Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arizona Hires Rich Rodriguez

Former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez was hired by the University of Arizona to coach the Wildcats' football team, a report said Monday. The news of the hire broke from a deliberate tweet by Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, showing a picture of Rodriguez and his family wearing Arizona hats.

Rodriguez spent the past six or so months working as an analyst and commentator for CBS Sports, after being fired from Michigan on January 5, 2011, for posting a 15-22 record in three years with the Wolverines. He also had a combined 0-6 record against Michigan State and Ohio State. In his first two years at Michigan, the Wolverines posted losing seasons and did not go to a bowl. Rodriguez's squad finally achieved bowl eligibility in 2010, but were humiliated 52-14 in the Gator Bowl by Mississippi State.

Meanwhile, former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, who dug Arizona out of the ground and after five years finally brought them to bowl games, but never seemed competitive for the Pac-12 championship, was fired by athletic director Greg Byrne in the middle of the 2011 season. The reason for Stoops' dismissal is generally believed to be his demeanor on the sidelines (i.e. frequently losing his temper) and, perhaps more importantly, starting the season 1-5. Stoops was replaced mid-season with interim coach Tim Kish, the defensive coordinator. Under Kish, the Wildcats defeated UCLA and hated rival Arizona State.

When he fired Stoops, athletic director Greg Byrne said he wanted to take Arizona to the next level, he wanted Arizona competing for Rose Bowls and Pac-12 championships, and while grateful to Stoops for building the program from scratch, Byrne also said that it was time to move on. Byrne then conducted a national search that included former Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who reportedly turned down the job, and former Oregon head coach, Mike Bellotti. However, a lot of this could have merely been a smoke screen, as Byrne said when he started the hire not to trust any source unless it comes directly from him. Two days ago, Byrne announced through his Twitter account that Rich Rodriguez would be the next head football coach at Arizona.

It is a fresh start for both sides, and a chance for bigger and better things. Arizona fans were getting fed up with Stoops' sideline antics, which weren't being tempered by victories, and frustration built up as the Wildcats seemed mired in mediocrity. A change appeared necessary. Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez, who said repeatedly while at CBS Sports that he hoped someday for an opportunity to be a head coach again, wanted the chance to repair his reputation. Michigan had moved on and was experiencing success. It would only seem fair that he should be able to move on, too. He had been knocked down, sure, but he wanted to get up, dust himself off, and get back on the horse.

Initially, that meant that Rodriguez might have to settle for a less glamorous coaching job or a position as someone's offensive coordinator. Rodriguez himself has always maintained that he wants to be a head coach, but he was just hoping for the opportunity. There were a few that came along. Rodriguez's struggles at Michigan were not enough to keep Tulane from being interested in him. (Rodriguez had been Tulane's offensive coordinator from 1997-1998, where he helped the team to a 12-0 season, a record of success it has not experienced since.) With few options on the table, Rodriguez considered taking the job.

Yet Tulane is not in a BCS conference and, were Rodriguez to become Tulane's head coach, it would be a conscious step back. Tulane's place in a weak conference means that, even undefeated, it can not compete for national championships, which are Rodriguez's ultimate ambition. Rodriguez had reached the pinnacle of college coaching—Michigan—and now it seemed like he'd have to completely start over.

Then, much to Rodriguez's surprise, Arizona came calling. The Wildcats are the only team in what was formerly the Pac-10 to never even make an appearance in the Rose Bowl. They have also been desperate for success ever since John Mackovic cratered the program with abysmal seasons in the early 2000s. Mike Stoops was hired to fix the mess, and he did, but then could not meet the program's newfound expectations. The savvy Greg Byrne would be cautious in his decision about the next guy. Fans were generally optimistic because Byrne had hired Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, a decision which made Byrne a hot commodity as athletic director and helped him get the position at Arizona.

In the press conference where he introduced Rich Rodriguez, Byrne said that he considered a variety of candidates and wanted someone who fit his criteria. Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller talked to Byrne and suggested Rodriguez, calling him "the hungriest guy out there" and "the guy that the other coaches don't want coming to the Pac-12." It also helped that Rodriguez received a glowing recommendation from Urban Meyer, who told Byrne that Rodriguez was "one of the five greatest minds in college football" and said that it would be "an incredible hire for the University of Arizona."

