Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Everyone Hates Rich

Perception is reality. I've never liked that phrase for some reason. I think it's because I didn't always understand it. When I was younger--and more naive--my reaction to hearing someone say "perception is reality" was to respond under my breath, "No, reality is reality." I have always been a trumpeter of "fairness." I try not to jump to conclusions. I try to consider the source. I disdain bigotry and double-standards. I deplore uninformed opinions and the "mob mentality." In a perfect world, "reality is reality." When I was a child, I made the mistake of assuming we lived in a vacuum. Obviously, that is not the case. We very much live in a world where opinions are influenced and even dictated by the click of a remote or the tone of a headline. We live in a world of groupthink and criticism. It's much easier to just adopt a viewpoint than find a unique one. In this world, "perception is reality."

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:

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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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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.


Eric said...

Hi Jake,

I too have been sickened by the seeming unwillingness of people to actually know what they are talking about before criticizing RR. I was at a Halloween party last night, talking with some guy about the loss to Illinois. The guy's response was "well, after the way he came in, you know, driving off Ryan Mallet and all, I'm not surprised". I responded with the logical answer, that RR did not "drive off" Mallet, that this was the fallout from switching to a spread system. He said something like, "well, that's what I talking about, that drove him off". I mentioned the attrition under Bo, said that this was a natural part of a new regime and didn't say much more, realizing that he had just blamed RR for coming in and installing his own system. This was completely illogical on his part, but he's a PSU fan trained to hate RR, so I didn't expect anything more.

However, the unrealistic hate aside, I have to say that RR is not doing much nowadays to quiet the criticism. I'm not talking about all of the drama off the field, I'm talking about the very poor performance on the field. I mean, let's be honest here. U-M has one quality win this year. The rest of the wins are a mirage. I realize we all had to fight unrealistic expectations after the 4-0 start, but I don't think we expected U-M to lose to Illinois and to look horrible in the process. This is the first time my faith was truly shaken. I believed all along that given the time, RR would get the job done. Now I am wondering if he can. I know he's a very good coach, but the mistakes we see week in week out are getting tiresome. At some point, this has to look like a well-coached team, doesn't it?

I read everything so I know that RR inherited a situation as bad as U-M basketball when he came in the door. I know the talent is simply not there yet. And I know we need to be patient. In basketball, you have a small roster and can turn it over very quickly, changing the makeup of the team in practically one season, which Beilein has. But in football, you really need 4 years to build depth, so I know you really can't judge a coach until then. However, if Michigan loses to Purdue, there's a great chance we're looking at 1-7 in the conference and no bowl game. Throw in the unknown NCAA sanctions, and I have to question if RR would survive that series of events. Now frankly, I don't think firing him makes sense at all; it would not advance the program. It would be the equivalent of the nuclear option, with the effect it would have on recruiting and the transfers that would follow. I think we go into the wilderness for 5 years if that happens. But assuming that does not happen, will RR get the job done? I know there are plenty of logical excuses, but at some point we have to see progress, don't we? Perhaps bringing in recruits to plug some of these huge holes we have? Just looking for some hope. This is REALLY hard.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your argument that Rich does get a raw deal and that we need to be patient. What you have forgot to mention is that Rich gets paid a lot of money and he should be able to transition his style of play with players that Michigan already had. For starters, last years terrible team had the majority of their defensive lineup return from the previous year that shut down last year's national champs Florida. Their defense should have won them more than 3 games last year. As for Mallet, I do not know what happened there. Maybe he was already on his way out before Rich got there, we will never know but he could have at least have found a better quarterback before signing day..I mean this IS Michigan and you tell a young QB that you can start in your first year then who wouldn't want to come to your school over sitting on the bench in the SEC, for a couple years before you get your shot.

I think it is fair to compare Rich next year to Kelly at Cincinnati this year. Michigan had better players to start with, but both coaches run a similar style and would have had the same time to administer their system.

Overall, I am on the fence if Rich is the right hire for the program. He is a high priced coach that has yet to show a willingness to adapt his style to the strengths of his players. Since I do not know all the politics behind his philosophy (players not buying in, etc.), I will give him the benefit of the doubt for now. If he is still losing to the likes of Illinois next year, then I think Rich's future at Michigan will be short and instead of talking about bowl games we will be discussing whether or not Les or Mr. Kelly or Ron English will be the next coach of michigan.

Jake said...

