overmatched in the Big Game, losing 37-7 to finish the year with a 3-5 record in conference play. He followed that up with Michigan’s first New Year’s Day bowl since 2007 in the Gator Bowl (which was good) where the Wolverines suffered their worst bowl loss in school history falling to the Mississippi State Bulldogs by 38 points (very bad).
That final sour note in the Gator Bowl was all Michigan could handle and they unceremoniously booted Rodriguez just three days later. He left Michigan with the lowest winning percentage (.405) of any coach in Michigan football’s history and left Ann Arbor without a single win over the Wolverine’s chief Big Ten rivals: Ohio State and the Michigan State Spartans (though he did finish 2-1 against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish). On top of all that, his once shining reputation as one of college football’s best and brightest head coaches was tarnished as he now carried the label of the man who tried to kill Michigan football.
Rodriguez would take a year away from coaching, working as an analyst for CBS Sports where he dealt with questions about whether or not he would ever coach again because of the disaster that was his time at Michigan. Despite all that negativity surrounding him, a team did come calling as Arizona made Rodriguez their 30th head coach in the program’s history for the 2012 season. He took over a Wildcats team that had become stagnant under Mike Stoops, who recorded a 41-50 overall record during his seven-plus seasons leading the team.
The results were immediate for Arizona. Rodriguez led the team to an 8-5 record in his debut season, tying a school record for wins in a debut season for a coach. He followed that up with another 8-5 record in 2013 with Arizona winning two-straight bowl games for the first time since the 1997-98 seasons, showing that this team had the consistency to be taken seriously in the Pac-12 conference. But if Rodriguez wanted to separate himself from the previous regime, he needed to get the Wildcats to take that next step.
And that’s exactly what he has done in 2014. Arizona started the season red-hot, winning their first five games of the season, highlighted by a win over the then-No. 2 Oregon Ducks in Autzen Stadium to catapult the Wildcats into the top 10 for the first time since 1998. He got his team to weather a couple of losses in a hyper-competitive Pac-12 South and finally broke through against their in-state rival Arizona State Sun Devils to snap a two-game losing streak against Todd Graham to finish the regular season at 10-2 and win the division to secure a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game.
For his efforts, the conference named Rodriguez the 2014 Pac-12 Coach of the Year but he has his sights set a bit higher than that. Currently sitting at No. 7 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, Arizona is within striking distance of jumping into the top four and securing a spot in the inaugural playoff and making a run for the national title if they can upset Oregon for a third time in the last two seasons.
Even if they can’t move up into the playoff discussion, a win over Oregon would give Arizona their first Rose Bowl bid in the program’s history which would be a huge win for the program as they are the only school of the original Pac 10/12 to never participate in the conference’s major bowl game.
But no matter the outcome of the Pac-12 title game on Friday, this season has been a return to form for Rodriguez. Once again, he can be counted among college football’s best coaches and one of its brightest offensive innovators. There are big things ahead for Rodriguez and this Arizona program, to be sure, which will ultimately cement Rodriguez’s legacy in the annals of college football history.