Ain't No Doubt About It

Embattled but unbowed, Rich Rodriguez took a giant step toward returning Michigan to prominence as the Wolverines rallied to beat Notre Dame
September 20, 2009

You want to know the definition of Midwestern chutzpah? That would be listing Tate Forcier at 6'1", 187 pounds in the Michigan game program. You've seen bigger CYO point guards than the Wolverines' freshman quarterback, who probably tips the scales at closer to 175, and who might have an inch on Doug Flutie. ¶ Give the kid this, though: He came up huge when it mattered most in the Big House last Saturday. With the Wolverines trailing Notre Dame by a field goal, Forcier finished the second game of his college career by directing a nine-play, 57-yard touchdown drive. The 19-year-old's cold-blooded, five-yard scoring strike to wideout Greg Mathews with 11 seconds left gave Michigan a 38--34 victory over the 18th-ranked Irish. In so doing, Forcier lifted a large burden from his own coach and placed it squarely on the shoulders of poor Charlie Weis, who's still searching for a signature victory two games into his fifth season in South Bend (box, page 69).

With all the buzz surrounding USC's Matt Barkley, one could be forgiven for not realizing that the Trojans' prodigy wasn't the only true-freshman quarterback who led a big-time program to a comeback victory on Saturday. Had the teenager known as the Force surprised himself with those last-minute heroics? "I've been doing it all spring and all [fall] camp," replied Forcier, a San Diego native who graduated early from Scripps Ranch High in order to take part in Michigan's spring practice. "It's nothing new to me."

You've heard of itinerant preachers. Forcier comes from a family of itinerant quarterbacks. Older brother Jason played two seasons at Michigan before transferring to Stanford in '07. Older brother Chris got started at UCLA but is now at Furman. The Go Blue brigade hopes Tate lacks his brothers' wanderlust—that the Force will be with them for four years. Directing Rodriguez's spread-option with a veteran's panache, Tate completed 22 of 33 passes for 240 yards against the Irish, with two touchdowns and an interception. Flashing fine speed and elusiveness, he also rushed for 70 yards and another TD.

And like all these Wolverines, he's in excellent shape. After Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen carved up its defense for 118 passing yards and 17 points in the second quarter alone, Michigan seemed to wear down the Irish in the second half. "I attribute that to conditioning," declared running back Brandon Minor, who pounded for 106 yards on 16 carries. "We pride ourselves on that."

So we've been hearing.

The Wolverines awoke on Aug. 30 to a front-page story in the Detroit Free Press reporting that under coach Rich Rodriguez, Michigan players regularly exceeded NCAA limits on the time spent in mandatory training and practice sessions. (Those limits are 20 hours per week and four hours on any given day during the season.) According to the paper's sources, Michigan didn't exceed those limits by just a little. The paper also reported that quality-control staff made a habit of watching off-season, voluntary seven-on-seven drills—another NCAA no-no.

The statement issued by Michigan athletic director Bill Martin was not exactly a ringing denial: "We believe we have been compliant with NCAA rules, but nonetheless we have launched a full investigation." In a televised press conference Rodriguez delivered an emotional reply in which he insisted, "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," he tearfully noted, "I love our players like I love my own family."

No one was saying he didn't love his players—only that his love was overly tough and expressed in a way that violated NCAA rules. Springing to his defense, surprisingly, were several Buckeyes, including coach Jim Tressel, who scoffed at the notion that dedicated athletes should be prevented from training. Said Tressel, "It'd be like telling our med students, 'We're going to close the library.'"

The news that one or more of their teammates might have been sources for the story seemed to have little or no effect on team chemistry. "Some people are just lazy," says senior defensive end Brandon Graham, "or bitter because they dreamed of playing here, but it didn't work out."

"Some guys go around saying, 'You're the snitch!'" says senior left tackle Mark Ortmann. "They're joking. But it makes me think, What if that guy's the snitch? What's going on in his mind?"

Still, the last thing Rodriguez needed was the specter of NCAA violations. Starting with his toxic departure from West Virginia in December 2007, his 20-month tenure at Michigan has been marked by drama and false steps. Indeed, in late August he was served papers in a federal lawsuit alleging that he owes $3.9 million on a defaulted loan for a Blacksburg, Va., condo project gone sour. Rodriguez, his financial adviser says, is the victim of a Ponzi scheme.

