This isn't meant to be an advanced lesson in human relations or the human psyche. None of this is revolutionary. It's just a simple explanation for why so many people want Rich Rodriguez to fail. People from all walks of life with differing opinions on everything from religion to race to politics have no problem agreeing that Rodriguez is a poor coach and a compromised man. Michigan fans who couldn't name four players on the football roster have no problem concluding that he has run the program into the ground with shady values. How can it be that a guy who was an outstanding coach and, by all accounts, a great role model for his players in the state of West Virginia all of a sudden become a morally corrupt underachiever in the state of Michigan? Logically speaking, that transition doesn't make sense. In our world--a world where perception is reality--logic is irrelevant. What matters is the story that's being told and more importantly, the motives behind the people who are telling the story. People want Rodriguez to fail because they don't like him. They don't like him because they're being trained not to like him.
Not everyone against Rodriguez is ignorant. Some--the minority--are simply opportunistic. This subgroup isn't basing their opinion on mistruths, rather its creating the mistruths. These people have ulterior motives and/or visions for the Michigan football program that don't include Rodriguez. So, yes, there are people out there who don't want Rodriguez to succeed who know full well that he isn't the anti-Christ. However, the vast majority of people who dislike Rodriguez do so because they don't know any better. They've either gotten their information from the people I just referred to who have political motivations or they've gotten it from slanted media coverage. In some cases, they're one in the same.
If you are a Michigan fan, then the anti-Michigan coverage in the local newspapers has been as conspicuous as Charlie Weis in a bikini. If you aren't a Michigan fan, or if you've been quick to buy into the anti-Rodriguez view, then you probably haven't noticed not because it wasn't obvious but because you didn't want to notice. Obvious examples of this have been going on since the day he arrived in Ann Arbor. It started with questioning his character for shredding top-secret, classified documents that never happened. It quickly moved to portraying him as less than honorable for not immediately agreeing to pay his West Virginia buyout (Fighting the buyout was the decision of the Michigan AD). Then it moved to his supposed desecration of Michigan's traditions. Then came the propaganda touting MSU as a rising power and the superior in-state program. The latter was based almost solely on nothing but it didn't stop the newspapers from selling it and the readership from buying it. If you were a Michigan State fan, you'd probably buy it too.
One of the more shameless manipulations came from Mick McCabe of the Detroit Free Press. The local media had been rallying behind MSU's in-state dominance in recruiting for some time (Again, something that simply wasn't true). In August, McCabe released his annual ranking of the top high school football players in Michigan. The state's top player by virtually every reputable national recruiting source is Inkster's Devin Gardner. Gardner isn't just a consensus top 60 player in the country, he is Rivals and MaxPrep's top rated QB in the country. He was one of the top performers at the EA Sports Elite 11 Camp. When the Detroit Free Press released its list, the only suspense was whether it would continue its MSU-bias by rating Spartan-commitment William Gholston out of Detroit first pushing Gardner to second. Gholston is a highly-rated recruit in his own right and the only in-state player even remotely in Gardner's class. As it turned out, Gardner wasn't number one. That went to Gholston as expected. Inconceivably, Gardner wasn't two, three, or four either. In fact, Mick McCabe didn't even think Gardner was one of the top five players in Michigan. McCabe had three in-state Spartan-commitments rated ahead of Gardner. One, Nick Hill, was forced to commit to his second choice--MSU--when his first choice--Michigan--decided not to offer a scholarship. He can't be found in the Rivals250 or Scout250 and is rated the #46 RB in the country by Scout. Either McCabe purposefully penned another anti-Michigan piece, or he is the worst sports writer in the country. As much as I would love it to be the latter, I'm not stupid enough to believe that. If you are a Detroit News or Free Press reader who doesn't follow recruiting closely, after reading McCabe's article, you will likely perceive Michigan State as the dominating in-state recruiting force. You will have no knowledge of the fact that Michigan has secured the state's top in-state player according to virtually all of the major recruiting services. I would assume that is information that you might want to know.
As horribly biased as the Gardner-debacle was, it wasn't the local media's most slanted work. That goes to its unequal coverage of two criminal issues: one involving Michigan and the other involving Michigan State. Rich Rodriguez dismissed Justin Feagin from the Michigan football team in late-July. The details remain murky but he was either involved in an actual drug deal or tried to rip-off someone in a fake drug deal. Either way, Rodriguez sent him packing immediately. A totally different scenario happened just a few miles up the road in East Lansing. Glenn Winston, a Michigan State running back, was convicted of a brutal assault on a Michigan State student. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail. In August, he was released early due to overcrowding in the Ingham County Jail and was immediately reinstated by Mark Dantonio. On one hand, a coach quickly dismissed a player who had engaged in troublesome activity, and on the other hand a coach immediately welcomed back a player who, if not for the spatial confines of the Ingham County Jail, would still be incarcerated. One coach acted the way you'd hope a coach would and the other did not. Here is how that was portrayed in the local media:*
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*Screenshot from Mgoblog
I promise I did not make that up. If you hadn't guessed already, Drew Sharp is the author of the above words. The coach who got rid of a non-violent troublemaker was criticized for running a program with character issues, while the coach who welcomed back a violent criminal with open-arms might as well have been applauded for giving him a second chance. Neither the Detroit News nor Free Press questioned Dantonio's decision when the story broke. The irony here is that Sharp says that "perceptions are changing" while being unwittingly responsible for changing those perceptions. The newspaper he works for hammered Rodriguez for recruiting troublemakers and then sat idly by when Dantonio made a reprehensible decision. If this is the story the newspapers are selling, how else would readers perceive this situation?
