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Rich Rodriguez: From Michigan Man to Arizona Wildcat

This article originally appeared in Athlon's 2008 Big Ten edition. In light of Rich Rodriguez's hire at Arizona, we feel it's important to look back when he took over at Michigan and some of the feelings surrounding the program. 

The Old Guard in Ann Arbor and the other University of Michigan outposts don’t care to admit this, or even consider it, but it was time. The Schembechler Dynasty had lasted nearly four decades, hardly a blip on the timeline of history, but a ridiculously long time in the college football world. What began with a much-needed injection of fire and discipline back in 1969 had begun to fizzle and, yes, die. What Bo began continued with Mo and Lloyd. Four decades. Three men. One philosophy.

An honorable maxim and the cornerstone of success. In the 21st century world of college sport, it wasn’t enough. There had to be something else, something with a little modern edge to it.

Responsibility, hard work, dedication and sacrifice will always be components of victory, until the robots finally take over and rule the planet. Today, there has to be more, something fresh and hot. That’s the culture. More important, it’s what 18-year-olds want. And like it or not, the target market for a college football coach is a hormone-infested young adult for whom tradition is what he had for lunch two days ago.

So, when Lloyd Carr decided that his health — and probably sanity —

couldn’t take another season at the helm of the Michigan football ship,

Athletic director Bill Martin didn’t merely dip into the next generation of the Schembechler football family and prolong the line. He looked outside.

Sort of.

Rich Rodriguez has no ties to Michigan, other than the fact that the man he followed at West Virginia, Don Nehlen, was once a Wolverine assistant (under Schembechler) and was rumored to be the coach who would take over in the mid-1980s, had Bo accepted the bag of money Texas A&M threw at him. Besides that, nothing. Until the man starts to coach. That’s when it hits you: He fits in perfectly. Not because he’s part of the lineage or a former assistant come home to carry on the Old Way. Rodriguez belongs because his hard-nosed approach to football has been part of the Michigan equation since Fielding Yost — a West Virginian, by the way — was exhorting his turn-of-the-century charges. “Hurry Up! Ye think ye got all day?” the high-strung Mountaineer would say. Add to that Rodriguez’s state-of-the-art spread offense, the best of its kind in the country, and you have the perfect blend of old and new.

It’s the perfect combination for Michigan. Now, don’t be mistaken. There is a lot more that goes into satisfying the Wolverine constituents than a nod back and a gaze forward. U-M doesn’t do NCAA investigations, at least not in football. It will always revere the school’s Holy Trinity of coaches: Yost, Crisler, Schembechler. And don’t mess with the helmets. Oh, yeah. That Rose Bowl game? It’s pretty important, too.

That’s why on an April afternoon, new Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee was reading What It Means To Be A Wolverine, by among others, Schembechler. Rodriguez isn’t dumb. He knows this isn’t some reclamation project with fans hungry for wins and ready to grab hold of anything that will get them out of the mire. This is Michigan, and despite its current inability to defeat Ohio State (six losses in the last seven years), there had better be a reverence for what has come before. “We’re embracing the program,” Rodriguez says. “That’s easy to do.”

And a pretty good idea.

He left trailing accusations of abuse. Of a radical departure from the “family atmosphere” that had been present before. Justin Boren was so upset when he left Michigan that he actually transferred to OSU. This wasn’t some scrub or half-hearted Wolverine; Boren started every game last year on the offensive line. His father, Mike, played four years for Schembechler. His mother, Hope, ran track at U-M. Who cares if he grew up in Ohio? This was that rare and coveted species: a Michigan Man. And before Rodriguez’s first full spring practice was over, Boren was gone. To Columbus. It was an unprecedented move in the history of the school’s rivalry. Sure, some people who played at Michigan before World War II went to OSU after their service obligation was over. Since then, nothing. What could possibly move someone to execute the football equivalent of a Hamas general’s joining the Mossad? Of a devoted IRA soldier’s defecting to the Ulster Loyalist Central Committee? Magee asks people to look beyond the headlines. “With players that fall by the wayside, they have reasons more than just tempo (of practice) or style of coaching,” he says. “But we don’t worry about that.”

