JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon cuts a commanding figure in person. He's a tall, strapping dude who looks like the former CEO of a multibillion-dollar pizza conglomerate should look. On Saturday, Brandon seemed even more imposing as a specter.
The former Domino's Pizza boss came to EverBank Field to watch the Wolverines get slaughtered, 52-14, by Mississippi State, but he didn't sit in the Michigan athletic director's box, and he made sure he didn't stay in one place long enough to get cornered by reporters who would ask the obvious question: Was this the last game for Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's coach? Instead, Brandon was everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Like his offense Saturday, Rodriguez wasn't so shifty. He was contractually obligated to face questions, and it wasn't long before someone asked Rodriguez when he expected to have the come-to-Dave meeting with Brandon about his future at the school. Rodriguez's answer did nothing to dispel the notion of Brandon as an ever-present, all-powerful entity.
"Dave has been around, and he's doing his evaluation," Rodriguez said. "I don't know when we're going to meet."
Though Rodriguez wouldn't say it, his fate seems obvious now.
Whether Brandon has a backchannel deal to bring in Stanford coach and former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh is unknown -- and largely irrelevant. Brandon probably has a short list of coaches he considers a better fit than Rodriguez. That list might include San Diego State's Brady Hoke or some other rising star. Rodriguez's buyout dropped from $4 million to $2.5 million on Saturday, but a program as wealthy as Michigan doesn't need to pinch pennies. Brandon probably would have dropped the ax earlier if he didn't have a good reason for waiting.
Before Saturday, Rodriguez may have had a glimmer of hope. The idea of Rodriguez staying and making changes to the defensive staff seemed a somewhat palatable option for Michigan. Then the Wolverines got smoked by Mississippi State, a program Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said is good with an eye toward being great. And that's the problem. Michigan got manhandled by a good team, not a great one.
Make no mistake, Mississippi State had an excellent season. The Bulldogs won nine games and earned their place in the Top 25. Mullen is one of the nation's best young head coaches, and co-defensive coordinators Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson deserve whatever raise Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin can offer to keep them from getting poached by more prestigious programs.
But the fact of the matter is the Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC West. The football team at the University of Michigan should never, ever lose by 38 points to the team that finished fifth in the SEC West.
It was only one game, but it was an awfully telling one. If you can't come within three touchdowns of Mississippi State, you'll never beat Ohio State.
Before Saturday, Rodriguez seemed to have things moving forward on the field. His teams had gotten better. The offense was above-average, and the awful defense of this season looked at least semi-correctable with a staff overhaul. Before Saturday, the losing seemed secondary to the controversy Rodriguez brought with him from West Virginia and to the NCAA investigation his staff brought down on Michigan's head with its practice and offseason workout policies.
After Saturday, Brandon can ask some legitimate questions about Michigan's recruiting under Rodriguez. The offense, which looked so good against most of the Big Ten, was smothered after a hot first quarter and shut out the rest of the way. After the loss, quarterback Denard Robinson blamed poor execution. He was correct and incorrect. Michigan didn't execute, but not because of mistakes by the Wolverines. Michigan didn't execute because Mississippi State had better players.
Telling was the assessment of Bulldogs' coordinator Diaz, who explained the adjustments his unit made between the first and second quarters. "We adjusted our chinstraps," Diaz said, "and played better."
Michigan, which aspires to national championships, has to have better players than Mississippi State. Of course, the constant rumors about Rodriguez's job status and grumbling from the fan and donor bases that have plagued Rodriguez since his first season at Michigan probably have hampered his ability to recruit. There are no acceptable excuses at this point, but it might be wise for those in power at Michigan to autopsy this debacle to keep it from happening again.
Until now, I never believed in the term "fit." Whenever someone described a coach as a "bad fit," I considered it a euphemism for "he didn't win enough." But that doesn't seem quite accurate with Rodriguez. There has been a faction in Ann Arbor that never seemed happy with his presence, and we have to wonder how differently the past three seasons might have unfolded had everyone been on the same page.
We know Rodriguez isn't a poor coach. He was a raging success at West Virginia, and his stints as the offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson were quite successful. He'll probably succeed at his next job. But for whatever reason, he couldn't succeed at Michigan.
When Rodriguez said he never cheated the school out of a day's pay -- insert your own practice-hours joke here -- it's easy to believe him. "We're paid to do a job, and we did it as hard and as well as we could with some obstacles, but everybody is going to have obstacles," Rodriguez said. "And that's the one thing that even though the season certainly didn't shape out the way we wanted it to and there's a lot of things that happened, we fought through it." Rodriguez tried -- using the same methods that worked everywhere else -- but he couldn't succeed.
After his press conference Saturday, Rodriguez walked through a door and into a bearhug from Mississippi State athletic director Stricklin. Stricklin was Tulane's sports information director in 1998 when Tommy Bowden and offensive coordinator Rodriguez led the Green Wave to an 11-0 regular-season record. After Bowden got the Clemson job, Rodriguez was passed over for the head coaching job in favor of Georgia assistant Chris Scelfo. When Tulane beat BYU in the Liberty Bowl later that month to finish the season undefeated, the players carried Rodriguez -- not Scelfo -- off on their shoulders.
The past three seasons have gradually wiped away the memory of that Rodriguez. The maize-and-blue malaise has obscured the fact that only three years ago, Rodriguez had West Virginia one win from playing for the national title. That Rodriguez isn't gone, but it's unlikely he can reemerge at Michigan. So it's probably best for all parties if Brandon finally ends this messy marriage.
Rodriguez could find himself out of a job this week, but that's OK. An athletic director with some imagination will give him a chance sooner or later. (If the folks at Pittsburgh, who suddenly find themselves without a coach, really want to tick off their Backyard Brawl rivals at West Virginia, they'll hire Rodriguez before the ink is dry on his Michigan buyout.)
When Brandon will make his final decision remains unclear, but Rodriguez couldn't escape the reminders of his job's mortality Saturday afternoon. After Rodriguez received a brief pep talk from Stricklin, he began the long walk back to Michigan's locker room. As he trudged, happy Mississippi State players streamed out of their locker room. With the exception of quarterback Chris Relf, who carried the Gator Bowl MVP trophy, they all held the same item in their hands.
A box of Domino's Pizza.