Not surprisingly, given Rodriguez's history, Byrne had some concerns. There was the matter of Rodriguez's 15-22 record at Michigan, his trouble with the NCAA for practice time, and the fact that Rodriguez seems like a magnet for lawsuits. Byrne did his homework, however. He heard Rodriguez's side of the story and checked with the NCAA and compliance office at Michigan to verify it. He also wisely picked up a copy of John U. Bacon's "Three and Out" book, which provides a rigorously detailed, in-depth analysis and exploration of Rodriguez's time at Michigan, why he struggled, and ultimately why he was fired. When Rodriguez learned that Byrne had read "Three and Out," he was surprised. "I think it helps you," Byrne told him.

According to Rodriguez in his introductory press conference, he and Byrne first talked face-to-face about Arizona at his home in Detroit, Michigan. They also had breakfast in New York at a "secret restaurant" to discuss the job. Rodriguez was initially concerned that someone might recognize him, but after the restaurant became packed with customers, no one seemed to notice. Then, towards the end of Rodriguez's meeting with Byrne, a Michigan alumnus noticed Rodriguez and enthusiastically asked, "Hey, Coach Rod! What are you doing here [in New York]?" Rodriguez told him that he had a TV gig with CBS, which was true. The Michigan alumnus did not recognize Byrne. "That would have blown his cover," Rodriguez told the crowd at the press conference on Tuesday, earning a chuckle.

At first it may appear dubious that Rodriguez would be a good fit at a place where expectations were so dangerously high. Then, however, with a little research, one can find that Arizona's expectations, which are squarely on the Rose Bowl, are not greatly insurmountable. Arizona is in the Pac-12 South Division, the weaker of the two, especially since its only two contenders are an ineligible USC and an inconsistent Arizona State. (UCLA is in the contest by sheer luck alone.) The two most difficult teams in the Pac-12 are Oregon and Stanford, but both are in the North Division. Arizona could lose to both and still play in the Pac-12 Championship if it gets by USC and takes care of the weaker teams in the South Division. Getting there would not be like facing the stout teams in the Big Ten's Legends Division.

There is also Rodriguez's spread offense, which seems perfect for the Pac-12 conference. The teams in the conference appear to prefer speed over size—it is not the beefy Big Ten—and several teams already run a spread-type offense, with Oregon as the leader among them. (By the way, if you didn't already know, Rodriguez is one of the original architects of the spread.) The only team that actually has a traditional power-running offense is Stanford. Unlike the Big Ten, where spread teams tend to struggle (Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska), Rodriguez should do very well here. It will be a lot more like West Virginia than like Michigan.

Rodriguez also inherits a team that he does not need to completely transform in order to run his offense. While the Wildcats graduate senior quarterback Nick Foles, Rodriguez gets to utilize the talents of running quarterback Matt Scott, a definite dual-threat who will be a red-shirt senior in 2012. Rodriguez also gets Ka'Deem Carey, a speedster at running back. Mike Stoops' Air Raid offense is similar to Rodriguez's spread except that it prefers a heavy passing game with as many as five wide receivers. The transition to Rodriguez's spread-option will not take nearly as long as it did at Michigan and will not be as nearly as painful. This is probably the best situation Rodriguez hope could for.

What is even better about Arizona and what ultimately helps Rodriguez is that the program's identity is not so rooted in tradition as Michigan's was with the ideal and security of the "Michigan Man." The Arizona fans don't care if Rodriguez has ties to the program. In fact, given that previous Arizona coaches who did have ties were unsuccessful, many actually prefer Rodriguez on the simple notion that he doesn't. Rodriguez will not have to constantly combat the idea that he doesn't belong. Arizona, which is traditionally known as a basketball school, is still looking for a sense of identity in football. It is practically a blank slate. Rodriguez will be able to shape the image of Arizona's program instead of struggling to uphold it.

