Transitioning a football program from a pro-style offense to a spread offense is tough enough regardless of the situation. When that transition takes place in the face of a relentless media storm at an elite program that has historically fought change, the job becomes a nightmare. Rich Rodriguez clearly enjoys being at Michigan. I know this because despite the heaping pile of garbage that he has had to deal with from bitter old men with deadlines to dimwitted fans, he keeps showing up with a smile on his face. He has received more criticism in the last year than most coaches receive in a lifetime. It has gotten so petty that most of it has taken on a life of its own. Here’s a recap of just some of the misconceptions and why you’re a tool if you believe them…
1). Rodriguez ruined Michigan’s season because he “put all his eggs” in the Terrell Pryor-basket.
That would be true, I suppose, if it were “Opposite Day.” Rodriguez didn’t get to hit the recruiting trail until the beginning of January—only one month before signing day. Most quarterbacks had long been signed by other programs. He told anyone who would listen that he was trying to sign two quarterbacks. He strongly pursued, B.J. Daniels and Chris Harper before being forced to go with Justin Feagin. Rumors at various internet-locations suggest Rodriguez stopped recruiting Daniels when he asked for money. The Pryor-saga went on for more than two months after signing day. By that time, Michigan had already come up empty in its quest to find a QB. Going after Pryor at that point was a no-brainer. Had Rodriguez not pursued Pryor, he would’ve been criticized for that, too. It must be great to be Rodriguez.
2). Rodriguez doesn’t care about tradition because he didn’t know that Michigan gives its #1 jersey to a wide receiver.
So, yeah. He cares so little about tradition that when he found out about the #1 jersey he apologized and rectified the situation. I’ve even heard the “tradition” angle used in conjunction with Rodriguez’s preference to name captains after the season rather than before. Yeah, that’s right. Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez to implement an entirely new system but be totally unoriginal in doing so. Since when are coaches criticized for how they select captains? The fact that people can say this with a straight face is concerning.
3). Rodriguez is a money-hungry, job-hopper for leaving WVU.
This is easily the most egregious of the misconceptions because it sounds the worst. Ready to hear how much of a money-chaser Rodriguez is? He was so concerned about money that he ditched West Virginia for a measly $750,000 per year raise. That’s a lot of money to you and me but it’s not enough to put him among the top ten paid coaches in college football. He makes $4 million less than Bob Stoops per year. He makes $500,000 less than Kirk Ferentz in his own conference. The “job-hopper” part would be compelling if virtually every coach in college football hasn’t left a job while under contract. Remember the outrage when—just four months after signing a contract extension with Cincinnati through 2010—Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati to go to Michigan St.? Oh, wait...there wasn’t any.
4). Rodriguez broke an unwritten “code” among Big Ten coaches by signing an in-conference decommitment.
Mark Dantonio broke the sacred “code” twice this year. Joe Paterno did it twice to Michigan this year. In fact, six of the eleven Big Ten teams did it this year alone. One who didn’t? Rich Rodriguez. You won’t hear that from the media, though. “Coaches doing normal things” doesn’t sell newspapers unless its Rodriguez doing them.
5). Rodriguez is a weasel for trying to duck the buy-out clause in his WVU contract.
Yep, it’s big, bad Rich Rodriguez’s fault because the Michigan Athletic Department—you know, the party responsible for paying the majority of RR’s buyout—wanted to negotiate to save itself some money. You might remember the exact same scenario sans the criticism when Michigan hired John Beilein from the same institution just a year earlier. The only difference was that without the bogus “outrage”, the Michigan Athletic Department was able to reduce the buyout in Beilein’s contract. Ripping the 'M' AD for trying to reduce a buyout doesn't sell. That's why it got pinned on Rodriguez.
6). Rodriguez ruined his first season at Michigan because he drove off Ryan Mallett.
I hear new ones all the time. This is one I heard recently. Yep, it was Rodriguez who drove Mallett off and not the other way around. Naturally, Mallett—a slow, 6’9, pro-style quarterback—was just dying to run the spread offense until mean, old Rich Rodriguez told him to get lost. Plus, Mallett was so good the year before—extreme sarcasm intended—that he certainly would’ve led Michigan to a bowl game despite being a Steve Threet-clone. You either have a dual-threat QB or you don't. Michigan didn't and won three games. Rodriguez didn't have one in his first year at WVU and also won three games. It's not rocket science.
Here’s an idea that someone can make money off of. Instead of picking and choosing what to blame RR for, let’s just blame him for everything. South Park made the phrase “Blame Canada” famous. Someone needs to make a shirt that reads, “Blame Rodriguez.” A guy who’s responsible for pretty much all of the ills in the universe at least deserves a shirt, wouldn’t you say?
