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Throwback: How a storied football program ended up in the ditch

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Brady Hoke (right) re-establishes the U-M football tradition of hiring head coaches from within the family. But will that be enough to re-establish the U-M tradition of winning?

Brady Hoke (right) re-establishes the U-M football tradition of hiring head coaches from within the family. But will that be enough to re-establish the U-M tradition of winning?

This story originally ran in the March 2011 edition of The Ann.

By JIM CARTY

To a neutral and detached observer, the press conferences might have looked like different performances of the same play.

The theater was a room between Michigan Stadium and Crisler Arena, filled with big-screen televisions and athletics décor. Both audiences were a mix of applauding fans, television crews and reporters. There were introductory speeches by two somewhat defensive athletic directors, followed by beaming middle-aged coaches introducing their families and confidently promising big things for the University of Michigan football program.

Three years and two weeks separated the introductions of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke as the 18th and 19th head football coaches in the 131-year history of the University of Michigan, and what happened in between is a cautionary tale in which seemingly everyone who touched the program came away burned or bruised.

But the outsider and the insider both began their Michigan head coaching tenures with moments of promise and fawning media coverage.

Rich Rod: Came to Michigan as an outsider. And left as one. | U-M Photo Services

Rich Rod: Came to Michigan as an outsider. And left as one. | U-M Photo Services

Maybe Rodriguez was doomed from the start, but it sure wasn’t obvious at the start. Nobody heard the Josh Groban or picked up a whiff of rotting defense. Rodriguez sounded like a confident professional, albeit with a West Virginia twang. He’d won big before and expected to win big again.

Three years later, much was made about the fact that Hoke is somehow different because he is the insider. The man who hired him proudly declared that one of the new coach’s strengths is he knows the words to “The Victors.” When 15 to 20 former players turned out for Hoke’s press conference, they were seen by some media and fans as a concrete sign of the support Rodriguez, the outsider, was said to lack.

But watching the handful of mostly 20-something and 30-something former players mill around and occasionally nervously introduce themselves to people, it was hard to put much stock in all the talk about divisions in the family. These guys somehow represented part of the forces that undermined Rodriguez? These guys — and the ability to belt out “The Victors” — were part of why Hoke would succeed?

Up close, it just didn’t seem like it could be that simple.

But the moral of these past three years, if there is one, may be that fans and media (or fans acting as media) reject nuance and complexity. They like things simple. Good guys and bad guys. Whether you were “all in” for Rodriguez, or all out, you saw what you wanted to see and dismissed the rest.

THE CASUALTY LIST

Before we talk about perception, though, let’s look at the aftermath, mostly because it lays out the actors quite nicely.

For all the talk about factions and agendas, nobody won.

The old athletic director. The new athletic director. The old football coach. The first new football coach. The current new football coach. The bloggers and post-Schembechler young bloods who viewed Rodriguez as the personalization of their rise to power. The conspiracy theorists and their (perhaps) mythical secret society of former players working to destroy the new coach. The proud alumni turned despised Detroit Free Press reporters who brought the NCAA to town. The Stanford messiah turned NFL scoundrel for jilting his alma mater.

It’s hard to see anybody on that list declaring victory or, if they did, being acknowledged as Victors.

And let’s not forget the kids who had to suffer through 3-9, 5-7 and 7-6 seasons and spent three years living in some sort of weird college football soap opera. Maybe you could have made an argument for Denard Robinson, perhaps the most exciting player in college football last season, but now the dreadlocked boy wonder is stuck in a forced marriage with a head coach who’d probably prefer John Navarre at quarterback.

No, no winners.

Oh, except Les Miles, of course. The prodigal Michigan son ended up a sympathetic figure after losing the Michigan job to Rodriguez, won a national championship weeks later, and then (maybe?) turned down Michigan the second time around, walking away with more money, more love and seemingly no hard feelings from anybody.

But that’s Les Miles and, well , anybody who follows college football knows things just work out for Les.

WHEN 9-4 WAS THE PROBLEM

For four decades prior to Rodriguez’ hiring, Michigan never experienced a losing season. The Wolverines hired Bo Schembechler in 1969 and began a dynastic run of success that ended on Jan. 2, 2008, the day Lloyd Carr was carried off the field in Orlando after an entertaining upset of the Florida Gators and Tim Tebow.

Bo Schembechler was a fiery leader who won a lot of regular season games and lost a surprising number of bowls: He was 5-12 in bowl games at Michigan. | U-M Photo Services

Bo Schembechler was a fiery leader who won a lot of regular season games and lost a surprising number of bowls: He was 5-12 in bowl games at Michigan. | U-M Photo Services

Until his death about a year earlier, Schembechler had maintained an office in the football building that bore his name. He’d brought both of the men who succeeded him to Michigan, first Gary Moeller and then Carr.

