On December 17, 2007, Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the gathering of media on the campus of the University of Michigan and made gallows humor about himself.
The question was, to paraphrase, “What’s it like, knowing that you’re the third choice for this job?”
It was widely known that Michigan, making a mess of its search for a new football coach to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr, had botched things with fanbase favorite Les Miles, and had been rejected by Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
That left U-M with Rodriguez, who was in the midst of a messy divorce from West Virginia.
Rodriguez smiled sheepishly at the podium and said, “Well, I wasn’t my wife’s first choice, either,” and the room broke out in guffaws.
It was pretty much the last time folks could laugh so easily with Rodriguez at Michigan. Laugh <em>at </em>him? Sure. But not laugh with him.
Rodriguez is gone, fired by Michigan after three years that Athletic Director Dave Brandon correctly called “full of turmoil.”
“I don’t think Rich Rodriguez has had a good night’s sleep in the three years that he’s been here,” Brandon said today in announcing Rodriguez’s getting the ziggy.
Brandon’s words ring true, but with some explanation.
No football coach has ever gotten a good night’s sleep—not while he’s been employed, anyway. The life of a football coach at the major college or pro level means putting in 12-18 hour days, sleeping on a sofa in the office. Sometimes they wake up to find the film projector still running.
But what Brandon meant was that Rodriguez, ever since arriving in Ann Arbor, had been dealing with, again in Brandon’s words, “One thing after another.”
This was a mercy kill. Brandon shot the horse. After letting his coach twist in the wind, Brandon finally put him out of his misery.
It’s time now to heal the Michigan football program.
Brandon couldn’t keep Rodriguez, not after the way the season, Rich’s third, ended with three straight blowout losses, including a New Year’s Day Massacre to Mississippi State, of all schools.
Not after a 15-22 overall record, including an amazingly bad 1-11 vs. ranked teams, and—this is the real wince-inducer—an unsightly 0-6 against Michigan State and Ohio State.
Not after scandal and players bolting and a defense that was the worst in the 131-year history of Michigan football.
Not after seeing the fans and alumni becoming polarized—those in Rodriguez’s camp, and those who wanted him gone. Never in recent memory had a football coach at Michigan incited such a love-hate reaction amongst the faithful.
Let the healing begin.
This is, already, Brandon’s defining moment as AD—and he’s been on the job less than a year.
But Brandon has a chance for a freebie here. Rodriguez wasn’t his man, so it made it easier for Brandon to can him. The freebie part to this is that, unless he hires Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum, Brandon can buy himself some time by picking anyone whose name isn’t Rich Rodriguez.
So the AD already can’t lose.
After the loss to Mississippi State, any remaining fence sitters certainly had to be shoved onto the side of “fire RichRod.” Though there are still some steadfast, stubborn Rodriguez supporters, the overwhelming sentiment was to run him out of town.
So Brandon will bring in a new coach, and that man will be welcomed much more graciously that Rodriguez ever was.
It’s not always what you know, or how much you’ve won. It’s who you’re following.
Rodriguez followed Carr, who had continued the Bo Schembechler lineage which began nearly 40 years prior.
The new coach will be following Rodriguez.
See the difference?
I once asked the late Mark “Doc” Andrews, formerly of Dick Purtan’s radio team and a damn good sports announcer in his own right, if he was interested in throwing his hat into the ring, in the wake of the news of Ernie Harwell’s firing by Bo Schembechler in 1991.
Would Doc want to be considered to be the Tigers’ new radio voice?
“I won’t follow Ernie,” Doc told me. “But I’ll follow the guy who <em>follows</em> Ernie!”
Remember how Harwell’s successors, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun, were treated in Detroit?
Brandon needed to heal Michigan’s program, and the first step in that healing process was to fire Rodriguez, the deserved lightning Rod (pun intended). With Rodriguez gone, Brandon can bring Wolverine Nation together again.
In a perfect world, the next Michigan coach will stay for 10 years or more, returning stability to the program, and placing it back where it belongs—as a Top 10 program annually.
Michigan’s been lucky in that regard. They hired Bo, an unknown from Miami of Ohio, and that turned out really well.
Bo stayed as coach for 21 years (1969-89), and by that time there was no shortage of solid candidates to succeed him, from within.
The university went with longtime assistant Gary Moeller, who had strayed briefly for a failed fling as Illinois coach before returning to Michigan. Moeller worked out well, too—until his infamous drunken incident at the Excalibur restaurant in Southfield.
But that was OK, because Michigan again had a capable replacement at the ready in Lloyd Carr, who himself had almost become head coach at Wisconsin a few years earlier.
Carr stayed for 13 years (1995-2007).
Yet Michigan blew it when Lloyd retired, by offending top candidate Les Miles, LSU’s coach and a former Michigan player and assistant, by suggesting to Miles that he interview for the job, like he was just another candidate.
Miles told Michigan to take a hike—pun not intended this time.
Ironically, Michigan has another chance at Miles. With the news that fan favorite Jim Harbaugh doesn’t see himself as Michigan’s coach, Miles may again be in play. Bill Martin, the AD who botched things with Miles in 2007, is gone.
Miles could be had, if Brandon plays it correctly.
It’s my opinion that Les Miles, despite his quirkiness and occasional unorthodox strategies, would excite the alumni most and sell more luxury suites than Brady Hoke of San Diego State would, the other most-mentioned candidate.
Regardless, Brandon must play healer now. He has to bring as many people as possible back under the tent. The AD is a smart guy. He has the tools, and the resources (he hinted that money would be no object in hiring a new coach) to put smiles back on the faces of Michigan football fans and alumni.
Firing Rodriguez was the tourniquet that U-M’s football program needed. Brandon’s choice as RichRod’s successor is the surgery.