On paper, it seemed like the perfect marriage: Rich Rodriguez, wildly successful coach at West Virginia and spread-offense savant, and Michigan, traditional power with the prestige and conference affiliation to attract the most coveted recruits. On paper, it seemed like Rodriguez would be Michigan's Urban Meyer.
But as Rodriguez's three-year run of turmoil and 20-point losses
Michigan AD Dave Brandon had no choice but to cut ties with Rodriguez and his 15-22 record, even if coveted replacement Jim Harbaugh appears to be slipping from the school's grasp. Even though the Wolverines' win totals had increased in each of Rodriguez's three years, the majority of Michigan fans -- accustomed for so long to annual nine- and 10-win seasons -- could no longer stomach the embarrassing defensive lapses and high-profile debacles like last Saturday's 52-14 Gator Bowl loss to Mississippi State.
The truth is, a faction of the Maize and Blue faithful never much liked Rodriguez to begin with, and while a whole host of factors contributed to his demise, one of the biggest was the simple fact that he wasn't a Michigan Man. He arrived under a cloud of controversy regarding his departure from West Virginia. He spoke with a twang. He wasn't familiar with every last one of the program's sacred traditions. He had skeptics to win over before he ever coached a game.
Going 3-9 in a first season, missing a bowl for two straight seasons, eliciting NCAA sanctions and, most disturbingly, going 0-6 against Michigan State and Ohio State doesn't win over skeptics in Ann Arbor. It only multiplies them.
Rodriguez's transition from the school's long-entrenched pro-style offense to his signature shotgun-spread proved arduous, but appeared headed in the right direction. Quarterback Denard Robinson emerged as one of the nation's most electrifying players this season. Instead, Rodriguez was done in by the other side of the ball. Be it the abundance of busts from predecessor Lloyd Carr's last recruiting classes, the rash of transfers and injuries, the disconnect between his own defensive philosophy and that of reviled coordinator Greg Robinson or the fact that Rodriguez simply didn't recruit enough blue-chippers himself, there was no getting around the fact that Michigan's defense was horrifically bad -- and showed few signs of getting better.
Many believe Rodriguez can win big wherever he winds up next, but the Michigan marriage had soured so badly that few felt he could salvage things in Ann Arbor.
Rodriguez leaves behind a stocked offensive cupboard, highlighted by Robinson. But that's where Michigan's upcoming coaching search becomes tricky. It took three painful years for Rodriguez to reshape the offensive personnel to his suiting, and if the next coach isn't willing to run a similar system, he'll have to go through the rebuilding process all over again. The program could take another step back before moving forward.
Most Michigan fans would be more than willing to take that risk if it meant landing Stanford's Harbaugh, the hottest coach in America, a Michigan Man (albeit one who once ripped the school's academics) and a proven recruiter. Unfortunately for Michigan fans, it doesn't look like that's happening.
Harbaugh has been the dream guy for so long that it's hard to say who would get the next crack at one of the most attractive jobs in the country. It may come down to whether or not Brandon, a former Schembechler player, is as adamant as some of the fans about making sure the next guy has Michigan ties.
If so, the two most logical names would be LSU coach Les Miles (a college teammate of Brandon's) or San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, a former defensive line coach under Lloyd Carr, including during Michigan's 1997 national title season. Miles was the clear first choice when Carr retired in 2007, but with LSU playing for the SEC (and later BCS) championship at the time, it didn't work out. While Miles won 10 games this season and could make it 11 in Friday's Cotton Bowl, his stock isn't nearly as high as it was then. It may be that Miles wants the Michigan job more than Michigan wants him.
Hoke, on the other hand, may be a very appealing candidate for Brandon. Over the past three years, Hoke has resurrected two sad-sack mid-majors, going 12-1 at Ball State in 2008 and 9-4 this season at San Diego State, which hadn't posted a winning record in 12 years. The common sentiment is that Wolverines fans aren't keen about a mid-major coach with a 47-50 career record. That seems a bit shortsighted considering Hoke is a proven rebuilder who could be in even higher demand this time next year if the Aztecs continue to climb. But after what happened with Rodriguez, Brandon may want to make sure the next guy is an easier sell.
Keep in mind, however, that there are plenty of good coaches who would jump at this job if the school is willing to consider candidates with no Kevin Bacon-degrees of connection to Schembechler. Michigan is the winningest program of alltime, plays in the biggest stadium in the country and has national recruiting appeal. For all the talk of the Big Ten's downfall in recent years, one need only look at some NFL rosters for a reminder that the Wolverines aren't far removed from producing top-flight talent. In 2006, the Wolverines' lineup included Chad Henne, Jake Long, LaMarr Woodley, David Harris, Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Leon Hall. Not too shabby.
Aim high. Place a call to TCU's Gary Patterson, who's remained fiercely loyal to the Horned Frogs but surely knows his stock will never be higher than it is today. He's already 1-0 against Wisconsin.
No matter the coach, Wolverines fans who've had to be unwillingly patient the past three years may have to keep waiting for a couple more. Michigan football will be back, but it won't be an easy road. A successful marriage this time around will require, among other things, more open minds.