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Posts Tagged ‘Justin Boren’

The State of Michigan Football (for Dummies)

Sunday, August 29th, 2010


Being a Michigan fan that grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York, I’m constantly bombarded with ridicule from friends and family about the state of the Michigan football program.

“Wow, Michigan has really fallen apart; I don’t think they’ll ever be the same,” one will say, or “Don’t you wish you had a quality coach like Tressel?” another will ask.

In passing conversation, especially with an Ohio State fan, it’s impossible to adequately describe the perfect storm that has been Michigan football the past two seasons.

So as we enter Week 1 of the 2010 college football season, let’s put into words how Michigan’s recent demise, while frustrating, is not quite as bad as it seems.

Be Careful What You Wish For

On the surface, it’s easy to pronounce, “Carr never had a losing season and Rodriguez has losing seasons in each of his first two years, therefore, Rodriguez is a terrible coach and must be fired.”

Yet, a little critical thinking will tell you that there’s more to it than that. The blame for the past two seasons should be as much on former Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin as on Head Coach Rich Rodriguez. It was Martin, after all, who decided to take Michigan down a completely new path to modernity following Carr’s retirement after the 2007 season.

The hiring of Rich Rodriguez signaled a shift to modernity for Michigan

The hiring of Rich Rodriguez signaled a shift to modernity for Michigan

Carr was a conservative coach who continued the success of his mentor, Michigan legend Bo Schembechler, combining with Bo and Gary Moeller to guide the program to 40 straight winning seasons and 33 straight bowl games. His teams were never going to go out and put up 60 points or step on an opponent’s throat while it was down. But they were never going to get blown out either.

That was both a blessing and a curse. Carr’s safe approach, whether it was punting on fourth-and-one from the opponent’s 45 with a minute and-a-half left in the half, or running three straight times to wind down the clock late in the game while clinging to a two-point lead, worked out more often than not. However, in the few instances when it gave the opponent enough time to score before the half, or gave the opponent the ball back with a chance to drive for the winning score, it was enraging. Michigan fans were constantly calling for Carr to stop being so conservative and some were even calling for him to be fired.

When Martin went out and hired an offensive innovator from West Virginia, some Michigan fans were disappointed that he didn’t get former Michigan offensive lineman Les Miles, while others were intrigued by the notion of the spread offense in Ann Arbor.

Martin knew upon hiring Rodriguez that, while he was an offensive genius, that coaching IQ fit a certain system. His style of coaching doesn’t mesh with the 320-pound offensive linemen and statuesque quarterbacks of Michigan past. He needs smaller, quicker offensive linemen and dual-threat quarterbacks. Whether you think that’s the sign of a good coach or not, that’s what Martin hired.

Right off the bat, Michigan fans expecting a carry-over from the Schembechler/Moeller/Carr regime were in for a letdown. That blame cannot be pinned on Rodriguez.

An Empty Cupboard Won’t Yield a Feast

Carr officially retired following the 2007 season, but he seemingly checked out a couple of years prior. He first hinted at calling it quits prior to 2007 and many believe that had Michigan beaten Ohio State in 2006 and advanced to the National Championship game, Carr’s exit would have come then.

Lloyd Carr didn't leave much for Rodriguez to work with following the 2007 season

Lloyd Carr didn't leave much for Rodriguez to work with following the 2007 season

He entered 2007 with a senior four-year-starter at quarterback (Chad Henne) and a hot-shot freshman (Ryan Mallett) backing him up. Part of Carr’s bait to hook Mallett, the number two quarterback in the 2006 high school class, was that the job was his when Henne graduated and Carr wouldn’t recruit a quarterback in the 2007 class.

Mallett, however, had trouble adjusting to Ann Arbor, butting heads with Carr during his freshman season, while being thrust into playing time during Henne’s injury-plagued senior season. By all accounts, Mallett intended to return home following that season regardless of who the coach was in 2008.

Following that season, Henne graduated along with four-year starting running back Mike Hart and left tackle Jake Long (the 1st overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft). Junior wide receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington chose to enter the Draft and left guard Adam Kraus graduated, leaving Rodriguez with just a handful of returning starters on offense, none of which were suited for his offense.