The Free Press report and the condo suit are but the latest in a series of entanglements providing ammo for Rodriguez's critics, who have harrumphed from the start that he is a poor fit in Ann Arbor. The mistrust dates to late 2007, when Rodriguez called his most prized recruits (including Terrelle Pryor, who would spurn him for Ohio State), informing them of his intention to take the Michigan job—this before breaking the news to his own team. So keen was the coach to put Morgantown in his rearview mirror that he jumped on the new gig 12 months after signing a six-year extension with West Virginia, a contract that included a $4 million buyout.

Rodriguez refused to pay the buyout. West Virginia sued. After six months of litigation, Rodriguez settled, agreeing to pay the full amount, of which Michigan reportedly ponied up $2.5 million.

As grueling winter workouts gave way to spring football in 2008, players began to abandon ship. Though that's not unusual after a coaching change, the loss of talents such as five-star quarterback Ryan Mallett (now starting at Arkansas) and Justin Boren (now widely considered Ohio State's best offensive lineman) concerned many Wolverines fans. So did Rodriguez's seemingly blasé attitude toward some of the maize and blue's most hallowed traditions. It was all well and good that the school's coaches had picked permanent captains for the season dating to the days of Fielding Yost. Rodriguez announced that he would name captains on a weekly basis. It had always been beneath Michigan to court high school recruits who'd committed elsewhere. To hell with that, replied Rodriguez. He and his assistants would pursue top talent until the echo of the whistle on signing day.

Such persistence resulted in the Wolverines' prying wideout Roy Roundtree from Purdue at the 11th hour, prompting then Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller to label Rodriguez "a guy in a wizard hat selling snake oil."

Closer to home, many of the Michigan faithful felt the same way about the new coach. They wanted a Michigan Man like his predecessor, Lloyd Carr, a well-read former high school teacher whose intellectual curiosity made him a good fit at a university that is justly proud of its stature as both an athletic and an academic powerhouse. (HARVARD, THE MICHIGAN OF THE EAST, says a T-shirt in a campus bookstore.) The school's halls of higher learning have served as a source of pride and—when the Buckeyes kick their butts on the gridiron, as has happened five straight times—refuge: We're still smarter than you.

Carr kept an Oxford English Dictionary outside his office. Players who came to visit were expected to look up a word and jot its definition on one of the index cards provided. He was known to quote Jefferson, Churchill and Kipling. At his introductory press conference Rodriguez quoted Rafiki, the monkey in The Lion King. While Carr is a former English teacher and a stickler for grammar, Rodriguez is the bane of grammarians, some of whom have publically complained about his use of ain't in press conferences.

As Rodriguez presided over last year's 3--9 season, the complaints were not limited to his grammar or to the fact that the program was enduring its first losing campaign since 1967. One former Wolverine who played for Bo Schembechler told SI that he and his former teammates were turned off early last season by Rodriguez's willingness to call out his players in defeat. "I don't remember Bo or Lloyd coming into the press conference and talking about the kids who missed blocks or dropped passes," says the ex-player. "If anything, they took responsibility for not calling the right plays or not putting people in the right place or not teaching 'em well enough. To me, that's where he lost some of the guys."

Sitting in his office last week, Rodriguez admitted that it has been a turbulent 20 months, then made it clear that he intends to keep doing exactly what he's been doing. "The best advice I've gotten from some of the people I really respect, prominent alums, colleagues—they all say the same thing: You've got to be yourself," he says. "I'm the same person who coached at Glenville [W.Va.] State College 20 years ago. I'm in a bigger office now, I get paid a whole lot more, but I'm still the same guy. You can't let your situation change you, and I'm not going to. This is who I am."

Who is he? He's the son of a coal miner from Grant Town, W.Va., who turned down three basketball scholarships, choosing instead to walk on to the West Virginia football team. On the first day of practice, he recalls his position coach saying, "Gonzalez, go over there to safety." When Rodriguez asked where he should go, the coach shouted, "I just told you."

"You said 'Gonzalez.' My name's Rodriguez."

