Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'm as Happy as a Little Girl

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.


Anonymous said...

You should check your facts - Michigan originally wanted Ara Parseghian as their coach and not Joe Pa. It was Ara who recommended Bo as the good head coaching cnadidate for the Michigan job when he turned it down and decided to stay at Notre Dame. Bo was an assistant for Ara at Miami of Ohio. Bo even mentions Ara'a recommendation for the Michigan job in his book "Bo".

Fox said...

Congrats, Michael--great hire. I'm just glad Rodriguez left WVA so they can return to their normal place as a mediocre program.

Michael said...

ND/PSU, I'm pretty sure that Canham said in his autobiography that he consulted with Paterno, first to offer Paterno the job and then to solicit a recommendation. I'll double-check tonight.

Fox, if WVU's normal place is as a mediocre program, then what's VT's normal place without Beamer?

Michael said...

Here you go:

Paterno is the only guy who got an offer other than Bo. The part about Paterno recommending Bo might be wrong. I don't doubt that Canham talked to Ara and that Ara would have recommended Bo.

TMD: With those problems in mind, how were you able to turn the football program around?

DC: I was lucky because I had been on the (University of Michigan) staff for 17 or 18 years. I knew what the problems were and I had no doubt it my mind that we could do it. I knew I was going to hire a coach — I thought I was going to hire (Penn State coach Joe) Paterno, to tell you the truth because he was a friend of mine when I was a track coach. Paterno was the only guy I offered the job to. I saw Schembechler on TV the other day saying that I offered it to everybody in the country before I came to him, but that’s not true. I talked to everybody in the country, but the only guy I offered it to was Paterno.

TMD: Why’d you end up choosing Bo?

DC: He had the background, head coaching experience, knowledge of the Big Ten — he had worked at Northwestern and Ohio (State) and was a winner. His personality just struck me right away. I hired him 15 minutes after we began to talk. That was the turning point in my career as athletic director. That’s because he started winning right away, we didn’t have to wait four or five years — the reason was that (Schembechler’s predecessor) Bump Elliot had left him a lot of good material.

TMD: Going back to Paterno, what happened that kept him from coming to Michigan?

DC: I met Paterno, I think, on Dec. 5 in Pittsburgh. I was on my way to New York to go to the Hall of Fame dinner and Joe met me at a hotel. He’d only been coach (at Penn State) for three years, so he was just another great young coach in those days. Paterno was not as well known as some of the other guys that I was talking to. I’ve known Joe for 40 years and I like him very much personally — (at the time), he was going through his first bowl game that he’d ever gone to. He said, “Don, let me think about it, I’ll call you in three days” — so I went to New York and when I was talking to people, Bo’s name kept coming up. Three days later, Joe called me and said, “Don, I can’t make a decision until after the bowl,” and I told him I couldn’t wait until January to hire a football coach for Michigan. The next week, I hired Schembechler. He’s the one that impressed me the most at that time.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Any thoughts on the rumors of Saban going to West Virginia?

Michael said...

If Saban goes to West Virginia, then the lesson will be that the Alabama job is simply not worth the trouble. Saban will have become the second coach (after Franchione) to decide to get out of the fishbowl. Saban's image will take a hit as well.

Fox said...

VT without Beamer? Let's just say the ringing memory of my childhood was Chris Kinser's kick to win the '86 Peach Bowl. And it took Bruce Smith to get that far. I hope that Beamer's laid enough groundwork (both in terms of rep and facilities/school support) that they'll linger on as a top 15 team after he's gone but who knows. If they can keep Bud Foster afterward and he's capable of being a head coach, they shouldn't fall too far. But I don't think I'd have these hopes if, say, Beamer had left after the 2000 Sugar Bowl or something. I just don't think Rodriguez built enough of a legacy at WVA to last past these players.

Hobnail_Boot said...

Can't blame you for your excitement, this looks like it could potentially be a great hire for UM. One point of contention though, and that's when you call Rodriguez's onside kick vs. Georgia 'ballsy'.

The only thing the sUGAr Bowl fake punt proves is that he isn't an idiot.

Everyone watching that game knew that if D.J. Shockley got his hands on the ball again, WVU would blow the biggest lead ever in a major bowl.

It was the only call.

Anonymous said...

Maybe so, but Lloyd Carr *still* would have punted.

Kenny said...

The fake punt call was a great call, because 99% of all coaches would have done the conservative thing and punted the ball. At the end of the game after they lost the coach would simply lay blame at the feet of his players or defensive coordinator. This is what coaches do. If that play did not work all of the blame would have been on Coach Rod; that is why it was a great call. I hate nothing more than conservative play calling.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to the Rodriguez era starting off 0-1 when Utah goes into the Quiet House and punks them. I'll actually be shocked if Utah is not favored in that game.

Michael said...

If the fake punt was the obvious call, then why wasn't Georgia ready for it? And I totally agree with Kenneth that Lloyd would have punted, regardless of whether his defense had any prayer of holding on the final drive.

Anon, Michigan won't be great next year, but they won't be THAT bad. (Hunter, if that was you, consider the gauntlet thrown down.)

Kenny said...

Why would anyone think that Utah would be favored over UM? Their best win was what? They beat a putrid UCLA team, a putrid Louisville team, and an underachieving TCU team.


What is your take on the Parcells hiring for the Falcons? I think it is pretty obviously a great hire as of now. It will be interesting to see what happens to Rich McCay, and who we hire as the new GM.

peacedog said...

>If the fake punt was the obvious >call, then why wasn't Georgia ready >for it?

Depending on who you talk to (I'm going with some eyewitness accounts here), there were some on the Georgia sideline who were calling for a defense against the fake before the play. Word on the street was UGA *not* lining up to defense the fake nearly cost an assistant a job. We'll never know with certainty, because there are certain lines Richt won't cross so we'd never hear about it officially.

I do know we'd been burnt IIRC not once but twice that year on fakes already. And that I was in a jam-packed CJs watching, and everybody in CJs was screaming to watch for the fake.

Regardless of what happened, UGA screwed the pootch, and it's history.

Anonymous said...

Utah returns everyone. This includes their 3 best players who received medical redshirts, which explains their early season problems. A very good team by the end of the season this year, should be much better next year with the return of their 3 best players in addition to all of their starters returning. Again, I'll be shocked if Utah is not favored and does not win. Tough way to start out for Rodriguez.

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