The coaching transition was further slowed when Rodriguez lost out on Terrelle Pryor to Ohio State and offensive lineman Justin Boren bolted for Ohio State, bad-mouthing the program on his way out.* Pryor’s talents fit Rodriguez’s system and would have made some difference in 2008 and Boren certainly had the talent, but wasn’t committed to working hard enough for Rodriguez’s system.

Instead, Rodriguez was left with less talent and experience on offense than the majority of college football. His choice at quarterback was a freshman (Steven Threet) or a walk-on junior (Nick Sheridan), neither of which had any game experience and neither was suited for Rodriguez’s system. That alone wouldn’t have doomed the Wolverines had there been an experienced supporting cast to make up for it.

The best running back Rodriguez had was also a true freshman, Sam McGuffie, a Carr recruit who would have redshirted in any normal situation. The top receiver was a true freshman as well, Martavious Odoms, one of Rodriguez’s first recruits at Michigan who is more suited to be a supporting receiver rather than the lead role.

It’s certainly no stretch to say that no team in college football history has succeeded with freshmen starting at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, no matter how highly-touted they are coming out of high school. It’s also no stretch to say that no coach in the country could have fared well with what Rodriguez had to work with in 2008.

Three of the top players in Michigan history at their position (Jake Long, Chad Henne, Mike Hart) graduated prior to Rodriguez's hiring

Three of the top players in Michigan history at their position (Jake Long, Chad Henne, Mike Hart) graduated prior to Rodriguez's hiring

Essentially, Rodriguez had two choices: to design a completely new playbook to fit the talents of the players Carr left behind or to begin installing his spread ‘n shred offense.

The former might have yielded another win or two that season, allowing Threet and Sheridan to be drop-back passers and McGuffie to run for three yards and a cloud of dust. Yet it would have set back the progression of the offense Rodriguez was going to install – the one he made his living on in working his way up from Glennville State to Tulane to Clemson to West Virginia and, ultimately, to Michigan.

The latter would at least get that progression started for Odoms and the rest of the players recruited by Rodriguez specifically for that offense.

Again, keep in mind that Martin didn’t hire a coach who then surprised everyone by running some wacky offense that no one knew about. Martin knew when he hired Rodriguez that he was essentially a system coach and the best in his field.

To expect that system to work from Day 1 is ludicrous even if he had Henne, Hart, and Long. Simply put, Michigan didn’t have the right players and that’s not Rodriguez’s fault.

Imagine if Schwinn Bicycle Company hired a new CEO who decided the company was going to start making airplanes. While the company is great at making bikes, handlebars and spokes will only fly so far. Mr. CEO would have to begin acquiring the necessary components to build airplanes and it wouldn’t happen overnight.

In the world of college football, players stay in a system for four or five years, making the roster turnover a slow process. It’s impossible to just get rid of 100-plus players of the old regime and bring in 100-plus of your guys. It takes four or five years to turn over the roster, and in theory, the results should progress each year.

By planting the seeds of his offense from Day 1, Rodriguez began to water the roots of his system.

In 2009, Rodriguez was able to land two quarterbacks that fit his offensive style, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. Threet transferred to Arizona State when he realized he was a square peg in a round hole and Sheridan was relegated to third string.

In one sense, Rodriguez has progressed with Odoms and the rest of the returnees from 2008 already having a knowledge base of the system. But on the other hand, he was back at square one, having to start another true freshman at quarterback.

Even so, the offense showed marked year-over-year improvement, going from 20.2 points and 290.8 yards per game in 2008 to 29.5 points and 384.5 yards per game in 2009. It just lacked consistency as a result of inexperience.

Reporters With an Axe to Grind

The next fodder for the anti-Rodriguez crowd is the allegation of cheating which was exposed by the Detroit Free Press last August. While all kinds of conspiracy theories exist, the fact is that the Free Press’ reports were nothing short of slanted, biased and exaggerated.