Schembechler was beloved in a way Carr never was, even after he led the Wolverines to a shared national title in 1997. Carr was liked, but as his tenure wore on and his winning percentage against Ohio State fell, he was liked less and less. His final season, a 9-4 campaign that began with a nearly unimaginable loss to Appalachian State, was widely seen as an epic disappointment.

 Carr’s retirement was seen by many fans, particularly younger fans, as a chance to break away from the defense-first Schembechler legacy and embrace one of the various spread offensive philosophies that had excited recruits and had been giving Michigan fits for years.

Rodriguez was the embodiment of that hope.

He was an early pioneer of the spread offense and had used it to turn West Virginia — a school with no natural recruiting base to speak of — into a Big East power that beat Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, and had spent much of the 2007 season in the thick of the national championship race.

He fell into Michigan’s lap when the coaching search for Carr’s replacement seemed dead in the water after Rutgers’ Greg Schiano turned down the job twice. There was no hint of Rodriguez on the radar, and then suddenly he was leaving West Virginia for Michigan after a secret meeting with athletic director Bill Martin and school president Mary Sue Coleman in Toledo.

As anyone even vaguely familiar with Michigan football now knows, Rodriguez was not embraced by some segments of the fan base and local media.

This was almost immediately apparent when he drew criticism for firing all but one member of Carr’s coaching staff, failing to try to persuade quarterback Ryan Mallett not to transfer, and scrapping the Wolverines’ tradition of appointing senior captains. Rodriguez had his own tradition — he would appoint captains each game. He had his own assistants, and he was bringing as many of them with him as he could.

These were little things, but they were the start of a rift that would define Rodriguez’ tenure. Given the limited space here, it’s impossible to list every transgression and rumored transgression. But here’s one: Justin Boren did the unthinkable. A starting offensive lineman and son of a former Michigan player, Boren transferred to Ohio State midway through Rodriguez’ first spring practice, ripping the new coach and his staff for destroying the “family atmosphere” Carr had created. That was a big one.

After the Wolverines struggled to a completely unanticipated 3-9 record in Rodriguez’ first season, including a stunning loss to Toledo, the Detroit Free Press dropped a bombshell days before the start of Michigan’s second season, quoting current and former players, some anonymously, as saying that Rodriguez and his staff had broken numerous NCAA rules related to supervision and practice.

The Free Press story seemed to be a breaking point. You were either all in for Rodriguez or you were the enemy to those who were.

The pro-Rodriguez camp was headquartered at MGoBlog, where publisher Brian Cook had spent years chafing under Carr’s approach to college football and immediately embraced Rodriguez. Cook became the coach’s No. 1 defender whether the enemy was enraged West Virginia fans, Boren or the Free Press. He went as far as to confront the authors of the Free Press story — Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder — at a press conference, in an attempt to get them to address what he saw as the flaws in their work. It was an awkward scene, with Cook barking questions and Rosenberg later saying he was uncertain who Cook even was.

Lloyd Carr may not have been as beloved as Bo Schembechler, but he upheld Schembechler’s winning legacy at Michigan. | U-M Photo Services

Lloyd Carr may not have been as beloved as Bo Schembechler, but he upheld Schembechler’s winning legacy at Michigan. | U-M Photo Services

The moment is the perfect symbol of the divide and debate over Rodriguez.

On the one side you had two professional journalists, both Michigan alumni, who had been relatively inconspicuous during long tenures covering Carr. They would insist to you that they treated Rodriguez fairly and professionally.

On the other side you had Cook, representing every fan who was all in, believing he was perfectly entitled to subject Snyder and particularly Rosenberg to the same scrutiny they were subjecting Rodriguez to. He seemed completely certain the Free Press was being unfair to Rodriguez.

Regardless of which side you agree with, the roles calcified and never changed.

For Rodriguez’ entire tenure, Cook backed the coach to the hilt and the Free Press seemed to take a more critical eye than any other media outlet. The Free Press and Rosenberg became the official enemies of the program to many fans, and Cook the official defender.

There was more to it than one blogger and one newspaper, of course. Rumors of forces against Rodriguez in the athletic department. Carr and former Michigan players actively working against Rodriguez. Too many stories and theories to fit in anything less than a book. How much of it was truth and how much of it was excuse-making and paranoia won’t ever be known.

The motivation behind this perceived assassination was never deeply explored. Rodriguez was an outsider. He wasn’t part of the Schembechler past. He had a West Virginia accent and wanted to change things. And, of course, the media is always trying to build itself up by tearing someone down. What more did you need to know?

