You'll have to forgive me and the rest of Michigan fandom for acting a little like idiots over the past several weeks. We're not used to this whole coaching search thing, seeing as how Michigan had not undergone one since 1969 when Don Canham replaced Bump Elliott with Glenn E. Schembechler (but only after Joe Paterno turned Michigan down and recommended Bo for the position). We responded with vast bouts of paranoia after the presumed #1 option - Les Miles - passed on the position and sounded like Bo in growling about his "damn fine team." Visions of MAC mediocrity Brady Hoke, MAC failure and general bumbler Mike Debord, or totally unproven Ron English were bandied about, as Wolverine fans assumed that this process would be like every other one: an insular search yielding an underwhelming candidate who happened to be affiliated with the program.
So imagine our surprise this afternoon when media outlets galore suddenly started reporting that Rich Rodriguez was going to take the job. Yes, that Rich Rodriguez. He of the 32-5 record for the past three years in the frisky Big East. He of the spread option offense that rings up 300 yards rushing regularly. He of the ballsy fake punt to kill off the Sugar Bowl. This guy? He's going to coach Michigan? Not one of Lloyd's lackeys who will keep punting on 4th and three from the opponent's 39 and will call plays as if four-yard out patterns are the ticket to heaven?
I really hope that you humor me and let my annoying feelings of euphoria slide a little. I'll try not to be like Sports Guy and the Boston teams, but I can't make any promises right now. I've been watching Michigan since the late 80s, pretty much ever since I figured out that it was a good school with lots of Jews and the fight song was catchy. Throughout almost two decades of Michigan football, I've yet to hear anyone describe Michigan's strategic approach as "ballsy" or the offense as "innovative" or "cutting edge" or "a step above mediocre." Do you know what it's going to be like to watch a Rodriguez offense? This is like going from black and white TV to HD. Like going from dating Blythe Danner to Salma Hayek. Like going from tuna helper to sushi-grade salmon. I know this is a little harsh on a program that consistently wins, but Michigan has never been sexy, scheme-wise. Players like Braylon Edwards and Charles Woodson made us sexy in terms of personnel, but our offense would never get the blood going down there. December 16, 2007 is the date that Michigan got the football program equivalent of breast implants and Agent Provocateur thigh-highs.
Old blog nemesis MANDEL!!! echoes my excitement:
How big is Rich Rodriguez to Michigan? In terms of the ramifications for both program and sport, it's college football's most significant hire since Florida landed Urban Meyer.
Michigan, one of the last bastions of smash-mouth football and 6-foot-5 pocket passers, just hired arguably the most renowned pioneer of the new-age, spread-option offense. For all those weeks of hand-wringing over Les Miles, Michigan wound up landing itself a better coach.
I had been meaning to write a post comparing Michigan's coaching search to that of the FA hunting for the next England manager. Both Michigan and England are traditional powers that are stuck in their ways and haven't been especially relevant in quite a while. Both had cultural opposition to bringing in outsiders to run their outfits. In the end, both brought in their best coaches in decades by refusing to bow to inbreeding. Oh, and both paid a pile of money for their guys and will be expecting their new coaches to drive up revenue and pay for major stadium renovations. England hired Fabio Capello, a coach who has won everywhere he's been. Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, a coach who has won everywhere he's been. I look forward to Rich reacting like this the first time Ryan Mallett throws an interception:
And I need to be clear that while I'm terribly excited about Bill Martin's big marlin, I'm not expecting Michigan to come on like gangbusters right away. The track record of the best coaches in college football is that they tend to have underwhelming results in their first seasons at major powers. Here's your list for the last decade:
Pete Carroll at USC - 6-6
Jim Tressel at Ohio State - 7-5
Bob Stoops at Oklahoma - 7-5
Mack Brown at Texas - 9-3
Urban Meyer at Florida - 9-3
Nick Saban at LSU - 8-4
Tommy Tuberville at Auburn - 5-6
Mark Richt at Georgia - 8-4