Hey Eric,
First of all, yes, Rod deserves any and all criticism that he brings upon himself by making poor decisions. My next post is on just that. He absolutely blew the Illinois-game. He needs to be grilled for that. Unfortunately, too many people don’t understand the difference between criticizing bad decisions and saying a guy should be fired. I agree that he hasn’t done much to quiet the criticism. The last thing he needed was to put on a show like that against Illinois.

Here is the thing that I’m having a problem with. Even some of RR’s biggest supporters are now questioning whether he is the right guy or whether he can make it at Michigan. This guy built a juggernaut at West Virginia. It wasn’t a one man show either. Pat White was really good. Steve Slaton was really good, too. However, his team was loaded. He had all sorts of all-conference players. They were well-conditioned, well-coached and put a beatdown on their opponents. When was the last time you saw a team put the smackdown on Oklahoma like RR’s bunch did? You don’t do that by accident. He had seven years to build that team. He knows what he is doing. Rodriguez isn’t a miracle worker. We didn’t hire a guy who could take other people’s players and turn them into a winner. We hired a guy who would get his players and turn them into a winner. His players are sophomores and freshmen right now. If you read Mgoblog, I’m sure you saw how inept (too kind of a word in my opinion) Carr’s defensive recruiting was during his last couple years. That’s why Shafer sucked and that’s why Grob sucks. We could have Nick Saban as our D-Coord and he would suck.

I don’t think RR can take this program to an elite level in a year. He needs to be left alone and not given any kind of ultimatum. This isn’t Charlie Weis and ND. He’s had forever and a day to get things going at Notre Dame and he has no experience or pedigree to make people believe he can do it. RR needs people to get off his back, give up the timetables, and let him build. If Michigan sucks two years from now, then people can start talking about moving on. Two years is a long time. By then, he’ll have nearly an entire roster full of his players and it’ll be obvious whether things are going in the right direction.

I don’t have a lot of patience for people who jump off the bandwagon at the first sign of difficulty. I’m not talking about you; I understand where you’re coming from. It’s not always easy to see the clear skies in the middle of a shit storm. Just don’t let those people who have no patience or perspective change your opinion. Considering the roster and criticism RR has had to deal with, we don’t have anywhere close to the information necessary to know if he is going to fail. I would be shocked if left alone, he doesn’t take Michigan beyond what we saw with Carr.

Jake said...


I think this is a unique situation in terms of transitioning a program to a different style. Look at what happened with Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson. PJ’s offense was 180 degrees from what Georgia Tech was doing. However, he had Josh Nesbitt to run the show which is really all he needed. His triple option is entirely predicated on having an athletic QB. Receivers don’t matter, running backs don’t really matter, and even the offensive line doesn’t really matter. For RR, it’s similar. The only problem is that while PJ got Nesbitt, RR got Threet and Sheridan. What do you think would’ve happened to Paul Johnson’s first season with Threet and Sheridan? It would’ve been death. As a result of Georgia Tech having a QB for Johnson’s system in year one, now they’re in year two and rolling. Rodriguez had to start from scratch this season. Tate and Denard are more athletically capable than Threet and Sheridan but they’re so immature mentally. I’m not sure what people think RR can do with players at the most important position of his offense who have no idea what they’re doing. Brian Kelly’s transition to Cincy was different as well. His offense merely requires a dropback QB. Every roster in the country has one of those. If Michigan hired him, he would’ve blown up the world with Mallet and Adrian Arrington. Rodriguez needs a spread QB. They aren’t at every school and they certainly weren’t at Michigan. It’s unfortunate that people don’t understand that he is a football coach and not a magician.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that this type of season cannot happen next year. The loss to Illinois was unacceptable. That loss was on the sidelines which is unfortunate because that should never happen. One thing that may cause a problem next year is that RR is going to have to make a very important decision. As much as I appreciate what Tate was able to do early in the season, I don’t think he is the answer at QB. So, does RR risk another building year by starting Devin Gardner as a true freshman, or does he feel the pressure from impatient fans and try to win with a guy who has more experience but isn’t the longterm answer? That will be an interesting situation.

I think both you and Eric have a great attitude about this. RR needs the benefit of the doubt. If he fails, he fails and it’ll be obvious. We’re so far from that point that the people who are talking about moving on right now are idiots. I mean that in the most sincere way possible. Only an idiot would think that getting rid of Rodriguez midway through totally overhauling the personnel of the program would be a good idea. Eric is right, if that happened, we would be in the stone age for five years. Even the people who hate RR should be pulling for him because if he fails, Michigan football will mirror Notre Dame for the foreseeable future.


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