Monday, December 17, 2007

Wolverines Blogging: Michigan Always Gets Its Man

So, yes, Michigan has a new coach and it's Richard "Bender" Rodriguez (Please Note: This is not the coach's actual nickname but, instead, what is referred to as an in-joke or an allusion to the show Futurama which I am somehow hoping to make stick. Hey, it could be worse. Some people I know wanted to refer to coach Carr as "Llo" in keeping with the Bo to Mo tradition. Keep in mind, though, that I am a humongous nerd.). And, well, good.

Rodriguez is just about everything I could want in a coach for my alma mater. He wasn't even on my radar screen but, although I never bothered to say so before, I wasn't quit in the "No Miles" club but I was exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of his leaving LSU, either. I'm not sure exactly what you'd want out of a candidate to coach at Michigan but Rodriguez has to cross off every checkmark.

  • He's been successful at a high level. The ACC isn't exactly the SEC or the Pac-10 but it's a BCS conference and WVU's been at the top of it for a while thanks to Rodriquez.
  • But he's overachieved somewhat, too. This is, I think, the biggest knock against a coach like Miles. You're expected, you're supposed to win at a school like LSU. It's a disappointment when you don't get to the national title and while it's not entirely brainless, you don't have to be amazingly innovative or spectacularly good to get ahead. Contrasted with a school that's not loaded down with talent and tradition and a coach who has to work to squeeze every last drop of talent out just to get to a respectable win-loss record and, well, I'll pick the latter, thank you very much.
  • He's young. Guy's only 44. If things work out, he could be there a long time. Not exactly how it goes in the modern game of college football but, you know, we like our coaches to stick around at Michigan.
  • He's brings in a breath of fresh air. Rodriguez is one of those coaches who plays that newfangled spread option that Michigan fans might have heard about. In fact, he practically created it. It's not exactly new to the Big Ten as Purdue and now the Zook-led Illinois have been putting spread offenses to good effect but the talent level at Michigan is a few steps higher. The complaint, under Carr, has been that the recruiting was there, the talent was there, but the team wasn't getting the most out of it. Now, that excuse should be gone. And the talented athletes that a top tier school attracts should be able to strut their stuff. And the best thing is, the spread option is going to be new, going to be different from the school that's churned out pocket passers like Brady and Griese and Harbaugh and more but it's going to fit in just fine. Because while the basis of it is spreading out the field with receivers, in the version that Rodriguez is credited with inventing, you do so to open up the field for running opportunities. It's the new model way of smashing people in the mouth and grinding them down with your running back. People focus on the spread but the real keyword is "option". It's not three yards and a cloud of dust but it's three downs and a lot of yards and I think the fans aren't going to object too much, as long as the victories are there.
  • He's not a Michigan Man. He's from the outside. He's not from within the system. That is, to me, a huge positive. I know people get all breathless about a "Michigan Man" and upholding the tradition and other coded phrases for keeping it within the family but, the truth is, there's nothing all that special about being connected to the program. You know who was the last coach the university brought in who didn't have any ties to previous coaching regimes? Schembechler. How'd that work out for them?
  • But he knows the area. West Virginia is surprisingly close to Michigan, when you get right down to it. Especially the lovely mountain areas, part of the Appalachians, that make for some nice scenery for a car trip or three - used to do it all the time, myself, when I was in school. And WVU sits along the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, part of the Pittsburg area (Which explains why their loss to Pitt was so crushing). It's mid-west, it's rust belt, and that means that Rodriguez knows the area, has the connections, and won't be at a loss when recruiting there especially if he manages to keep some continuity in his staff with some of the people who've been working the Michigan connections for years now.
  • He's even a minority of sorts. One of two hispanic coaches in the college game. Not as big a deal as, say, Ty Willingham, but, trust me, in the Detroit area, and at the school which fought the affirmative action battle tooth and nail, things like that can matter. I gather there's some controversy or deal about it and it's not like he looks like, well, Carlos Mencia or something, but fact remains, he's not lily white.

Down the list, there's reason after reason to say that the new coach sounds like the real deal. And if this is the second or third option, it's not exactly a bad one.

Look, there have only been two coaches at Michigan since the legendary Bo Schembechler, may he call fullback sweeps in eternal peace, retired. And while there's a long pedigree of distinguished and influential Michigan Men standing behind him, from Bump Elliot to Fritz Crisler. From Oosterban to Yost. The man coached for twenty years and put an undeniable stamp on the program. Bo was the coach from the time I was born to the time I was grown up enough to understand just how important he was. And it's hard to imagine Michigan football without him. But to suggest that, now, a mere three successors on there's some kind of mold or pattern that a Michigan coach has to fulfill is disingenuous. We are, we were, in relatively uncharted waters here and, history suggests, making a decision that was going to impact the football team for a long, long time. So all the talk of "Michigan Men" and coaches who had to be this and that didn't matter to me. The Michigan coach needs to do one thing. And that's win. Everything else is of secondary concern.

Winning at Michigan isn't as easy as it seems, of course, and hiring a new coach was an opportunity to not just keep winning but to vault into a new level of competition. The right coach, with the right staff and the right scheme and the right team, could push Michigan to the point where hated OSU is now. Competing not just for the conference but the national title regularly. Earning a name based on recent accomplishments and not just history.

It's not the kind of choice you want to make hastily. You don't want to run out and grab the nearest warm body to look like you haven't been spurned no matter what the sports media and talk radio and all the people who devote their lives to tracking and obsessing about recruiting battles and prospects who might one day play for you might say. The urge, the rush, to get things over and done with, the panic at the thought that Michigan's athletic department might somehow be acting slowly and deliberately was just bizarre to me. Look, it's Michigan, it's going to get recruits no matter who's coaching there. So a few people waver, it doesn't matter. Not enough that you need to make a mistake, to act without considering the implications, without placating the many factions at play, no matter what the columnists write. No matter what the talking heads on SportsCenter say. Not, at least, if the Michigan brand still means anything. And, I think, the hiring of Rodriguez proves and will come to prove in the days and years to come that it still does.

The danger of course, is that we haven't gotten another Schembechler or even another Carr but another Gary Moeller. He was the chosen successor to Bo, if you remember, not Carr. And while he put up a respectable record - his were the teams of Desmond Howard and Tshimanga Biakabutuka, after all - he left the program in disgrace, having tarnished it and himself with one too many drinks and one too many dark nights. The big fear, if you ask me, among the Michigan faithful is a repeat of what happened with Nebraska, and an interregnum coach who flames out in glory. Either because of scandal, like Moeller, or because they bolt for greener pastures. There's no shame like losing your coach, after all, and it's one that Michigan just isn't used to, and find hard to conceive that anyone would find any job better than the one there. We're, you know, arrogant that way. And with a coach who has no ties to the university and the community, it's a risk even though it's hard to believe that there'd be a better job out there to temp Rodriquez away any time soon, he left his seeming dream job - a Mountaineer born and bred, who grew up rooting for, who played for, and wound up coaching the West Virginia team - when a tempting offer came along.

There's concerns about the personnel you need to run the spread option effectively, too, as that's not exactly what Michigan has at the moment. But at least one highly rated QB prospect seems likely to follow Rodriguez to Ann Arbor even if that means problems with formerly highly rated QB prospect of the future/present Mallet.

So, things aren't perfect but, then, they never could be. Rodriquez is an amazing hire and, if you ask me, the future is looking pretty bright. But there's only one way to tell for sure, and that's to lace them up and play.

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