If you're a Detroit News or Free Press reader, after reading this story, you're likely to perceive Rodriguez and Michigan as morally corrupt. You're also likely to conclude that Mark Dantonio is a passionate coach who cares deeply for his players. Since we don't live in a vacuum, that perception has become reality. People hate Rich Rodriguez because they perceive him in a way that he is not. That he "is not" doesn't really matter. The sad part about all of this is that no amount of logic will change the perception. You can talk to someone who views Rodriguez in a negative light until you are maize and blue in the face and it won't change a thing. Trust me, I've attempted it far too many times. To these people, Rodriguez is a morally ambiguous coach who has lost control of his football team. That perception will last until he wins. When that happens, he will magically become a coach of great character. In the vacuum, nothing will have changed but, in our world, the only thing that matters--perception--will have.
The reason that Michigan--and Rodriguez--have become the object of the media's vitriol is twofold: 1. "Michigan" sells newspapers and 2. Michael Rosenberg is part of an influential anti-Rodriguez faction. If Rosenberg was exported to a more fitting place, like Antarctica, some of this would still be going on. Controversy sells and blasting the most popular sports team in the area sells papers with or without Rosenberg. If the newspaper industry wasn't so desperate to sell papers, Rosenberg would still probably get his jabs in on Michigan but it's unlikely the Free Press would allow a writer to bend journalistic integrity to the point of massive criticism like Rosenberg has. Individually, these influences are enough to distort the truth. Together, they are strong enough to completely alter reality.
If you're still not convinced of who's really responsible for Rodriguez's unpopularity, take a look at how nearly the same event was portrayed in two totally opposite ways. Coming into the season, Michigan State was universally predicted to finish in the top three of the Big Ten. Some even had the Spartans challenging for the Big Ten Championship. MSU lost a number of close games last year, and that experience was supposedly going to bring them riches this season. Michigan, on the other hand, was predicted to finish anywhere from the middle of the conference all the way to last. Michigan was 3-9 last year and was expected to be plagued by inexperience including at the QB position where it was expected to start a true freshman. In no uncertain terms, this was a championship-contending year for Michigan State and a rebuilding year for Michigan.
Both teams played Iowa within two weeks of each other in October. Iowa is currently undefeated and ranked 4th in the BCS. Michigan went to Iowa as an 8.5 point underdog. Despite a number of costly turnovers and defensive breakdowns, Michigan lost by two points when a last-minute drive ended in an interception. Two weeks later, Iowa travelled to East Lansing. Michigan State was favored by one to two points depending on the source. Iowa prevailed by two points on a last-second touchdown. So, on one hand we have Michigan--a team that was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten--going on the road to play an overwhelming favorite and losing by two points. On the other hand, we have Michigan State--a team that was picked to challenge for the Big Ten Championship playing at home against an underdog and losing by two points. Without involving media influences, while both losses were unfortunate, the Michigan loss is the one that should be viewed in a more positive light. Here are the headlines from the Detroit News and Free Press following Michigan's two-point defeat in Iowa City:
The take-home for readers: Dissention and controversy were the themes of the day. Big bad Rich Rodriguez was seen yelling at his players on the sideline. He probably hits them with belts, too. The Michigan football program is falling apart at the seams. Sure, they only lost by two points against a top 10 team on the road but that was totally by accident. Michigan was trying its hardest while Iowa was only trying a little bit. The Michigan football program is a disgrace and continues to unravel.
Here is how the News and Free Press reported Michigan State's two-point loss to Iowa:
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The take-home for readers: Poor Michigan State. How sad it must have been for them to lose a football game. Everyone needs to send them a box of "cuddles." Their feelings are hurt because they almost beat a good team. Don't worry though, these losses will bring everyone closer together. They are building team unity and character. Sparty on!
Michael Rosenberg--known to have an anti-Rodriguez agenda--even managed to reference "one of the greatest plays in Michigan State football history" in his headline about the MSU loss. Notice that the loss is a "setback" for Michigan but "full of vital experience" for Michigan State. Never mind that the entire theme for Michigan State last season was a year of gaining vital experience. Also, notice that Michigan State was experiencing "heartbreak" after the loss while Michigan was too busy benching Tate Forcier to feel heartbreak. It is distortions like these that enable an otherwise ignorant mass to hate a man that they know nothing about. It is also what has Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan somewhat in jeopardy even in the midst of a progressive rebuilding process.
Don't get me wrong, Rodriguez isn't going to get fired anytime soon. He's more likely to leave this cesspool of criticism before he ever gets fired. Still, there's only a certain amount of negative publicity that both Rodriguez and the University of Michigan can take. People quit or lose their jobs everyday because of outside and unrelated pressure. Rodriguez has been hit with one enormous mess after another. Whether he lasts at Michigan has nothing to do with whether he's a good coach or not. I would take out a massive loan and bet it all on "Rodriguez succeeding" if he were in a vacuum. He's not. Whether he lasts has to do with whether he can start winning before the accumulating pile of faux negativity becomes so big that it isn't worth it for both Rodriguez and Michigan to deal with it anymore. Thanks to Bill Martin's forward-dating retirement, that's at least a year away which should give the local newspapers plenty of time to create more realities--if, of course, they stay alive that long.