The paper’s writers, Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder, succeeded in creating a national sense of animosity towards Rodriguez and ego-boosting by fans of other schools.

The NCAA’s probe, released in February found five violations that in any other situation would be considered the minor, slap-on-the-wrist types that are constantly self-reported or overlooked by other schools. However, as a result of the “Freep Jihad,” the NCAA came down hard, finding five so-called major violations.

While all are nothing more than what would be found at nearly every other school in the country, the national perception is that Michigan and Rich Rodriguez knowingly cheated. It’s easy to create that perception when you’re a reporter with an axe to grind. Just find a couple of disgruntled former players who will gladly trash their former coach as well as a few ignorant freshmen and distort their words. In that way, the situation in Ann Arbor is different than everywhere else.

The Detroit Free Press drove the NCAA allegations with this article

The Detroit Free Press drove the NCAA allegations with this article being just one of many slanted pieces by Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder

There is no doubt that Ohio State would find itself behind the eight-ball if the Columbus Dispatch decided to declare jihad on the school. Just this summer the Ohio State athletic department self-reported 13 minor violations between Jan. 1 and July 1, six involving the football program. In fact, since 2000, Ohio State has self-reported 375 minor violations (across all sports), the most of any school in the NCAA. By comparison, Oklahoma has self-reported 224 and Florida 112. 

This leads to two possible conclusions: either Ohio State purposely crosses the line just a little bit, and decides every now and then to self-report just to keep the NCAA at bay; or Ohio State’s athletic department and coaching staff don’t monitor the rule book well enough to know that they shouldn’t keep making these kinds of mistakes.

Either way, if the Dispatch decided that instead of just reporting these violations, they were going to dive in and blow them out of proportion, the NCAA would almost certainly have to come down hard.

So the issue isn’t that Rich Rodriguez is a cheating scumbag; it’s that he didn’t meet the standards of two local reporters.

I’m not saying that Michigan wasn’t wrong, but failing to count 10 minutes of stretching as countable practice time certainly doesn’t justify the national perception created by Rosenberg and Snyder, nor does it create any more of a competitive advantage than those 375 minor violations at Ohio State.

To Paraphrase Arnold, We’ll Be Back

So now that Rodriguez finds himself firmly on the proverbial hot seat, many consider him all but gone if Michigan fails to have a great season this year. But that’s not the case.

If absolutely no progress is shown and another losing season is the end result, then it could happen. But a winning season, a bowl game, and signs of progress assure a fourth season on the job because 2011 promises to be a good one.

Forcier and Robinson will be juniors in 2011, leading 10 returning starters on offense

Forcier and Robinson will be juniors in 2011, leading 10 returning starters on offense

Following this season, Michigan loses only one starter on the offensive side (left guard Stephen Schilling) and two on the defensive side (linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton).

When senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk went down with a season-ending ankle injury last week, it was both a blessing and a curse. Woolfolk won’t be able to help out a very thin secondary this season, but intends to come back for his senior season in 2011, so a position that will be a weakness this season will be a strength next year.

In addition to 18 starters returning (19 if you count getting Woolfolk back), quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will be in their third season running the offense. By then, their comfort level will be enough to ensure an offense sure to be as vaunted as those Rodriguez featured at West Virginia.

The schedule also sets up nicely with Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Ohio State at home, Penn State off the schedule, and Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and San Diego State as the other non-conference opponents (although the conference schedule may change due to the realignment and addition of Nebraska).  

In other words, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon would be ill-advised to fire Rodriguez after this season unless things really blow up. I don’t support firing him this season anyway, since 2011 will really be the determining season.

Consider 2010 the primer for a run at the inaugural Big Ten Championship next season. Don’t write off Rodriguez and the Wolverines just yet, because it’s not quite as bad as it seems.

________________________________________________________________________________

*Many have also piled on Rodriguez for the players that have left the program for various reasons, such as Boren and wide receiver Toney Clemons who transfered, Justin Feagen and Boubacar Cissoko who were kicked off the team, and others who failed to qualify. Yet they forget that Carr had the same troubles.