The idea that perhaps Rodriguez had made missteps was never seriously explored. Perhaps the greatest illustration of this was the ease with which the first significant NCAA sanctions in the football program’s history were dismissed as irrelevant and trumped up, despite the very real sanctions that came with them.

Out of this dynamic came an Internet truth: The old guard had never and would never support Rodriguez, and this is why he failed.

With his job slipping away, even Rodriguez addressed it. At the team’s annual senior banquet in December, he fought back tears, talked about his struggles at Michigan and predicted a still-bright future, finally declaring, “(m)y name is Rich Rodriguez. I’m honored to be the football coach at Michigan. I hope you realize I want to be a Michigan Man.”

He called for a healing of the rift, read some lyrics from Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” and then asked everyone to join hands as the Groban song was played.

A witness present said Rodriguez’ boss, athletic director David Brandon, made a concerted effort to study the floor as the song played.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOOTBALL?

What’s past is prologue.

The Shakespeare quote has become colloquial shorthand for the idea that history repeats itself, but its original meaning in “The Tempest” is more apropos to the situation Rodriguez found himself in last August.

The stage was set, and Rodriguez could make his own destiny.

The consensus held that he could save his job with a winning season and a bowl game, and the odds shifted in his favor when Robinson proved to be perhaps the most exciting player in college football.

It was impossible to look at the player Robinson was when he walked on campus a year earlier, and the player he was when he shredded Notre Dame for more than 500 yards of total offense (258 yards rushing on 28 carries, and 244 yards passing on 24 completions in 40 attempts), and not credit Rodriguez and his staff with the ability to see Robinson’s potential at quarterback (when most schools were recruiting him as a running back) and the skills to then develop him into that quarterback in a little more than 12 months.

Robinson’s smile was almost as electric as his legs, and if he was quiet off the field, that was hardly a problem at a school where quarterbacks Tom Brady, John Navarre and Chad Henne had made college careers out of earnestly saying nothing.

The Denard Show started 5-0 and then lost competitive games to Michigan State (34-17) and Iowa (38-28). And it was clearly the Denard Show, as opponents averaged more than 28 points per game against the much-maligned Michigan defense.

Michigan and Robinson had to outscore teams to win, and that seemed OK until the Wolverines headed to State College, Pa., and lost 41-31. The Associated Press game story declared that Robinson had been upstaged by a former walk-on, third-string Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, who was making his first career start because Lions starter Rob Bolden had been sidelined with a concussion. McGloin (250 yards passing) and tailback Evan Royster (150 yards rushing) simply shredded Rodriguez’ defense.

“The most frustrating thing,” Rodriguez said afterward, “was when it’s third and long, and you know they’re going to run it, because they’ve gotta kill they clock, and they still get a first down. Those are frustrating to everybody. I’m sure it’s frustrating to all of our fans, and our guys too. I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re getting overpowered or we’re not getting off blocks or what the case is.”

Whatever it was, he never figured it out, with Michigan allowing 450.7 yards per game to finish 110th out of 120 Division I teams in total defense.

The Wolverines won their next two games, but then lost to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Gator Bowl opponent Mississippi State by a combined score of 137 to 49, with the opponent’s margin of victory never less than 20 points.

The consensus preseason prediction had been 7-5, and Rodriguez finished 7-6 and was fired four days after getting blown out in the Gator Bowl.

Would he have been fired at 8-4? It seems unlikely, even with the Groban goings-on.

On the day Hoke was hired, former coach Gary Moeller waved away a question about healing the perceived divisions within the Michigan program. It was all overblown, Moeller said, just a byproduct of the one thing that did matter: losing.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, they’re divided and they’re siding up here and siding up there.’ It was the frustration with losing,” Moeller said. “You know why? Because they weren’t used to it. … All these people for some 20 years, and half these players in the program, they’d never lost, and they’d never seen their teammates lose. That was the frustration more than anything else.”

Even if there was a real and damaging conspiracy against Rodriguez, isn’t it on the coach that he couldn’t beat a third-string quarterback and a mediocre Penn State team to save his job? After three recruiting classes? With Robinson piling up almost 400 yards of total offense? With Michigan giving him every resource he asked for?

Didn’t he just lose too much?

PERCEPTION V. REALITY

That’s one conclusion.

There’s another: Rodriguez improved in each of his three seasons. He made a New Year’s Day bowl and won seven games in a year where the consensus preseason prediction had his team tabbed for seven wins and a minor bowl. He found and developed Robinson, who will undoubtedly be among the preseason Heisman Trophy favorites next season and is the most exciting Michigan talent since Charles Woodson.