That’s Rodriguez’s line, too. “I don’t spend time talking about people who don’t play for Michigan,” he says. “There has been more made about the one who left than the 99 who stayed to play.”

If you’re looking for a parallel, although not to Boren’s decision to abet the enemy, look no further than Ann Arbor, 1969. When Schembechler took over for Bump Elliott in the wake of the Wolverines’ humiliating 50–14 season-ending loss to the hated Buckeyes the previous November, he made few friends. His spring practices were highly physical, and his coaching style was demanding to the point that so many players quit people were worried whether the Wolverines would have enough bodies to field a representative team. Schembechler didn’t care at all. Those who stay will be champions. So it is with Rodriguez. He and his staff have a confrontational, often profane style of motivating players. Rodriguez calls it “taking them where they can’t take themselves.” Others refer to it as “hard-core.” They say you had better love football, really love football, if you want to play for Rodriguez, because he’s going to push and shove and work and curse and hammer you into a better player. That style is not for everyone. And it wasn’t for Boren, who was used to Carr’s more paternal approach.

As he moved toward the end of his tenure, Carr became more protective of his players and therefore less prone to punitive approaches to coaching. Rodriguez has none of that. So, while Michigan wasn’t a floundering program in need of a sizeable jolt, Rodriguez applied it anyway.

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“After the first couple of practices, guys who had been around here an awfully long time told me it was just like what it was under Bo,” Martin says.

Rodriguez’s offseason conditioning program was unlike anything seen in Ann Arbor. Strength coach Mike Barwis (who takes the term “hard-core” to new heights) asked for — and received — $1 million in improvements to the school’s weight training facility. And then he went to work draining fat from players and re-casting them as quicker, stronger athletes. When they hit the field, they played with a tempo that had never been seen at Michigan. The spread offense Rodriguez favors is a no-huddle variety that emphasizes preventing defenses from changing personnel groups and getting comfortable in their attacking schemes. “Our whole motto is ‘Spot the ball so we can play,’” Magee says. “Officials spot the ball so we can run plays. I love it, and the guys love it.”

Not only was Rodriguez asking the Michigan players to learn an entirely new approach to offensive football, but he was also insisting their lessons happen at top speed. When there were mistakes — and there were hundreds of them this spring — the response was not one of careful prodding or gentle teaching. It was a high-decibel, manhood-challenging criticism — just like what Wolverines of the ’70s and ’80s heard from Bo. Anybody who saw a practice or scrimmage back then was taken aback by the constant haranguing from coaches. So it was with Rodriguez and his staff. It stung. And Boren didn’t like it. Some others were upset by it. Gradually, however, the players began to understand they were being challenged, not demeaned — even if the language and its tone had that feel. Rodriguez did it before, first at Glenville State, a Division II school in the northwest part of West Virginia, and through his stops as a coordinator at Tulane and Clemson and certainly at WVU. Rodriguez insists he and his staff care for their players, and that the hard-nosed coaching is designed to extract maximum effort, not belittle or crush self-esteem. Rodriguez reports players he coached 10-15 years ago still contact him, evidence he presents that he is no ogre.

“After the individual meetings I had following spring practice, I could see the players understand why we’re so demanding,” Rodriguez says. “We did the same thing we did at three or four other places. We didn’t come in and say we’re going to send a message. We installed our system so we could play our scheme. We needed the players to be in great shape, so we stressed conditioning.”

That system probably won’t look too much like what WVU ran under Rodriguez. Or what Clemson during his two years there. Or what Tulane ran. The basic principles of the attack will prevail, but WVU has been primarily a running spread team, while Clemson had great balance, and the Green Wave were more pass-oriented. The overriding theme is that Rodriguez can make this thing work with any kind of personnel. If the quarterback can throw, the ball will be in the air. If he has great feet, look for enough running to please a wishbone aficionado. “When you’ve only been coaching one thing your whole career, you get pretty good at it,” says Rick Trickett, who coached with Rodriguez for six years at WVU before moving on to Florida State.