Implementing the spread at a stubborn college football institution is hard enough. Doing it while undergoing one of the most misguided character assassinations in sports history ramps up the degree of difficulty just above a Bear Grylls journey to Patagonia and just below ripping a Krispy Kreme doughnut from Charlie Weiss’ hands. Rodriguez is smart enough to know the worst is likely over. That’s why you saw him grinning with glee on network after network discussing his latest recruiting class on signing day. The critics get uncharacteristically quiet when they are forced to look at the facts.
RR’s second recruiting class—and first full class—represents a symbolic move forward. The local media—the most unaccommodating media perhaps in America—couldn’t negatively spin RR’s second consecutive top-ten recruiting class even if it tried—and believe me it tried. The addition of Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson—two of the top dual threat QBs in the country—gives all of the bashers a very short window to get in last minute jabs. As long as Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan were RR’s only QBs, people were lining up to lob criticism. The Sparty-heavy local media—you know the one that ran the erroneous headline claiming that Michigan St. might have a better recruiting class than ‘M’ for the first time in 20 years—knows that those days are going to be over sooner than later. Mark Dantonio—whether he admits it or not—knows that beatdowns are coming his way. This isn’t the first time I’ve said this but the equation for success in college football is simply “elite talent plus elite coaching.” It is incredibly rare—in fact, I can’t think of a single instance of this unless you want to call Charlie Weiss an elite coach—for a football program to have an elite coach and elite football players and not be a powerhouse. Before Rodriguez turned heel and hated babies, he was universally considered among the top coaches in college football. It’s tough to argue that Michigan isn’t working its way to having one of the most talented groups of players in college football considering consecutive top ten recruiting classes and another one on the way next season. Barring an unforeseen tragedy, Michigan’s future under RR is inevitable. It is amazing to me that there are people out there who don’t realize this.
Before I dig into Michigan’s class, let’s get the ridiculous Michigan St.-comparison out of the way. If you think Michigan St. beat Michigan in recruiting this year, then your name is either Tom Lemming, Mark Dantonio, or you’re in your 8th year of undergrad at MSU. Although the discrepancy between the two classes was bigger in Scout’s rankings, I prefer Rivals so I will use Rivals to make the comparison. Another of the seemingly million examples of the media’s distortion of RR, is the claim that Michigan St. dominated Michigan on the in-state recruiting scene. That argument only works if everyone pretends that Rodriguez actually focused on the players Michigan St. signed. William Campbell was, by far, the #1 player in the state. In fact, the difference between Campbell and the #2 in-state prospect could be the greatest discrepancy between #1 and #2 in Michigan recruiting history. Rodriguez wanted Campbell and he got Campbell. After that, he largely ignored the state’s underwhelming 2009-talent. The 2010 in-state crop is considerably more talented and RR has responded with a bevy of offers. People usually look at what they own before they brag about owning it. Of the top 250 players in the country according to Rivals, Michigan scored 13. The #1 Rivals recruiting class in the country—Alabama—also came away with 13. Michigan St. came away with four. Woo hoo! MSU owns a brand new P.T. Cruiser. Brag away! Michigan came away with a Benz and boy are they jealous of State's pimpin' wheels. Why do I get the feeling that the spinsters are seriously considering the “opposite day” angle?
RR’s first full class at Michigan could be the best class the program has had since at least 2002 which is as far back as the Rivals database goes. Nobody is going to confuse this class with the 1998 haul that was possibly the greatest ‘M’ class of all-time. It’s pretty damn good, though--good enough to be ranked the 7th best class in the country by Rivals. Considering it was put together in the face of a 3-9 season and negative recruiting that would make Coach Pete Bell proud, I think it’s safe to say that Rodriguez is entering the elite realm of recruiters. Over the last two years, Rodriguez has signed 31 four-star (including one five-star) recruits. That’s impressive for any school. Among the positions that were strengthened significantly by this recruiting class are offensive line, defensive line, and quarterback. Michigan signed three four-star linemen. With six true freshmen linemen redshirting last season, Michigan will have nine freshmen linemen entering 2009. The defensive line was probably the most impressive position group with the addition of Campbell, Craig Roh, and Anthony LaLota. Roh is a fierce pass-rusher who garnered considerable praise at the Under Armour AA game. Then, to the chagrin of Jim Tressell, Michigan landed Justin Turner who was the #1 player in the state of Ohio. Of the 22 signees, 10 played in either the Under Armour or U.S. Army High School All-American Game.
Michigan Stadium is undergoing a major facelift with an ETA of Fall 2010. If you drive back and forth across the intersection of Stadium and Main a few times, it is unlikely that you will find people ridiculing the scaffolding and construction equipment as eye soars and the workers for not being finished yet. That would look incredibly silly and would quite likely result in being admitted to the psychiatric ward of the University of Michigan Hospital. The Michigan football program is under construction. The only difference is that the ETA is unknown. So, laugh and ridicule at your own peril. Oh, and by the way, I thought about adding in advance “Rodriguez has no class because he runs up the score” to the misconception list above but that won't be a misconception. RR’s rebuttal is going to be fun.