"Aw, hell—y'all the same anyway."

"After that," says Rodriguez, grinning at the memory, "I decided to get in a fight every day, so he'd have to learn my name to yell at me." By the end of that season, the staff knew his name and he'd earned a full scholarship.

Who is he? He's tough, stubborn, ambitious and, notwithstanding several of the decisions he's made of late, very smart. At 24 he became the youngest head coach in the country, at Salem College in West Virginia. At 27, as coach at Glenville State, he had the bright idea to run a two-minute offense for the entire game. After fine-tuning this crude, prehistoric version of the spread, Rodriguez's aptly named Pioneers won four straight conference championships. He—and the spread offense—were on their way. From assistant positions at Tulane and Clemson to the head job at West Virginia, the pattern went like this: In his first season his offense tends to grind its gears. In the second, as he plugs in players who fit the system and those athletes get the hang of it, school records start falling.

Until very recently Michigan was looking like the exception to that rule. Three days before the opener against Western Michigan, Rodriguez still hadn't named a starter at quarterback. Neither Forcier nor fellow freshman Denard Robinson nor junior Nick Sheridan had done enough to distance himself from the others. Rodriguez announced that all three would play against the Broncos.

That ominous uncertainty was overshadowed by the Free Press story. It resulted in a firestorm of criticism ... directed at the newspaper. Fans correctly pointed out that there's a sizable gray area between work that's voluntary and mandatory. And besides, they proclaimed, everyone does it—a defense that, while largely true, forces the Wolverines off their accustomed moral high ground. This, after all, is the winningest program in college football, a program that has never been found guilty of major NCAA violations. As a result, Wolverine Nation rallied behind Rodriguez as never before. The coach's first public response, interrupted several times as he fought back tears, won him still more support, but not so much as the team's 31--7 whipping of Western Michigan, during which the Wolverines' faithful broke into the chant Rich Rod-ri-guez.

Stepping to the podium after his latest win, Rodriguez smiled and said, "Well, that was fun." He was right. The game featured 920 yards of offense, four lead changes, a 96-yard kickoff return, three fourth-down conversions and a 50-yard quick kick by Forcier that was downed on the Irish four-yard line.

That's not how Bo and Lloyd rolled. They wore foes down with the power running game. If a ground-based ethos is a prerequisite for being a Michigan Man, Rodriguez will never pass muster. His no-huddle, hurry-up offense is simply too entertaining.

Make no mistake, this team has problems. The guy wearing the wizard hat on Saturday was defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, whose rope-a-dope tactics only disguised the shocking lack of depth in the Wolverines' secondary. Clausen finished with 336 yards and three TDs. But the Michigan defense got him off the field when it absolutely had to.

Then the clock ran out on the Irish, and the din in the old bowl served as a signal to the college football cosmos that after their season in purgatory, the Wolverines are back. And for the first time it was possible to see the future of this program, a new and improved version of a trusted old brand, led by a man making a good-faith effort to eliminate ain't from his vocabulary; a man trying as hard as he can to be more respectful toward all the old traditions, no matter how silly he finds them.

He will be forgiven for those early sins because he wins and because, as Rafiki says, "It's in the past."

What Have You Done Lately?

Michigan and Notre Dame rank first and third in alltime college football victories, but since the start of the 2004 season they have been losing ground to other traditional powers that make up the top 10.

SCHOOL ALLTIME LAST FIVE YEARS
MICHIGAN 874-295-36 41--23
TEXAS 834-317-33 58--8
NOTRE DAME 832-285-42 36--28
NEBRASKA 819-337-40 38--26
OHIO STATE 808-307-53 52--13
PENN STATE 802-349-41 46--18
ALABAMA 801-316-43 43--23
OKLAHOMA 792-290-53 55--14
TENNESSEE 776-328-53 40--25
USC 768-303-54 61--6

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After his latest victory, Rodriguez smiled and said, "Well, that was fun."

PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSSTAR SEARCH With playmakers like Forcier (5), Rodriguez is getting the talent to plug into his spread-option offense. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN BIEVER PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANS PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSHAIL TO THE VICTORS Forcier and Rodriguez celebrated what they hope is a program-turning win.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)