9-3 seems to be the best that a major power can expect when it hires an excellent coach. There's always the possibility of a Spurrier in 1990 explosion, but the Big Ten is more familiar now with the spread option than the SEC was with the forward pass at the end of the Dye-Dooley era.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam between now and the opener against Utah next September, Michigan has a collection of statue-esque Caucasian pocket passers (OK, most writers will use buzzwords for Caucasian instead of coming out and saying it) and Rodriguez's offense in its current iteration requires significant mobility from a passer. Visions of Chris Leak running Urban Meyer's offense will abound. It's a legitimate concern, but it will probably be overstated because Rodriguez has coached plenty of pass-heavy offenses, or have we all forgotten the pleasure that was watching the Clemson offense with Woody Dantzler. Ryan Mallett isn't an ideal quarterback for Rodriguez's system, but the guy knows how to coach the passing game. With Mallett and a number of quality receivers (depending on whether Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington stay in school), Rodriguez will have different toys. If Michigan signs Terrelle Pryor, a number of fans will assume that Pryor will be the starter from day one, but another plausible scenario is that Pryor redshirts, then spends a year or two in a Tebow role before starting in 2010 or 2011. OK, that seems a little far-fetched when I see it on the screen, so I'll just say that I'm not necessarily buying the notion that Pryor would be the starter from day one, unless he signs with Michigan and Mallett decides to transfer to Arkansas to play for Bobby Petrino.
A more interesting question will be whether Rodriguez will bring the 3-3-5 with him. That seems unlikely to me, as Michigan's defensive line should be a strength of the team next year (especially after an off-season in a competent strength and conditioning program). Also, the 3-3-5 always seemed like a gimmick designed to compensate for the fact that West Virginia didn't have great defensive talent. I wouldn't be shocked if one of Rodriguez's reasons for leaving was the ability to coach more talented players, especially on defense.
Another plausible reason for Rodriguez coming to Ann Arbor is the advice of his mentor, Don Nehlen. Read these quotes and ask yourself if Don Nehlen is going to be running for the governorship of West Virginia any time soon:
I think it's a great, great, great opportunity for him. I think it's tremendous. There are very few Michigans. When you coach at West Virginia, you walk on water in West Virginia. But when you coach at Michigan, you walk on water, period. There's a difference. Some people around here don't want to believe that.
I thought it would be great for him. These opportunities don't come around very often. Rich has found a place that's just special. If you're a football coach, it's a dream come true. I'm certainly not belittling West Virginia. It's just different at Michigan.
When it looked like Michigan was going to hire Miles, I made a remark to a friend that Bo was the gift that kept on giving. Michigan was in the lucky position of looking for a coach at the same time that a former Bo player and assistant was succeeding in the SEC and wanted the Michigan job because of his affection for the school and his former coach. While it didn't turn out that Miles became Michigan's coach (in no small part because of Pat White's treacherous thumb), Bo still blessed the program in another way, as his former assistant Nehlen likely directed Rodriguez to Ann Arbor. This is the value of a significant coaching tree and it highlights the biggest difference between Bo and Lloyd, the latter of whose tree is a mangled, scraggly bush.
Another factor in Michigan's ultimate success in its coaching search is the fact that Bill Martin seemed to evolve as the process developed. I dubbed Martin a
"Helpless Finch" early in the process because his clumsy pursuit of Miles. It's possible that Martin was lukewarm in pursuing Miles because he decided that if he was going to spend $3M per year on a coach, he might as well get a great one instead of a very good one. A more likely scenario is that Martin initially thought that Miles and other coaches would gladly take a pay cut to coach in Ann Arbor and was caught off-guard when he realized that he had to compete for top coaching talent. Faced with a threat in his habitat in the form of outraged donors and former players ripping his handling of the process, this finch evolved rapidly and ended the process with razor-sharp talons that shoot frickin' laser beams.