As for Michigan, 2008, who knows? Once Boren bolted, the Wolverines had lost eight starters from last year’s team, including standouts Jake Long, Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham. It would have been fun to see what that bunch would have done with the attack. Instead, U-M fans must worry about how well quarterbacks Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan will fare, after each grappled with his responsibilities in the spring. Rodriguez, who experienced growing pains his first year at WVU before he could insert the proper personnel, doesn’t sound too worried. In fact, he says experience helped him realize there is a need for patience. He didn’t show too much of that in the spring, but he was perhaps more realistic in his expectations.

“No matter who came in, there was going to be a difficult transition,” Rodriguez says. “You’re talking about losing a bunch of guys who started three or four years. That’s added to the difficulty. Instead of just teaching the offense, you have to teach fundamentals.”

When Rodriguez turned down the chance to coach Alabama in December of ’07, he said he wanted to finish his career at West Virginia. “West Virginia is a Hall of Fame job,” Trickett says. “Rich could have stayed there and kept winning.”

Yes, he could have done that. He planned to do that. But then some things started happening. Nothing big, mind you. Rodriguez already had a great contract, and the school had made a substantial commitment to its facilities. Nope, this was little stuff, like some more sideline passes. The feeling within the school was that Rodriguez, for all of his success and ever-growing salary, had grown too powerful. Some joked that the state’s hierarchy went Rodriguez, followed by athletic director Ed Pastilong, school president Mike Garrison and state governor Joe Manchin. Grievances weren’t aired. The public had no idea, but there was friction. So, when Michigan expressed an interest, Rodriguez was willing to listen. And when the offer and terms were to his liking, he decided to leave. West Virginia is a great college coaching job, but Michigan has won more games than any other football program and has the highest I-A winning percentage. He wasn’t taking a step down.

Trouble was, the people in West Virginia felt they had been betrayed, by one of their own, no less. Rodriguez grew up in the state. He played for the Mountaineers. He coached under Nehlen. And now, he was leaving the school? It was a traitorous move of the highest order, punishable by the most drastic methods. The people who had been such allies for Rodriguez turned on him quickly and viciously.

“West Virginians are people who are going to fly off and get mad,” Trickett says. “They’ll raise some hell. The dust needs to settle a little bit. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the business we’ve chosen.”

Rodriguez has even bigger problems. The contract he signed in late ’06 included a $4 million buyout, quite the poison pill. After leaving West Virginia, Rodriguez announced he had no intention of paying up, at least at full value, claiming Garrison had assured him he would knock down — or even eliminate — the clause. Rodriguez and his attorneys interpret that as a contract itself. Depositions, negotiations and more nastiness are scheduled.

“The thing that bothers me is that I planned on staying at West Virginia,” Rodriguez says. “I take that approach everywhere I have worked. When I started at Glenville State in 1990, I planned on staying there. Every job I take is the best job I ever had.”

Right now, “the best job” is Michigan, even if there are those out there forecasting doom for the ’08 Wolverines. Some have gone so far as to set the over-under on wins at six. Rodriguez, for all his troubles back in his home state — including abuse heaped on family members — has been able to compartmentalize his life and forge ahead. He followed up spring practice with a glad-hand tour of alumni in other cities, has been speaking ceaselessly to fan groups and is in the midst of recruiting. He’s doing it with a genuine appreciation for the Michigan tradition but a clear sense of certainty in his abilities.

“He’ll get it done,” Trickett says. “They’ve got to be patient, because he’s got to do it his way. He’ll put the Frank Sinatra on it, I guarantee you that.”

Yes, he’ll do it his way. Just like another demanding coach did nearly 40 years ago.