The University of Michigan, the winningest program in college football, will open their season this Saturday with Western Michigan at home. Over 104,000 fans will be there and most of them won't have the faintest idea as to what kind of team, or what kind of season the Wolverines will have.
That's because they aren't real sure if they have the right coach.
At an emotional news conference Monday, Rich Rodriguez defended his program against allegations that Michigan consistently violated NCAA rules governing off-season workouts, in-season demands on players and mandatory summer activities.
The idea that Michigan players worked over the 20-hour limit mandated by the NCAA because of "voluntary" workouts isn't the big deal. Every big time program has these voluntary sessions and every player knows they must be there if they want playing time.
The big deal is that some of Rich Rod's players are so willing to rat him out so quickly into his tenure at Michigan.
It didn't take long for Rich Rodriguez to discover that he wasn't in Morgantown any more.
The signs point to Rodriguez heading down a path that ends badly for him and the program. It is the path of a coach who comes in to a tradition rich program and immediately stamps it with a "My Way or The Highway," attitude. It is a path that Texas walked down with John Mackovic.
Obviously the Michigan program was mired in mediocrity, or they wouldn't have dumped Lloyd Carr. However, the new era got off to a bad start when the AD, Bill Martin, was chastised for stumbling around and basically ignoring the leading choice of alums and fans for the job, Michigan grad Les Miles.
Rodriguez was hired (after a very public and messy divorce with his alma mater, West Virginia), and right away he found out that life in the Big 10 was a little different than life in the Big East.
Rich Rod brought 20 staffers from West Virgina with him and went about making changes to the tradition-rich program, many of which pissed off alums and former players alike. Some were minor, and some were disturbing to those who felt that the "Michigan Way" was being tampered with. For instance, Rodriguez:
* Altered how team captains were chosen. In the past Michigan elected captains for the entire season. Rodriguez changed it to game captains.
* Didn't recognize the significance of the #1 jersey.That jersey at Michigan has gone only to receivers—and a freshman has never worn the jersey. Former UM star Braylon Edwards had endowed a scholarship for a distinguished receiver, who would also wear the #1 jersey. Rodriguez gave it to a freshman defensive back he recruited.
There were other, more troubling signs for UM supporters. Players left the program, 20 during the first year. That is going to happen in any transition, but there were rumblings that Rodriguez made it clear, especially to a lot of the upperclassmen, that they would not fit in with his program, and please don't let the screen door hit you on your way out.
Then Justin Boren, the Wolverines' lone returning holdover from the 2007 starting offensive line, announced in a statement to the press that he was transferring because Michigan "family values have eroded."
To add insult to injury, Boren transferred to Ohio State, where he walked on. Boren is projected as the starting left guard for the Buckeyes this season.
Justin Feagin, a Rodriguez recruit, was kicked off the team during the first semester last year after he was arrested for selling drugs on campus. Feagin, whom Rodriguez had also tried to recruit to West Virginia, had been arrested twice while in high school, something Rodriguez denied knowing until he was signed.
Ignoring or changing traditions -- running off players -- and recruiting players of questionable character, all things that are seen as checkmarks against Rodriguez by some Michigan faithful.
Contrast this with the two most successful football coaches in UT history. Both Darrell Royal and Mack Brown stepped into this traditional power at low ebbs. Rather than blowing up the foundation, both embraced the traditions, and (IMO) both decided to try and survive the first year or two with what was on campus. Both also understood that building goodwill among the players, alums and former players from the beginning would help when tough times hit.
Darrell Royal took what was left from a 1-9 squad and fashioned a 6-4-1 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl his first year on campus.
Several years ago I had an interesting conversation with an offensive lineman who was a holdover from the Ed Price regime and who played for Royal. He talked about how the veterans dreaded the 1957 spring practice, assuming that the new coach would use it to run off as many of the older players as possible.
He remarked that the first practice was tough, as hard as anything they had experienced, but it was far from brutal. He also noted that it was the most efficient practice he had ever been through.
Royal stressed special teams from the start, and everyone had a role. One of the only truly talented holdover was Walt Fondren a QB and a all-conference punter. This player remarked that towards the end of practice he had Fondren kick punt after punt while players ran down on punt coverage, and practiced returns.
Then Royal called everyone up. "This," said the ex-player,"was when we thought 'here it comes, up and downs,' or something to run us off."
Instead Royal gave some instructions and told everyone to head in. That's when it hit the offensive lineman. "We had done our running during special teams..."
"...I realized," he said, "that he (Royal) understood that he didn't have a whole lot to work with, but he also knew that we all felt like dogs who had been chained and whipped for six months."
"He didn't think there was much to grinding us down," he added. "we weren't talented, but we were all he had." By the end of spring he added that those who were still there were more focused and more than willing to do anything the staff asked of them.
Mack Brown understood the fence building he had to do at Texas with alumni, former players, and Texas high school coaches. He also understood his most important recruit was already on campus. Getting Ricky Williams to buy into the change and stay helped get a lot of others to buy into it early on as well.
Sometimes you need to acknowledge that what works at West Virginia or Kansas or Fresno State isn't going to work at Michigan or Texas or USC.
On the website of the Columbus Dispatch, there is a BuckeyesExtra section. At the top left hand corner it says:
The Number of days since Michigan has defeated Ohio State in football.
On September 1st, 2009 that number is 2110.
Because of his actions and attitude since arriving in Ann Arbor, Rich Rodriguez has little or no margin for error in getting that number down to zero.