A Rational Argument in Favor of Rich Rodriguez Keeping his Job11.29.10
Another year, another loss to Ohio State. It’s not something that any Michigan fan can stomach, let alone the seventh straight defeat at the hands of our bitter rivals. But what’s the solution? Many are saying – and have been for some time now – that it begins with firing head coach Rich Rodriguez. But, I’m still not ready to jump on that bandwagon.
To blame Rich Rod for all of our woes is failing to see the entire picture. I liken it to those who blame President Obama everything that’s going wrong in our country today. Americans in general have become extraordinarily impatient and short-sighted, with a side of selective amnesia fueled by nostalgia. For Republicans, that means forgetting all about President George W. Bush’s shortcomings and military and economic policies. For those clamoring for Rodriguez’s prompt dismissal, it’s about forgetting that our streak of futility against the Buckeyes started long before his arrival — Lloyd Carr brought us a national title, but he also went 1-6 against Jim Tressel’s crimson-and-gray squads.
Speaking of Carr, there were plenty who were ready for someone new by the time that he stepped down. 1997 feels like a dozen lifetimes ago and this is clearly a “What have you done for me lately?” environment. His inability to take down Mr. Sweater Vest himself, even with the number two team in the nation and a roster of future first-round NFL draft picks coupled with a similarly putrid record in bowl games didn’t do much to solidify his reputation amongst the restless Michigan fanbase. But at least he had the impossible-to-refute response of: “I won a national title, ninjas.” Rich Rod’s best is: “I almost went to the title game but I lost to Pitt one year. I owned the Big East, mothertruckers!”
People will say, the facts are the facts. RichRod is 0-3 versus both Michigan State and Ohio State. He holds one of the worst season records in Michigan history (3-9, his first season at UM). His squads had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in Michigan history since the 60s. He’s 0-11 against Big Ten teams with winning records at the end of the season.
And I concede these facts. But, the important part is to look at context.
He was hired relatively late in the recruiting season back in 2008, not giving him much time to get the kids he needed for his system his first year — namely, a quarterback who could legitimately run his offense. That ended in a 3-9 season. A total debacle. I give him a mulligan on that one though because of the circumstances: new coach, new scheme, player attrition due to coaching change that was inevitable when going from a pro-style offense to a spread, shortened recruiting time. It was worse than we’d all hoped, but given what we had, it’s not quite as surprising looking back on it.
So last year was his true first year and he went 5-7. You know who else went 5-7 in his second season as head coach? Yup: Jim Harbaugh. Now, I don’t mean to say that one coach is better or worse than the other, only that for those who think that hiring Harbaugh will instantly make our defense like our old squads we had that were tops in the country with the same roster that we currently have, you’re clearly smoking some good herbal refreshments. I bring it up because, for many programs going through massive change like the Michigan is going through, there is a curve of excellence. It takes time to get things moving. (Also note: that Harbaugh’s first season he went 4-8, not much better than RichRod’s inaugural run.)
Granted, we got smoked in the Big Ten, losing to our main rivals – again – and didn’t finish strong at all. But remember again: this wasn’t like we had all-Americans all over the field here or something. It wasn’t like we were underachieving based on the players on the field (which could definitely be argued for Lloyd Carr’s final squad who was full of NFL starters yet couldn’t beat our archrival nor win a bowl game until the last game of their careers.) Our current players were and have been playing their hearts out every single week. But they were mainly freshmen last year! Both of our starting QBs – Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier – were true freshmen leading that offense, which showed flashes but sputtered because, well, they were barely out of high school trying to take on the junior/senior led teams of the Big Ten. It wasn’t going to happen — save for that miracle against Wisconsin in RichRod’s first season.
And now that brings us to the 2010 campaign. We finished 7-5 in the regular season and made a bowl game for the first time in three years. We lost to Michigan State and Ohio State again, extending our futility streak even longer. But, 7-5 is what was pretty much expected of us by just about everyone. I had hopes for an 8-win season, and I still hold onto that hope because I believe we’ll win our bowl game, making us 8-5 on the year. You know who else went 8-5 in his third season? You guessed it: Jim Harbaugh!
The reality is that some vocal Michigan fans haven’t liked Rich Rodriguez since the very beginning. They wanted change to happen overnight and they wanted to just close their eyes, stomp their feet, and cry about having Michigan football back to the way it was with the click of their heels. Change doesn’t happen like that. It’s sometimes long and often hard. But think about it this way: the worst is over! The change has happened. The offense was ranked 5th in the nation this year — up until the OSU disaster — and was run by mainly sophomores; the leaps and bounds they made since last year was incredible. Now, everyone can agree that the defense needs serious help.
But look at the reality there: we lost our two starting, senior cornerbacks (arguably the more porous aspect of our D) Troy Woolfolk and Donovan Warren — one to season ending injury in the beginning of the year and the other because he thought he was ready for the NFL and left early only to not even be drafted. In an ideal world, those two would’ve been in our secondary and you could argue that thing would’ve been drastically different. Instead we had true freshmen playing against veteran QB-WR combos like Pryor/Sanzenbacher and Stanzi/Johnson-Koulianos — and, well, we all know how that went. Our front three were decent and our linebackers are improving. But when you play sometimes eight true freshmen on a defense in the Big Ten, there’s just not going to be the stout response that we’d like from a maize-and-blue squad.
Short story long: Rich Rodriguez deserves another year. It’d be foolish to pull the plug at this point and change everything over again to a whole new coach and new system when things are noticeably improving. The kids love the coach. The kids trust the coach. And the coach has our kids playing hard. They never quit even during the embarrassment in Columbus on Saturday when the game was totally out of reach. I mean, of course they wouldn’t: they’re Michigan men. And those who stay will be champions.
(And for the record, in Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season, he’s currently 11-1 and has Stanford in the top 5 of the BCS rankings, poised for a big money berth. I’m not predicting that success for us next year — we’re a different, younger team with a totally different roster — but 9-10 wins is clearly in our sights and attainable. And, who can honestly be upset with a 9-10 win season? Are we really that arrogant?)
Image courtesy of larrysphatpage’s Flickr Photostream.