It's not an easy call, but Dave Brandon should give Rich Rodriguez another year with the Michigan football team
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
The timing of Dave Brandon’s comment was conspicuous.
With fans and alumni pondering the job security of football coach Rich Rodriguez, it sure was noticeable when Michigan’s athletic director had a lot of nice things to say about the school’s basketball coach last week.
“John Beilein is, I think, the perfect guy for the University of Michigan,” Brandon told The Detroit News. “John Beilein is a stand-up guy. He is a winner, and he’s going to be a winner here. He’s just got to get the athletes to win championships.”
Maybe it was a coincidence - Brandon, after all, had been asked about state of the basketball program.
But Brandon doesn’t do or say anything without careful calculation.
So the comments seemed to carry additional weight this week when he offered nothing but a wait-and-see answer on Rodriguez following a 37-7 loss to Ohio State on Saturday.
Beilein received praise. Rodriguez received silence. That’s understandable. In three years under Rich Rodriguez, the Michigan football team has played the most abhorrent defense in school history, compiled a 6-18 conference record, been swept by Ohio State and Michigan State and committed major NCAA rules violations.
Those are the facts. They are not open to interpretation.
Whether they warrant firing Rodriguez with two years remaining on his original contract remains a murkier question.
Brandon has said he plans to evaluate the entire program, and that wins and losses are only one part of the equation. He has also said, “if you put all your eggs in one basket, you better watch your basket, and football is my basket.” No question, that basket has some serious holes.
From a financial perspective, they don’t threaten the long-term viability of the football program. This isn’t Minnesota or Indiana. The Big House still packs close to 110,000 people into seats every Saturday. Fans aren’t walking away from Michigan football.
Complacency among the fan base, though, isn’t a compelling reason to keep the third-year coach from West Virginia around.
So maybe this is: The second part of Brandon’s comment about Beilein - the “he’s just got to get the athletes to win championships” part - could apply to Rodriguez as well.
During his 3-8 debut season in 2008, Rodriguez’s spread offense looked inept without the right quarterback running the system. The offensive line was in tatters.
Two years later, the offensive line ranks as the best unit on the team as well as the deepest and best-coached. Michigan’s offense averaged 34.3 points per game and is sixth in the country with 500.9 yards per game.
All the vital pieces of that offense return.
Defensively, of course, is another story. The Wolverines set dubious records most points and most yards allowed in a single season in 2010. The unit hasn’t been competitive in games against the upper half of the Big Ten.
But the situation is not unlike the offensive situation of two years ago, and Rodriguez has demonstrated the capacity for a turnaround.
Excuse-making or not, there’s a lot of truth to Rodriguez’s pleas to note the seven true freshmen playing on the defense, six of which see significant time in the defensive backfield.
At the end of the 2009 season, Rodriguez had every reason to believe his cornerback depth would include Donovan Warren and Troy Woolfolk as his starters, J.T. Floyd and Justin Turner as key backups and high-profile recruit Demar Dorsey vying for playing time.
Floyd stayed on the field for eight games this year. The rest? Didn’t play a snap for a variety of reasons. That’s an incredible exodus to overcome.
Rodriguez has no doubt made mistakes on defense. He never should have fired Scott Shafer, should have done a better job recruiting high-impact linebackers and probably should have stuck with the 3-4 instead of switching to the 3-3-5 when he was short on defensive backs.
But he’s presided over a good defense before. In 2007, West Virginia finished the year ranked seventh in the country in points allowed. Given a more experienced set of players, he could do it again.
It’s not an easy call for Brandon.
Conceivably, he could squander another year on Rodriguez while watching two appealing candidates, Jim Harbaugh and Brady Hoke, accept new jobs elsewhere. A preemptive move is a consideration.
But will one more year matter when Brandon looks at a 10-year plan for the program?
Fundamentally, Michigan has been about patience. The trait is one of the hallmarks that makes Michigan unique, that makes it a destination school for coaches.
Every Wolverines football coach has gotten at least five years to prove himself since Elton Wieman only received two in 1927 and ’28.
As someone well-versed in and enamored with the athletic traditions of the school, Brandon knows that stability is part of the Michigan brand.
Rodriguez’s record has improved by two games per season every year. Risks aside, he deserves the same treatment others in Michigan’s coaching lineage have received.
Rich Rodriguez should get one more year to fix the Wolverines.
Pete Bigelow covers Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at (734) 623-2556, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.