The Michigan football program had become somewhat “soft” during Lloyd Carr’s waning years. The program lacked the conditioning necessary to maximize the talents of its athletes. Michigan was also riddled with a number of athletes who seemingly lost the desire to compete or even play football all together. While some of that can be blamed on Carr for not adapting to a more physically challenging conditioning program and for not having a coaching staff reputable enough to get the most out of its players, Carr was likely dealing with damaged goods before they ever stepped foot on campus. His inability to differentiate between levels of potential among similarly rated recruits is likely what caused an uncharacteristically high level of underachieving and burnout to begin with. It wasn’t his fault as a coach that he couldn’t get uninspired players to produce at a higher level but it was his fault as a recruiter that he even had those uninspired players to begin with.
Head over to the Rivals recruiting database and dial up any top 10 class from any year and you’ll quickly find that there are huge differences in college performance by similarly rated recruits. Some flourish while many more don’t. Picking out the “right” recruit—regardless of how many stars he has—is a skill that many coaches do not possess. Lloyd Carr won at Michigan because he basically had the pick of the litter. Among the rash of four star recruits he was privy to, there were bound to be the necessary number of skilled contributors to keep Michigan near the top of the Big Ten—and there were. Rich Rodriguez won at WVU for a very different reason. Despite having to select among the runts of the litter, he arguably fielded better teams at WVU than Carr did during his last few years at Michigan. The difference can be explained by the idea that Rodriguez is a superb evaluator of talent. While most fans—and many coaches—tend to assume that all four star recruits are of similar value to each other and that four stars is automatically better than three stars and so on, Rodriguez can look at two four star recruits and see two very different players and expected outcomes. I don’t know whether this comes from an innate ability to predict work ethic or sense a recruit’s passion for football or both. Maybe it’s just that he understands his system so well that players who would otherwise flounder in a traditional system look like a million bucks to him. Whatever it is, Rodriguez isn’t just a guy who maximizes talent with a clever system and a brutal strength and conditioning program. That’s just half the equation. He’s already ahead of his coaching colleagues before his players ever get to campus.
Much of Rodriguez’s success comes from recruiting attitude as much as skill. The result is the antithesis of a lazy locker room. Knowing who will make it through his rigorous practice regiments before they even get to campus keeps down the number of scholarships blown on guys who can’t hack it or inevitably lose the passion to play football. Unfortunately, that is something that infested Carr’s teams. Recruiting is like a giant game of Minesweeper. Those who look for as many highly-rated players as possible are essentially playing Minesweeper without adhering to the all-too-important numbers. In recruiting, Rodriguez pays attention to the “numbers”—or a certain set of attributes that predict success on the football field. Rodriguez knows what to look for on the recruiting trail and that has led to both individual and team success well beyond what is expected.
In the five seasons from 2004-08 (all Rodriguez recruits), the West Virginia football program produced 31 different players on the All-Big East First or Second Team. That was, by far, the most in the Big East over that span. A whopping 25 of them were either two star or unrated recruits according to Rivals. Twelve of those 25 two star recruits were selected to the All-Big East First Team. Two star recruits are a dime a dozen. Any big-time program can pretty much take any two star it wants without competition. Rodriguez’s rival coaches in the Big East had access to the same two star recruits that he ended up winning with. Their recruiting classes—like Rodriguez’s—featured a bevy of unknown recruits who were rejected by the major recruiting powers. The difference is that Rodriguez did a better job of identifying not just talent but attitudes, work ethic and passion for football than his rival coaches. Among the two star recruits who made All-Big East under Rodriguez were a number of position switches that might not have happened with “softer” recruits. Jeremy Scheffey was a two star DE recruit who made the All-Big East First Team as an offensive guard. Ken McLee was a two star running back recruit who ended up a First Team All-Big East linebacker. Mike Dent came in as a defensive end and made Second Team All-Big East as a center. Scooter Berry made the All-Big East Second Team as a DL after coming in as a running back. And then there’s Pat White who came in as a wide receiver and left as one of the most prolific QBs in college football history. How often under Carr did a player at Michigan switch positions and become an All-Conference contributor? When they failed to pan out under Carr, they did so miserably. It wasn’t by accident or poor luck (Antonio Bass aside). Rodriguez arms his rosters with moldable, hungry players who rarely “give up” or can’t hack it which reduces wasted scholarships.
