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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).