In 2007 alone, Carr dismissed tight end Carson Butler, defensive end Eugene Germany, and cornerback Chris Richards from the team for violating team rules, backup quarterback Jason Forcier (Tate’s older brother) transfered to Stanford, and linebacker Cobrani Mixon transfered to Kent State (all of which subsequently hurt the depth of Rodriguez’s teams).

Witch Hunts, Shoelaces, and Turnovers: The Michigan Season In Review (Part I)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009


As the 130th season of Michigan football comes to an end, it’s time to reflect on what we saw and look forward to next year and beyond.

2009 yielded some highlights and some lowlights, some controversy and some challenged loyalty. A legend was made and some buds blossomed. Records fell, both good and bad, and a system started to show some promise.

From this...

From this...

...to this

...to this

No one knew what to expect from this year’s version of Michigan football in Rich Rodriguez’s second year at the helm.

The overly optimistic among us predicted a breakout season of nine or ten wins.

Realistic optimists pointed to Rodriguez’s penchant for second-year turnarounds and predicted a record of 7-5 or maybe, if luck goes the way of the maize and blue, 8-4.

Realists pointed to the true freshmen quarterbacks and lack of overall talent on the squad and predicted a 5-7 or 6-6 finish.

As it turns out, the realists were right, but the realistic optimists weren’t too far off.

The fact of the matter is, Michigan fans were so shell-shocked from the worst record in 46 years in 2008 that we were looking anywhere we could for hope.

We ignored comments that Rodriguez made in the preseason such as, “There’s still going to be some transition. We’re going to play a lot more freshmen and redshirt freshmen than we would like to.”

We thought, sure there will be a lot of freshmen playing, but Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are surely better options than Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan. Or, yeah, but it can’t get any worse than last season.

In this space, I offered some words of caution: “Coming off a season that resulted in the most losses in school history, and pinning all hopes on a true freshman quarterback, this seems to be the window of opportunity before Rodriguez’s system begins to take hold and terrorize the Big Ten.”

*Michigan fans show their support for Rich Rodriguez against Western Michigan, photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

*Michigan fans show their support for Rich Rodriguez against Western Michigan, photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

But then I followed it up with an overly ambitious response: “However, I think we’re going to see a very fast, well-conditioned and much-improved Michigan team playing with a chip on its shoulder to avoid being put to rest again.”

While that may have held true for a while, reality eventually sunk in that this team was indeed loaded with youth and razor-thin on the depth chart.

What began in August as optimism and eagerness to forget the epic disaster of 2008, quickly turned to scorn as the Detroit Free Press brought into question allegations of NCAA infractions on the part of Rodriguez and his coaching staff.

The opening game against Western Michigan couldn’t come soon enough. We cursed Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder for the timing of their article and the witch-hunt that ensued and we promised to get revenge on Justin Boren, who transferred to Ohio State, for his comments that seemed to be the centerpiece of that article.

And then the season began and practice time was forgotten and the story of Shoelace became one we would hear every game the entire season (as my wife would roll her eyes every time the announcers felt compelled to tell the story of why Denard Robinson doesn’t tie his shoes…every…single…game).

Robinson thrilled us with a 43-yard touchdown run, Tate Forcier showed promise in his first game by throwing for three touchdowns, Junior Hemingway caught nearly half his season total in receiving yards (103) and all of his touchdowns (two), and the defense shut down what many thought would be a high-powered offense.

We saw a show of solidarity for Rodriguez, Michigan won easily, and the season started off with a bang.

The came Notre Dame, fresh off of throttling Nevada, and riding preseason BCS bowl (or national championship game) predictions.

This will go down as the game that raised all of our expectations, mostly because no one knew at that time how mediocre Notre Dame really was.

It appeared to be Rodriguez’s signature win, as Michigan matched Notre Dame score-for-score and Forcier stunned the 18th-ranked Irish with 11 seconds left.