Limiting the number of scholarships wasted on burnout virtually guarantees a high level of competition in practice which—not coincidentally—is one of Rodriguez’s self-professed calling cards. Competition in practice forces players to pick up their effort which leads to better results. Under Carr, enough players worked out to field a typical Michigan-caliber team but those players were cheated out of competition that only would’ve made them better. The inordinate number of burnouts under Carr gave Michigan’s first string a license to relax without fear of losing their job. Think of how much of a difference daily competition at all 22 starting positions makes compared to no competition at all. It’s very likely the difference between the soft product that Michigan put out on the field against Oregon in ’07 and the product West Virginia put out on the field against Oklahoma in the ’08 Sugar Bowl. Carr had a roster full of four stars who lacked competition and conditioning while Rodriguez had a roster of hand-picked two stars who were knee-deep in competition and as conditioned as any team in the country. The ability to predict success on the college level is an attribute—or a skill—that separates Rodriguez from the majority of D-I coaches. Sure, it helps that he has perfected an offensive system that defenses have not been able to defend. It also helps that he has one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. Those alone are enough to put a winning product on the field. What moves Rodriguez from a good-to-great coach is what he is able to see before his players ever get to college.
When Michigan hired Rodriguez, I was pretty fired up. I knew his arrival signified a departure from the days of conditioning built on pizza and twinkies. I knew his reputation of getting the most out of his players regardless of their “star rating” coming out of high school would pay major dividends. Rodriguez preached conditioning, competition, and transparency which were exactly what the program had been missing. It wasn’t until Rodriguez started recruiting at Michigan that I realized his ability to evaluate talent. Since coming to Michigan, Rodriguez has unearthed a number of under-the-radar recruits before the rest of the top programs could. Take Patrick Omameh, for example. He was a two-star MAC-level recruit from Ohio who had been ignored by Ohio State. Rodriguez extended an offer shortly before National Signing Day and Omameh accepted making him the only two-star recruit in Michigan’s 2008 recruiting class. Ohio State tried to get Omameh to change his mind but came to the party too late. Omameh quickly developed into one of Michigan’s most promising linemen and consistently receives praise as a star-in-waiting. Despite the 17 four-star players in Omameh’s class, there is a decent chance that he will end up being the best player of the lot.
Other examples of Rodriguez being the first in on a recruit are plentiful. He offered Cornelius Jones—a ‘10 Ath/QB from S.C.— way back in June 2008. Michigan only had four commitments for its 2009 class at the time. Jones still remains unrated by Rivals but has reportedly been approached by a number of SEC and southern schools trying to get him to flip his commitment. Rodriguez was in on Jones over a year before any of the other major programs showed interest. Recruits like Vincent Smith and Christian Pace—both three star recruits who are expected to flourish at Michigan—are other examples of Rodriguez identifying talent seemingly overlooked by other major programs.
Rodriguez was also first to the scene (among big boys anyways) on both Taylor Lewan and Jeremy Gallon in the 2009 class. Both were four star recruits so they weren’t exactly unknowns. However, both saw their stock and expectations rise significantly after they dazzled at the post-season All-American games. Lewan and Gallon illustrate what makes Rodriguez’s presence and future so exciting in Ann Arbor. He unearthed overlooked two star recruits at West Virginia and turned many into All-Conference performers while leading the program to unseen success. Imagine what he can get out of unearthing overlooked four star recruits at a place as prominent as Michigan.
I had previously overlooked Rodriguez’s ability to evaluate talent. I had just assumed that the magic started after his players got to school. It didn’t occur to me until he started recruiting at Michigan that a big part of his edge is gained well before his recruits ever put on a uniform. In fact, it was such an egregious slight on my part that the more I think of it, the more it seems possible that Rodriguez’s best attribute as a coach is his ability to evaluate and identify talent before everyone else. For a guy who invented and mastered the spread offense and has one of the top strength and conditioning programs in the country, that’s saying quite a bit.