When Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the media in Ann Arbor on that November day in 2007, having just been introduced as the next football coach at the University of Michigan, one of the sage scribes asked him what it felt like to be worse than sloppy seconds.
OK, the question wasn’t posed with that degree of temerity, but Rodriguez, lured to Michigan from what appeared to be a cushy job at West Virginia, was thought to be U-M’s third choice, behind Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who turned Michigan down, and in all likelihood Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who was courted clumsily by then-Athletic Director Bill Martin.
Rodriguez, looking a little stiff and slightly nervous, nonetheless cracked a joke about not being his wife’s first choice, either.
The comment broke the room up.
There wouldn’t be much laughter in the ensuing three seasons, after which Rodriguez was run out of town—a man whose biggest crime may have been that he was a perceived outsider.
Bo Schembechler started the “Michigan Man” nonsense.
My podcast co-host, Al Beaton, said on last week’s show that if Bo were alive today, the old coach would probably wish he’d never uttered the phrase.
It was Schembechler, then the AD at Michigan, who declared that assistant coach Steve Fisher would coach the Michigan basketball team throughout the 1989 NCAA tournament, in the wake of the news that head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State—an announcement that occurred practically on the eve of the tourney.
Bo would have none of Frieder coaching the kids at Michigan during March Madness, as long as an agreement was in place for the basketball coach to flee as soon as the final buzzer of the final game sounded.
“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo roared.
Fisher never attended Michigan. He was born and reared in Illinois. He played college basketball in Illinois.
But why let those facts get in the way of a good quote, right?
Fisher, the promoted assistant, guided the Wolverines to the 1989 National Championship. Bo looked like a genius.
So the “Michigan Man” term was born!
There was nothing “Michigan” about Rich Rodriguez, from the Latino surname to his football coaching resume. He was, however, another Illinois guy (born in Chicago).
Rodriguez coached just three seasons at Michigan, and when he was forced out after the 2010 season—three seasons that showed little progress, you could point to the Rodriguez years and say that they were among the most tumultuous in the school’s football history.
Oh, how good those years look now, eh?
It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.
Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.
One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.
The second thing may come as a shock to your system.
Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.
Yes, I’m as sober as a judge as I write this. My temperature is 98.6 and I know what day it is and I can recite the alphabet backward.
The feeling in 2007, when Rodriguez was the presumed third choice, was that coaching Michigan football had somehow lost a bit of its luster, despite some fine work done by Lloyd Carr from 1995-2007, including a co-National Championship in 1997.
That inferiority complex wasn’t helped when Schiano, coaching Rutgers (!) at the time, reportedly turned AD Martin down.
Who turns down Michigan to stay at Rutgers, when it comes to coaching football?
But it happened, if you believe multiple reports and chatter.
When current AD Dave Brandon hired Hoke, a former Michigan assistant under Carr, from San Diego State in January, 2011, again there were rumblings that Michigan got less than their first choice.
Brandon, it was reported, would have preferred LSU’s Miles (Brandon flew down to Louisiana to interview Miles, another former Michigan assistant, but under Schembechler). But Miles politely declined a job offer.
Brandon also might have pursued former U-M quarterback and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, though that has never been confirmed. Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers just days before Brandon introduced Hoke.
With the hirings of Rodriguez and Hoke, that’s two straight coaching searches where Michigan—the school that still holds the college football record for most wins, ever—seemingly had to settle.
Yet Hoke’s stunning failure that is being played out in front of us like a car wreck is actually helping Michigan, I believe.
You heard me.
Michigan got its “Michigan Man” and it isn’t working out, which may be the understatement of the year.
But at least the school got the “Michigan Man” thing out of its system.
In 2008, Rodriguez followed Carr, when the Michigan job was still thought to be one where Carr’s successor could keep U-M as a Top 20 program for years to come.
Hoke is showing that just because you were an assistant at Michigan some 15 years ago, it doesn’t guarantee success as a head coach.
The job at Michigan, though, is better than ever.
Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.
There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.
Michigan football now is talked about a lot in the past tense.
It’s never good when words like “was” and “used to be” and “back in the day” are used to describe your program.
But it also means that Michigan football, in the hands of the right man, is ripe for the picking, so to speak.
Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.
Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.
Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.
Now the Wolverines are getting clocked at home by Minnesota, just their third loss to the Golden Gophers since 1967.
That’s not a good sign.
The wild card, however, is Brandon.
The athletic director has come under fire, not only for the Hoke hire but for his presumed micro-managing of the department, especially when it comes to football. He is too involved, many critics say.
John Arbeznik was a captain on the 1979 Wolverines team. He was speaking on 105.1 FM the other day about Brandon and his frequent presence around the Michigan football facilities.
“I never saw (former athletic director) Don Canham during the season. Never,” Arbeznik told Drew Lane. “Certainly never in the locker room.”
Arbeznik was guesting Lane’s show, discussing a letter that has been signed by 30-40 former players—basically a list of grievances. The letter, Arbeznik said, was given to the university’s Board of Regents and to new school president Mark Schlissel.
What, if anything, will come from Arbeznik and company’s list of grievances, no one really knows.
Brady Hoke cannot be brought back as Michigan coach next season. That much is certain.
But the job isn’t ruined for the next guy. The football program isn’t beyond saving.
In fact, it may be at its best place in years.
Michigan just has to find the right man. And the use of “Michigan” and “man” in that sentence was purely unintentional.