September 25, 2017

Pulling Back the Veil at the Big House

The so-called offseason is upon us, presenting an opportunity presents to catch up on some reading. I  just completed a book by University of Michigan alum John U. Bacon about his alma mater, Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).

As a Big East football fan, I am likewise a fan of Rich Rodriguez. I enjoyed his success at West Virginia, his alma mater, and was disappointed when he left in 2008 for the opening at Michigan. His no-huddle, spread option offense had literally “spread” throughout the realm of college and high school football, providing an exciting, high-scoring style of play. His taking the spread to the Big 10 Conference was a shock.

First and foremost, RichRod’s presence in the Big East had raised the both the reputation and level of play of the entire conference. Secondly, the Big 10 – particularly Michigan – was not and never had been about the spread offense. The pro-style offense was as entrenched there as anywhere in college football:  power rushing and stretching the field in the passing game – combined with hard-hitting, unrelenting defense. How was his scheme going to fare in that conference?

Though Bacon did not set out to write a full-length book on RichRod’s entire tenure in Ann Arbor, that was, fortunately, the outcome.

Rodriguez, his staff and the school administration allowed Bacon, a Michigan faculty member, to be embedded with team for all of his three seasons there. Bacon took part in the games, practices, workouts, film sessions and even the most privileged occasions with Rodriguez among his closest staff and family members. The outcome is a chronology of a three-year struggle to build a program and overcome the stigma of an outsider in one of the most tradition-steeped settings in America.

Bacon relates a story of Rodriguez’s perpetual hope for football team that made progress too slowly to satisfy Michigan standards. The development was set back by a combination of factors, including lingering entanglements in Morgantown, a largely unsupportive AD, weak public relations efforts, and a lack of support from the previous establishment. Though Rodriguez was not without mistakes and poor judgments, the margin for error and opportunity for recovery were both razor thin.

A sad truth of our era is that there are no problems or obstacles so large that the news media cannot make them larger. Journalists are paid to report the news and, occasionally, to comment on the news. It’s not uncommon that they create the news as well, as was the case during Rodriguez’s second year on the job. Though it was not the cause of his demise, it was clearly an impediment to his success.

In the end, RichRod’s termination was due not to issues off the field; wins typically diminish if not erase such matters. Rodriguez simply did not rack up enough victories. The Wolverines typically had little trouble scoring in the spread offense. Their problem was defensive failures in containing their opponents. His sub .500 winning percentage was punctuated by an unforgivable 2-7 record against archrivals Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Michigan qualified for a postseason appearance just once under his leadership, losing by 38 points to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl Jan. 1, 2011. He was fired three days later.

The Wolverines’ new head coach, Brady Hoke, a former Michigan assistant, took the players Rodriguez recruited to an 11-2 record last year, including regular season wins against Ohio State, Notre Dame and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

RichRod took a year off coaching in 2011. He spent the season providing studio and game analysis for CBS Sports. He was hired in November to replace Mike Stoops as head coach the Arizona Wildcats.

He has since reassembled much his old coaching staff, most notably defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel who stayed in Morgantown when many others moved with him to Michigan. Ridriguez’s new circumstances in Tucson should be much to his liking and favor. The PAC 12 is a much more offensive-centered conference and his scheme has brought much success to Oregon there already.

Three and Out does not exonerate Rodriguez for his shortcomings at Michigan, but it sheds light on others’ previously unknown contributions to the problems there. It shows a steady commitment and respect for the program among the coach, staff and players, despite repeated frustrations. It’s not a legacy that will place RichRod in the lore of the storied program, but one that will not follow him in shame.

 

Pete Sonski hosts “Three Point Stance: The Leatherheads College Football Hour” each Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Blog Talk Radio. He’s is a regular contributor to this and other football blogs. Follow him on Twitter: @29sonski.