He still faces some initial challenges. The first is finding a competent and suitable defensive coordinator. Rodriguez will either have to find someone who can mesh with his philosophy, or he will have to find someone who can coach defense well and run that system independent of Rodriguez's control. (The latter is often pushed for by fans especially because Rodriguez is an offensive mind and because his two defensive coordinators at Michigan—Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson—had hardly any experience with the 3-3-5 defense Rodriguez insisted they run.) A primary target for Rodriguez must be Jeff Casteel, defensive coordinator at West Virginia, who was on Rodriguez's staff there but did not follow him to Michigan. Casteel could easily leave West Virginia, since he has no ties or particular allegiance to Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers' current head coach.

The defense for Rodriguez was dooming at Michigan, and it is going to be the most important question he is asked until he is successful. In a one-on-one interview with the Tucson Citizen, Rodriguez was judiciously asked about his plans for defense, particularly if he intends on retaining the 3-3-5 he had at West Virginia where it was effective and at Michigan where it failed.

"I like to run the odd front because it gives you versatility, but even the 3-3-5 now has morphed into a 3-4," Rodriguez said. "I'm going to try to hire the best defensive coordinator I can, and if his schemes and philosophy can match some of the parameters I give him, then we'll do that. I just want to have a great coach and a great scheme. Defensively, things are a little different. In this day and age you have to have more of a variety because one week you might see a spread team and the next week you see two tight ends and I-backs. In this league, you'll see that with Oregon and Stanford. I'm not married, so to speak, to a 3-3-5."

Rodriguez has apparently learned a great deal from his struggles and mistakes at Michigan, and he knows what kind of questions are going to be asked. At his introductory press conference, Rodriguez stressed the importance of the Arizona State rivalry and that he will emphasize it every day. He also said his primary goal for the program is winning the Rose Bowl, a statement which provoked cheers. Rodriguez did not spend time dishing out false promises, however. Though he had many goals, his only actual guarantee was that Arizona would get his best effort and the best effort of his staff.

Realizing from his experience at Michigan that he needs all the initial support he can get, Rodriguez also appealed to the former players, a wise move that he had neglected to do when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. That disconnect did not help him through the struggles of his first few years, and by the time Rodriguez realized how crucial it was to have the former players on his side, it was probably too late. This time, at Arizona, he was intent on not making the same error.

"There's a lot of great players," he said. "I want all you lettermen that are here to know that you have an open invitation to come back and visit with me and visit with our staff. I think it's important that if you gave of yourself as a student-athlete here, and I know all the other coaches feel the same way, that you feel welcome back. And you will. I guarantee you'll feel that, and you're welcome back immediately. And you always have been. I know that, but just because I did not go to the University of Arizona and this is my first time here, don't think for an instant that I don't want you around, because I do. Now I can't let you call the plays, unless you're on the staff, but I do want you around. There's a lot a guys that I want to know. I want you all to tell me, to help me have success here. You know, I want to win the Rose Bowl—at the University of Arizona."

At Arizona, that part about the Rose Bowl may be more important than the part about the former players, since Arizona is not as rigid as Michigan. Again, there is no such thing as an "Arizona man." Still, his appeal to them was shrewd and well-prepared. He still doesn't know everything about Arizona. The difference is, this time, that won't hurt him.

If Rodriguez's first challenge was hiring an effective defensive coordinator, then recruiting will be his second. He has recruited out of Arizona before, gaining commitments from Taylor Lewan and Craig Roh, both from Scottsdale. However, the fact that Rodriguez did not recruit heavily in the area is a concern for some. He recruited a number of players from California and Texas, but even he admits that he still prefers Florida. Rodriguez acknowledged the importance of establishing a recruiting base in Arizona and locking down the state. It will be imperative that Rodriguez hire a West Coast oriented staff or retain some current Arizona assistants (he knew quarterbacks coach Chris Scelfo while at Tulane) to make up for his lack of experience. These are hardly difficult challenges, and Rodriguez will have overcome them within a couple years.