*Tate Forcier led Michigan to a win over Notre Dame, photo by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com

*Tate Forcier led Michigan to a win over Notre Dame, photo by Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com

Forcier looked as veteran and composed as ND junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, completing 23-of-33 for 240 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing). It’s hard to imagine that that would be the high point of his season, in just his second collegiate game.

Of course, there was the Armando Allen out-of-bounds play, which, despite the evidence , Notre Dame fans will carry to their graves in contempt.

The win over Notre Dame vaulted Michigan into the Top 25 heading into week three against Eastern Michigan. Former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English brought his Eagles to Ann Arbor and didn’t provide much of a test.

Michigan showed off its running game this time, going for 380 yards on the ground, and getting 163 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries from Carlos Brown in the first half alone.

Robinson scored two more touchdowns to enhance the unrealistic expectations for a guy that arrived on campus less than two months earlier.

Michigan then opened the Big Ten slate with Indiana in what would eventually be the battle for last place. At the time, though, Michigan was hoping to get to 4-0 heading into its intrastate rivalry battle in East Lansing.

This game provided our first glimpse of what the rest of the season would hold, as Michigan struggled to beat the Hoosiers, needing a 26-yard touchdown pass from Forcier to Martavious Odoms with 2:29 remaining to get the win.

The Indiana victory prompted me to draw a comparison to the New York Jets, who like Michigan, started off hot with a rookie quarterback: “Following Sunday’s Jets-Titans game, Vic Carucci of NFL.com asked Jets safety Kerry Rhodes if he thought the Jets’ style of play was sustainable. Rhodes replied that he thought it was because having such a good defense allows rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to make some mistakes.

“Unfortunately, that won’t exactly translate to Michigan. While I think Michigan’s offense is further along in its development than Sanchez’s Jets offense, relatively speaking, Michigan hasn’t faced its toughest opponents yet.”

I provided the last part of that quote because I knew we were in for a tough go the rest of the season. I didn’t know, however, that that would be our last win over a FBS team all season. Ironically, Michigan’s fall has mirrored the Jets’ collapse.

At 4-0, a return to a bowl game looked assured, and Michigan entered “Little Brother” week seeking to avenge last season’s 35-21 loss to Michigan State.

It was the first road game of Forcier’s career and we saw the fist true test of the season, as the Michigan offense was shut down much of the game. But Forcier continued his early-season magic, leading a 14-point comeback to force overtime with a touchdown completion to Roy Roundtree with just two seconds left.

In overtime, Forcier was intercepted on a tipped pass that never should have been thrown, and Michigan dropped its second in a row to Michigan State for the first time since 1967.

Michigan Streaks Broken in 2009
First back-to-back losses to Michigan State since 1967
First home loss to Penn State since 1996
First home loss to Purdue in last 17 meetings
First back-to-back losing seasons since 1963-62

This began a run of snapping streaks right and left.

With its first loss of the season under its belt, Michigan traveled to Iowa for a prime-time night game against the nation’s 12th-ranked Hawkeyes.

Brandon Minor had his breakout game of the season, scoring two touchdowns against a defense that hadn’t given up a rushing touchdown in 33 quarters.

The game started out as well as one could ask, as Donovan Warren picked off the first pass of the game and returned it for a touchdown.

Michigan hung around until a muffed punt (hello 2008!) gave Iowa the ball at the Michigan 16. Iowa punched it in and took a 30-21 lead.

Robinson led the offense down the field for a touchdown to narrow the gap, but on the next possession, threw an interception to end the game, beginning the Wolverine-faithful’s love-hate relationship with Denard.

Despite a second-straight loss, Michigan fans were encouraged that the team was able to hang with undefeated Iowa until the last minute of the game, and a return to the Big House to face an FCS school was just what Michigan needed to regroup.

Michigan was able to set numerous school records in the win over Delaware State that week and give many starters a week off.

Five Wolverines scored their first career touchdowns and Robinson was able to get a lot of work at quarterback.

Michigan fans even got the treat of seeing Nick Sheridan on the field without the game on the line.