It’s hardly inconceivable that Rodriguez could have continued his upward trend and won 10 or 11 games next year. All Michigan really needed to do was play average defense and continue what it was doing on offense.

Brandon, who had been selected to replace Martin earlier in 2010, could have kept him.

Not at the end, after the athletic director let Rodriguez twist in the wind for a month, not after Michigan was destroyed by Mississippi State, but earlier? Sure. Brandon could have held a November press conference and said Rodriguez would be back. It would have been divisive and criticized by some and defended and applauded by others, just like seemingly every other Rodriguez-related decision.

And that debate might have been the biggest reason why Brandon fired him. The losing record, the NCAA investigation and the Groban thing sure couldn’t have helped, but Brandon’s post-firing comments strongly hinted that he was simply tired of the ongoing argument.

“We have been divided to a large extent and we continue to be divided based on all of the various opinions and inputs that I get,” the athletic director said in a press conference after firing Rodriguez. “And clearly, if we want to be successful … we need to rally around our new coach, don’t find fault, don’t make hasty judgments before they arrive on campus.”

In the week that followed, Brandon discovered, like Martin before him, that nothing can batter a reputation for competency quite as quickly as the hyper-intense daily coverage of the search for a new head football coach at a college football power. Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh jilted Brandon for the NFL. Media reports had both Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel turning down Michigan’s overtures. There was a trip to see Miles that may or may not have been a serious job offer, or may or may not have simply been cover to make the Miles faction of Michigan alums happy.

By the time Hoke was unveiled as the new coach, the various Michigan factions had finally found something they could agree upon: their disappointment in how Brandon had handled the firing and the search.

As for Hoke, the 52-year-old former Michigan assistant became a coveted coaching commodity after turning around woeful programs at Ball State and San Diego State. He had played coy at earlier overtures from Minnesota and Colorado. He was an unapologetic fan of the defense-first, run-oriented football that the Bo-Mo-Carr school had made their trademark.

The one thing he did in his press conference that was markedly different from Rodriguez was the one thing Rodriguez couldn’t have ever done with any believability: Hoke made it clear that he saw Michigan the same way its fans did, as a singular special place. He called this his dream job, one that he could never envision leaving.

But he was not Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback turned hottest coaching candidate in the country. Not even close.

The web headline on a Rosenberg column summarized a generally underwhelmed reaction quite nicely: “Hoke is better than you think.”

On MGoBlog, where only weeks before Cook had predicted that “(u)nless meteors hit both Jim Harbaugh and Rich Rodriguez, the chance Brady Hoke is Michigan’s coach in 2011 is zero point zero percent” … well … after writing that Hoke seems like a nice enough guy and none of this is his fault, Cook made it clear that he was once again a member of the loyal opposition:

“What are the chances that the best available coach is a 52-year-old with a 47-50 career record and no experience as a coordinator? …

“I’d rather have Rich Rodriguez entering year four with a new defensive staff than this, a total capitulation. Does anyone remember Tressel’s record against Lloyd Carr? 5-1. Change was necessary. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean you go back to the stuff that required change.”

Whether Hoke actually goes back to the stuff that didn’t work remains to be seen, but maybe it doesn’t matter. To some, Hoke is Lloyd Carr, even though he hasn’t coached a game at Michigan, let alone chewed out a sideline reporter or been mugged by Jim Tressel. To others, Hoke is a Michigan Man, regardless of the fact he received his undergraduate degree from Ball State and has coached all over the country. Positives for some, negatives for others, reality as we choose to perceive it.

Because that’s what they both want him to be.

Ten days after Rodriguez was fired, several hundred people gathered in a chilly parking lot in Wayne County. There, next to a Salvation Army meals truck were two white tents, one of them strung with a red-lettered sign reading “Coach’s Closet.” A crowd flecked with maize and blue watched as a man standing on a table auctioned off more than 400 items of U-M clothing, all donated by Rodriguez only days after his firing. A Salvation Army official told the media the organization raised more than $16,000 from the sale.

Among the items was what appeared to be a Gator Bowl shirt that Rodriguez wore while coaching his last game at Michigan.

Maybe there’s some poignancy there, a man who never really belonged cleaning out hundreds of reminders of something gone horribly wrong and getting it out of the house as soon as possible. Or maybe it’s just a story of a guy realizing he wouldn’t have much use for a bunch of Michigan stuff going forward and putting it to the best use he could. Rich Rodriguez hasn’t said.

The outsider revealing his true colors, showing one final time he wasn’t a Michigan man or a misunderstood good guy, never really given a chance? Is it that simple?

You can pick a side. You probably already have.

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