How famished were Michigan fans for signs of improvement? On the Wolverines' third offensive play of the season against Western Michigan last Saturday, true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier scrambled three yards on third-and-two, moving the chains and unleashing a pent-up roar from the Big House crowd of 109,000-plus.
"All of us on the field just laughed," left tackle Mark Ortmann told me. "It was a nice play, but it was only three yards."
Three series later, fellow true freshman quarterback Denard Robinson, he of the otherworldly burst and arresting superstition (dude refuses to tie his shoelaces, seriously), dropped the first snap of his college career, picked it up, scrambled to his right, broke one tackle, cut back and engaged his afterburners, rocketing through Western Michigan's defense for a 43-yard touchdown that immediately entered Michigan lore. Said Ortmann of that run, the most memorable touchdown in the Wolverines' 31-7 win, "I've never really heard the stadium get that excited."
That's partly because, thanks to the stately new elevated concourses on the west side of the renovated Big House, it no longer hemorrhages noise. That sound now reverberates within the old bowl, significantly jacking up the inhospitality factor for opponents.
While that raucous display reflected the relief felt by Wolverine Nation, starved for success after last year's 3-9 season, it was also a show of support for second-year coach Rich Rodriguez. When you are served papers for a federal lawsuit alleging that you owe $3.9 million on a defaulted loan on a condo project gone sour, and that bad news pales in comparison to the crisis you are currently dealing with, you are a having a rough week. (RichRod's financial adviser said the coach was the innocent victim of a "Ponzi scheme.")
His front-burner crisis, of course, was an allegation made in an Aug. 30 front-page story in the Detroit Free Press that, under Rodriguez, Michigan players regularly exceeded NCAA limits on how much time they are permitted to spend in training and practice sessions. (Those limits are 20 hours per week, four per day.) The paper also reported that quality-control people and assistant coaches made a habit of watching offseason, voluntary seven-on-seven drills -- another no-no.
Michigan AD Bill Martin responded with a statement saying: "We are committed to following both the letter and the intent of the NCAA rules and we take any allegations of violations seriously. We believe we have been compliant with NCAA rules but nonetheless we have launched a full investigation..."
Rodriguez, for his part, delivered an emotional reply in which he insisted that "We know the rules, and we comply [with] the rules." Addressing what he called "the perception [that] sometimes we do not care as much for our players' welfare," Rodriguez tearfully insisted that "I love my players like I love my own family."
By the time I sat with Rodriguez in his office on Tuesday, the furor over the Free Press' allegations was cooling (Which is not to say the story is going away; investigators from the Birmingham, Ala.-based law firm Lightfoot, Franklin and White were already on campus, interviewing Wolverines players and coaches to determine the merit of the allegations). A decisive victory will do that. Still, when the subject of the story arose, Rodriguez got a tad riled. He referred to "stacks" of unsolicited, supportive letters and e-mails from former players and the parents of current players.
Unable to discuss the allegations in depth, on account of the investigation, Rodriguez said, "Eventually, in a few weeks, we should talk, 'cause when all this is said and done, there's a lot to say." In the meantime, he played the role that has become a familiar one to him in his 19-month tenure in Ann Arbor: of a man deeply wronged -- "more sinned against than sinning," as a self-pitying King Lear describes himself. "I still get mad, and I will remain mad, until the day I die, about this whole thing," Rodriguez assured me. "It's not right what happened. It's not right."
His ire paled in comparison to the wrath of many thousands of Michigan fans who took exception to the Free Press story, co-written by Michael Rosenberg (a contributor to SI.com) and Mark Snyder. They object to the timing of the piece, six days before the opener, and to the placement of the story, on the paper's front page. They refer, as if it were an article of faith, to the alleged anti-Rodriguez bias of Rosenberg, a simplistic canard about an ethical, talented writer that is niftily debunked here. They correctly point out, in reference to the alleged violations, that there's a massive gray are between work that's voluntary and mandatory (I've heard that one so often I'm beginning to think of Michigan as the Maize and Gray.) And besides, they proclaim, everyone does it.
While that may be true, it doesn't leave much room on the moral high ground the Wolverines are so accustomed to occupying. This is, after all, the winningest college program, ever -- a program that's never been found guilty of major NCAA violations.
Like Notre Dame, the team it will host Saturday, Michigan is a program scratching and clawing to reclaim its place among college football's elite. Before practice on Wednesday, Rodriguez sought to downplay expectations. "We got a lot of work to do with a lot of young players," he cautioned. While a win would be nice, "I want us to play well, want us to compete. If they're gonna beat us I want it to be because they're clearly better than us. I don't want Michigan beating Michigan."
That's an understandable sentiment from a fine coach whose wounds, of late, have been self-inflicted.