Many fans didn’t like the idea of playing an FCS school, but following the game, I proclaimed, “I have no problem with Michigan playing Delaware State this year. With a roster comprised of mostly underclassmen, and a complete overhaul in progress, playing an FCS opponent was better than a bye week in my opinion.

Michigan Records Set vs. Delaware State
727 total yards of offense
442 yards in the first half
28 points in the first quarter (ties record)
57 point margin of victory (most since 58-0 win over Indiana on Oct. 14, 2000)
461 rushing yards (most since 480 vs. Iowa on Oct. 3, 1992)
49 first half points (most since 55 vs. Chicago on Oct. 21, 1939)

“I would love to see Michigan start scheduling another tough out-of-conference game every year, but at this point in the development of Rich Rodriguez’s scheme, it’s not time for that just yet.

“Once the team grows up and the spread-n-shred is fully ingrained, I hope the schedule will be strengthened. But when you have Florida, arguably the nation’s top team and reigning national champion, playing Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International, one must look that way first before pointing fingers at the baby Wolverines.”

I still believe it was okay to play Delaware State this season, but obviously with the way Michigan finished the season the benefits weren’t as great as I thought.

At 5-2, Michigan looked primed to make a bowl game, needing just one more win in its final five games.

Penn State came to town and dominated Michigan, racking up 396 yards of offense, and handing Michigan its first true beating of the season.

For really the first time all season, Forcier looked like a true freshman, completing just 13-of-30 passes for 140 yards. The offense couldn’t get anything going in the cold, rainy conditions.

Michigan wasn’t expected to win this one, and despite the 25-point whooping, I considered this result somewhat of a fluke and still didn’t believe the team was as bad as the final record would eventually indicate.

Following the Penn State game, doomsday headlines abounded, and I cautioned fans not to listen to them.

As it turns out, they were right.

Michigan traveled to Champaign, Ill. for a match-up with 1-6 Illinois, a game that looked like a sure-win.

This one will forever be remembered as the epic collapse, and probably the turning point of the whole season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger turnaround before.

Michigan was firmly in control with a 13-7 lead and first and goal at the Illinois one-yard line in the third quarter. After stuffing Michigan on four straight rushes, Illinois took possession and seized the game.

Six plays later, a 70-yard touchdown run put Illinois ahead 14-13 and Illinois never looked back, out-scoring Michigan 24-0 the rest of the way.

At this point in the season, confidence in a bowl game turned into hoping to squeeze out a win in one of the final three games. The best hope was the following week against Purdue.

Perhaps hope is the wrong word against Purdue, as Boilermaker head coach Danny Hope carried a grudge into the game, blaming Rodriguez for getting one of his players suspended for a game earlier in the season – nevermind that the player deserved to be suspended just as much as Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton did the week before that.

*Turnovers doomed Michigan's chances against Ohio State, photo by The Detroit News / David Guralnick

*Turnovers doomed Michigan's chances against Ohio State, photo by The Detroit News / David Guralnick

This game was much like the Illinois game, where Michigan was in control and let it get away. Michigan led 24-10 at halftime and pushed it to 30-17 in the third, but a 91-yard touchdown drive, an on-side kick, and a 54-yard touchdown pass later, and Michigan found itself trailing 31-30.

Michigan missed a 43-yard field goal and failed to convert a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game, and Michigan fell by two.

Michigan traveled to Wisconsin for its final road game of the season, still needing a win to become bowl-eligible.

This game followed the mold of the past couple, as Michigan hung around through three quarters, but faded down the stretch.

Forcier bounced back from some poor outings to complete 20-of-26 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, but it was the defense that couldn’t hold up against a powerful Wisconsin running game.

Although Michigan knew Wisconsin was going to run it in the second half, it still couldn’t stop the Badgers.

The bowl hopes all came down to the final week of the season against Ohio State, as Michigan looked to end its five game losing streak to the Buckeyes.

Though many around the nation talked of the lack of luster in the rivalry, the game still had plenty of storylines with Michigan needing a win to make a bowl and avoid a second straight losing season, Ohio State needing a win to capture the Big Ten title outright, and Justin Boren playing against his former team in the Big House.

