The Case Against Rich Rodriguez
Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez should be fired at the end of the year. The reasons are simple. He has not performed his duties well, and I see little hope that the program will make significant changes next year. While Rodriguez’ troubles are not all self-inflicted, he’s done more wrong than right during his tenure. For that reason he’s gotta go. I say this as a person that has always been in his corner. I cheered his arrival in Ann Arbor nearly three years ago. And I continued to support him through all of the turmoil. And while one game (Saturday’s debacle in Happy Valley) should not determine a coach’s fate, it does cause some reflection. I’ve done some thinking in the wake of Saturday’s nightmare and my feelings have only hardened with more time. Here’s how I got from there to here.
On a very basic level, Rodriguez’ record at Michigan is not good. Through 32 games, Rodriguez is 13-19 overall with a conference record of 4-16. Of those conference wins, two have come from the same opponent (Indiana). This means that by any objective standard, Rodriguez is Michigan’s worst coach since Bump Elliott who coached a half century ago. To make matters worse, Michigan’s streak of consecutive bowl appearances (33) ended under Rodriguez’ watch. Still, its not all Rodriguez’ fault.
The challenges that Rodriguez faced when he arrived have been well documented. As the saying goes, the “cupboard was bare;” or at least mostly bare. Rodriguez’ predecessor Lloyd Carr struggled to bring in high caliber recruiting classes during his last two years. As a result, several players that could have contributed this year or last, were nowhere to be found. Some failed to qualify academically (Marques Slocum), some left the program (Justin Boren, Ryan Mallett, Artis Chambers), and others (Mike Williams, Austin Panter, Adam Patterson) just never panned out. Given these challenges, it’s hardly surprising that year one under Rodriguez was a disaster. But while it’s easy to see how Rodriguez struggled initially, it’s difficult to understand why it has been so hard to right the ship.
Make no mistake about it, Rodriguez succeeded in his quest to build a powerhouse offense. Michigan is a juggernaut of an offense, currently ranked 4th in the country in total offense. Sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson is on pace to shatter dozens of records, and the offensive line should be pretty good for years to come. But the defense has been the bane of Rodriguez’ existence, and the only thing stopping this team from winning meaningful games. Michigan’s ranks 106th out of 120 teams in the FBS (Div I-A) in total defense, and 117th in pass defense. So the obvious question is who’s fault is that. As discussed above, Carr’s recruiting woes played a substantial role in the defense’s performance, but Rodriguez also created some of his own problems. Specifically, Rodriguez’ failure to establish a coherent defensive philosophy. While it was always clear what Rodriguez intended to do with the offense, his vision for the defense remains a work in progress. This incoherence began with the hiring of Scott Shafer.
When Rodriguez left West Virginia, he brought over all of his assistants except Bill Stewart who became the head coach, and Jeff Casteel who remained the defensive coordinator. Rodriguez then hired Scott Shafer from Stanford to be the defensive coordinator. Shafer’s tenure at that position was not spectacular (67th in total defense; 87th pass, 50th rush). But it wasn’t at the root of all of Michigan’s problems either. Nevertheless, Shafer was let go after one year, in the wake of Michigan’s worst season in 40 years. This despite the fact that he wasn’t given the opportunity to hire any of his own position coaches. After all, Rodriguez brought them over with him from West Virginia. He was also forced to implement the 3-3-5 defense mid-season, despite the fact he had never run the scheme.
The incoherence continued when Rodriguez hired Greg Robinson. A lifelong coach at virtually every level, Robinson brought experience and some level of success as a coach, winning two Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator in Denver. Unfortunately, last year’s defense was no better (82nd total, 67th pass, 91st rush). And while it seemed to some like the defense would take a step forward this year, it got worse. But the incoherence continued.
At the beginning of this season Rodriguez announced that the Wolverines would run the 3-3-5 as the base defense, despite the fact that Robinson had never run it. One might argue that a different scheme would not matter. I would disagree. The 3-3-5 that Michigan has run this year, is not what Rodriguez ran himself in West Virginia. The hallmark of the scheme is that it is aggressive, with blitzes from multiple angles. Yet neither Shafer, nor Robinson favor blitzing; at least not to the extent needed to make this kind of defense effective. So the defense that Rodriguez favors isn’t even being utilized to the proper effect. What this all says to me is that Rodriguez, while understanding the importance of defense, abdicated his duty as the person bearing ultimate responsibility for the performance of the defense. Not because he didn’t care, but because he had too much faith in his offense. I can’t read Rodriguez’ mind, but my guess is that he figured, once he got the offense rolling, the Wolverines would be able to outscore most opponents if needed.
Despite Rodriguez’ mistakes, it may still make sense to keep him if the season can be salvaged and there are significant improvements next year. But my projection for this year is 6-6 (a win at Purdue, but losing to Wisconsin, OSU, and Illinois) and 7-5 next year. Even the rosiest of scenarios, would leave Michigan at 8-4 next year. Put another way, Rodriguez’ record would be 21-27 or 22-26 under either scenario. That would be the worst 4-year record for a Michigan head coach in the storied program’s history. Is that enough for Rodriguez to keep his job? I say no. Besides, even if Brandon wanted to keep Rich Rod, he’d have to give him an extension. Otherwise he’d just be a lame duck coach next year, which would destroy recruiting and undermine his credibility as a head coach. Barring some unforeseen circumstances (beating Ohio State), Rich Rod should be let go after the bowl game; assuming we get there.
Rich Rod defenders will say that the world would collapse if we changed gears now. But I disagree. Sadly, Rodriguez’ successor will have an easier job than he. The new coach would inherit an experienced offensive line, two seasoned quarterbacks, a 5th year senior corner, and one of the best defensive tackles in the country. Surely that would be enough to get to a bowl game. Dave Brandon is a smart guy, and I have faith that he’ll make the right decision. That would be to part ways with Rich Rod now. This experiment has lasted long enough.