Rich Rodriguez and Michigan Football

The Rich Rodriguez situation makes me sick. Not the 37-7 loss to Ohio State, not the 6-18 record vs. the Big Ten. Not the 7-5 record this year. The calls for his head.

Michigan is too established and classy an institution — or should be — to fire Rodriguez Monday. I even think it’s questionable whether relieving him in January would be called for. Two bad and one mediocre season are not a tragedy. Michigan is the winningest program in college football history. Hell, they pretty much INVENTED winning in college football. By the beginning of the 1900 season, Michigan was 91-29-4. (See the records at the Bentley Historical Library website) They pretty much taught Notre Dame how to play. It took Ohio State 15 tries to get their first win. Not only that, even with wins in their last 7 games, Ohio State is still down 44-57, with 6 ties. Michigan won the first Rose Bowl and has the most Rose Bowl appearances by a Big Ten team. Simply put, Michigan is THE superior football program in the country, with the greatest history and tradition. That is worth something. That is worth a LOT. But that tradition, that class, and the attraction of that solidity can easily be wasted by panicking, by chasing one or two more short term wins, and by dumping a coach and program that was expensive in terms of both money and time to build. Not to mention, it is pretty clear that this program has not even had a full cycle to develop.

To see what demanding Rich Rodriguez’ head will get Michigan, look no further than Notre Dame. Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis, now Brian Kelly — a revolving door of coaches who follow a pattern: big wins, good seasons, and unceremonious dumpings when Notre Dame failed to contend for BCS bowls. Does anyone fear them now? Who but the most devout Catholics would go there to play when the administration has demonstrated their ironic faithlessness?

The talk has been of Jim Harbaugh. This is a high stakes roll of the dice if David Brandon feels luckier than, say, Bill Martin in the head coach hiring game. Harbaugh has been impressive at Stanford and his bona fides are clear. Not to mention, he is a Michigan man. His comments in the spring of 2007, which in part implicated Michigan’s marginal academic standards for athletes, now seem to be forgiven and forgotten. However, the fervor for Jim Harbaugh illustrates my point — Michigan fans and players were pretty much as vehement in their criticism of Harbaugh then as they are in their ire for Rodriguez now. The way Lloyd Carr, Michael Hart, and Jamie Morris lashed out at Harbaugh, to varying degrees, in retrospect seems misplaced and defensive. Not only was Harbaugh basically right (just about anybody at Michigan has stories of major sports athletes), their responses were signs of a lack of confidence in what Michigan stands for that is as troubling as a middling season.

I think Harbaugh is terrific. I honestly think David Brandon would be wise to privately put out a feeler to Harbaugh, because he’s clearly a great recruiter and coach and still cares about Michigan. If I were Harbaugh, though, I would have mixed feelings about such a contact. He clearly has high standards and a respect for Michigan’s tradition. But he acknowledged that the words stung — not only because they were critical but because they illustrated a rejection of him, his values, and his contribution to Michigan. He has other options, as well — he’ll be one of the most in-demand coaches in the country this winter.

Firing Rodriguez pre-emptively is a stupid idea. Rolling the dice that Harbaugh is a done deal, as people seem to think it would be, is also stupid. So stupid it boggles my mind. When you don’t have a good recent record or a decent secondary, at least you can have class. Don’t show us that you don’t, Michigan.

1892 Michigan Fball

The goldbricking 1892 football team, which went a lousy 7-5 under the mediocre coaching of Frank Barbour.
Bentley Historical Library