The Michigan defense played inspired and turned in its best performance of the season, holding the Ohio State offense to just 14 points.

However, it was the youth of Michigan’s offensive leader that doomed the Wolverines’ chances of playing through the holidays.

Forcier turned the ball over five times, including a fumble in the end zone on Michigan’s first possession, which Ohio State recovered for a touchdown.

Michigan moved the ball most of the day against an Ohio State defense that ranks as one of the best in the nation. But it was unable to capitalize on trips to the red zone, turning the ball over too many times.

So as Michigan’s season came to an abrupt end for the second year in a row, many want to know where do we go from here?

Indeed, there are many questions that need to be answered, but I’m in the minority who still believes the program is on the right track.

Stay tuned for part two where I will look at the future of the football program, both short-term and long-term, as well as the recruiting class Michigan has coming in and who is still out there that Rodriguez needs to land.

The Reinvention of Michigan Football: A Matter of Perspective

Monday, August 10th, 2009


It seems that the popular thing to do these days among college football fans is to rip on Rich Rodriguez and the recent struggles of the University of Michigan football program.

For the better part of 40 years, Michigan was a symbol of stability, consistency and excellence.

Since Bo Schembechler was hired in 1969, only three coaches have graced the Michigan sidelines prior to Rodriguez’ arrival last season.

*Photo taken from ThrowForBo.com

*Photo taken from ThrowForBo.com

Those three, Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, followed the same model of football—a punishing running game, an efficient passing game and a strong defense—to amass an overall winning percentage of 76.8, including 80.9 percent in the Big Ten conference. Throw in 21 Big Ten championships, 35 straight bowl games and a National Championship, and one can see why opposing fans are so quick to pile it on after one bad season.

Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor amidst a firestorm following Carr’s retirement in 2008 and Michigan fans and alumni were torn. Most had wanted former Wolverine offensive lineman and assistant coach, and current LSU head coach, Les Miles to replace Carr. Others wanted Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano or someone promoted from internally. A few wanted Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. All of those candidates seemed to fit the mold of the previous 40 years.

Yet it was Rodriguez who landed in Ann Arbor, spurning his alma mater, West Virginia University, and bringing with him an offense as unfamiliar to Michigan football as staying home for the holidays.

Some of the Michigan fan base was skeptical of an outsider with a wacky offense inheriting its most coveted throne. “What about our tradition?” they asked. “He’s not a Michigan man,” they cried.

When five-star sophomore-to-be quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas and offensive lineman Justin Boren transferred to Ohio State citing an “erosion of family values,” the mob grew louder.

Then came the season. Losses to Utah, Toledo, Purdue and Northwestern, as well as all three rivals resulted in the worst season in 46 years. The first losing season since 1967. The most losses in school history. The end of the longest bowl streak in the nation.

Obviously Rodriguez was the wrong man for the job. His offense can’t hold up in the bruising Big Ten. He’ll be gone in two years. Michigan football is descending into obscurity.

I, however, do not believe the sky is falling. In fact, I’m actually excited about the direction of Michigan football.

Would I like to have avoided a losing season? Absolutely. Would I like to have gone to a 34th consecutive bowl game? You bet. Would I like to have beaten Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State to a pulp? More than anything.

But, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want.

As much as football fans hate it, especially in these days of immediate gratification, sometimes success requires perseverance through tough times.

Fritz Crisler, *Photo taken from bentley.umich.edu

Fritz Crisler, *Photo taken from bentley.umich.edu

With all the success that the Michigan football program has enjoyed in its storied history, it has had a proud tradition of leading the way on the college football landscape. From Fielding Yost’s “point-a-minute” teams and invention of the linebacker position in the early 1900s to Fritz Crisler’s “Mad Magicians” and institution of separate offensive and defensive units in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Michigan has a history of change and innovation.

Historically speaking, the hiring of Rodriguez is nothing new for Michigan football. Bennie Oosterbaan, who coached the Wolverines from 1948-58, was hailed as “the best offensive mind in college football” by Crisler. Many consider Rodriguez one of the top offensive minds in college football today.

It all comes down to a matter of perspective. Last season’s growing pains were not a reflection of Rodriguez’s coaching abilities or the fall of the Michigan football program. They were a result of a complete overhaul from one way of doing things to another.

Take Apple, for example. Throughout the 1980s, Apple Computer, Inc. dominated the computer market until it became outdated and passed up by its competitors.

In need of something new, the company overhauled its image and is now considered by Fortune magazine to be the most admired company in the world. One of its main criticisms during its downslide was its cost, but by enhancing its image and its product, consumers now know they are getting a great and “sexy” product despite the higher cost.

Apple was able to reinvent itself without losing its roots. Likewise, Michigan’s hiring of Rodriguez should be seen as a commitment to reinventing the football program and tapping into its rich tradition of innovation, rather than a departure from “Michigan football.”

Last season was hard to stomach for Michigan fans. Hearing opposing fans laugh in our misery makes it even worse. But despite that, it makes me even more proud to be a Michigan fan.

For my entire life, Michigan has been expected to win nearly every game it played. It was a great, and boastful feeling. Then Ohio State hired Jim Tressel, who has won seven of the eight games he has coached in the rivalry. Then Michigan lost four straight bowl games, including three Rose Bowls. Then, a senior-laden Michigan team lost at home to Appalachian State.

Suddenly, mighty Michigan was no longer feared. It became synonymous with underachieving. It no longer had the upper hand against its most bitter rival. Its leader for the last 13 years retired. A chapter had to be closed, and a new one had to be started.

Enter Rodriguez, an innovator who has had success everywhere he has been. He won 59 percent of his games at NAIA Glenville State in his first true head coaching position, then won 70 percent of his games at West Virginia, including four Big East titles in seven years.

*Photo by Jim Beaver, Sports Illustrated

*Photo by Jim Beaver, Sports Illustrated

He also coordinated Tulane’s offense to a 12-0 record in 1998, and took a Clemson offense that averaged just 19.9 points and 304 yards per game the year before he arrived to a 9-3 record in 2000, averaging 36 points and 446 yards per game.

The guy knows how to run and offense and he knows how to win. It just takes time.
Instead of big, hulking offensive linemen, he needs smaller, faster linemen. Goodbye Boren, Kurt Wermers, Dann O’Neill, Jeremy Ciulla, Grant DeBenedictis, Brett Gallimore and Alex Mitchell.

Instead of big, tall pro-style wide receivers, he needs small, quick slot-type guys. Goodbye Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Toney Clemons. Hello Terrence Robinson, Martavious Odoms, Roy Roundtree, Teric Jones and Jeremy Gallon.

Most importantly, instead of a tall, pro-style pocket-passing quarterback, he needs fast, shifty spread-option guys. Goodbye Ryan Mallet and Steven Threet. Hello Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.

Just like that, he’s got the foundation of his offense to develop for the next four or five years along with the subsequent recruiting classes.

Winning with a bunch of freshmen isn’t going to happen overnight. Once they learn and grow in the system, the winning will come.

As much as opposing fans like to call it an excuse, the truth is that it just takes time to overhaul your roster to fit your needs. Sure Rodriguez may have won a couple more games last season by running a “normal” offense, but at what cost? Is it worth preserving a couple of streaks to risk slowing down the reinvention process?

I say no. And that is where the excitement lies. Of course Rodriguez didn’t try to go 3-9 last season, but as the next couple of years play out and we gain more perspective, I am confident that we will look back on that season as a sort of necessary evil.

Just like when you’re building a new house and you can’t wait to move in, I can’t wait for the excitement of the new Michigan football when the renovation is complete. The teams that will be dazzling the Big Ten with lightning-quick backs and receivers, racking up points the way Crisler’s “Mad Magicians” did 62 years ago.

For now though, I’ll keep watching the new Michigan Wolverines take shape and grow. And I’ll find much more delight in watching the team go 7-5 in 2009 than I did when a Michigan team full of NFL talent went 7-5 in 2005.

And you never know, maybe this year’s team will overachieve.