For Michigan fans, Rodriguez has long been a polarizing figure. The mere mention of his name sends us into a flurry of emotions. Some consider him a good person, a genuine guy, while others consider him scum marked by the humorlessly predictable moniker "Dick Rod." The notion of whether Rodriguez and Michigan were a bad fit is hotly debated, and even today there are still those who believe that Rodriguez should be the Wolverines' coach. That is the nature of Rich Rodriguez: there will always be those who love him, and there will always be those who hate him. It is hardly universal either way, though. West Virginians' hatred of Rodriguez is borne out of love because he made them so successful and left for a better opportunity. Yet he was beloved in Morgantown when he was its coach. His departure from his alma mater was a cut that ran deep, and it was almost cathartic to make him the bad guy. It was certainly expected.

His time at Michigan had a similar effect. Rodriguez produced the worst seasons in the history of the program, punctuated with the worst defenses. Yet even before that, Rodriguez was on the ropes because he was such an outsider. His hire alone had so many implications. It meant so many things would change, not just in Michigan's brand name offense but the very identity of what it was to be a "Michigan Man." Though Rodriguez was not the first outsider Michigan hired, he was the first departure from the school of Schembechler. The Michigan faithful had long become comfortable with the Legacy of Bo. That, to them, was Michigan football. Rodriguez, to those who hated him, was a threat to that.

Rodriguez's mistakes at Michigan are frequently discussed, yet John U. Bacon insists that Michigan committed just as many sins as Rodriguez. They did not embrace him. They did not give him full support. At a banquet in Ann Arbor in 2008, one former player got up to the lectern and said, "I better not see any of your guys from West Virginia on our sidelines! This is our program!" He was never reprimanded.

Yet Rodriguez will doubtfully be remembered as the coach who didn't get a fair shake. I will personally remember Rodriguez as the guy not who squandered Michigan's tradition, but who didn't understand it—or at least did not understand it fully. When you become the head coach of Michigan, you are given the keys to the kingdom. You are the keeper of the legacy of the coaches like Yost and Schembechler, who built Michigan into the winningest program in college football. This is why so many people ground the identity of the program in its history, and this is why they were so affected by Rodriguez. It was an incredible departure.

One of the best kept secrets about Rodriguez (largely his own doing) was that he embraced Michigan's tradition. He frequently utilized it in the locker room to motivate players. He talked about it constantly with them. What Rodriguez didn't do, and why so many people didn't think he was a Michigan Man, was take that devotion to the public, and show the fans that he cared about all the right things. If you put Rodriguez's locker room speeches to the Wolverines next to Brady Hoke's press conferences, it's hard to tell the difference.

Rodriguez will instead be remembered for bringing Michigan fans a newfound appreciation for Lloyd Carr, whose legacy some felt did not get the appropriate amount of respect it deserved when Carr relinquished his position, despite the loss to Appalachian State and the losing streak to Ohio State. Rodriguez's 3-9 season of 2008 makes Carr's 8-4 season of 2007 look like unparalleled success. Rodriguez's seasons never reached eight wins at Michigan, and Carr is now in the College Football Hall of Fame. He is the revered figure his players wanted him to be, while Rodriguez is seen as the guy who created a mess that Brady Hoke had to come in with Greg Mattison and fix. For Michigan, the old ways are back, and no one in Ann Arbor could be happier.

Admittedly, we at the Michigan Fanatic give Rodriguez a lot of heat for his decisions, but these opinions and statements are largely based in the result of those decisions rather than a simple, personal bias or hatred. Personally, I don't hate Rodriguez. I believe he is a genuine guy who gave three years of his life to the Michigan football program in a way more intimate than any fan ever will. He was something most people will never be: he was Michigan's head coach. He was closer than any of us.

His firing was necessary, because I could not look at 2011 and see that we had a chance to win the Big Ten under him, but I did not want Rodriguez to fall into an eternal pit of despair after he was fired. Thankfully, he didn't. CBS hired him, and within a year, he has found another coaching job at a program in a BCS conference. His stint at Michigan will be but a blip on his career. After everything we experienced with Rodriguez during his time here, and everything that he experienced from us, the man deserves some success and happiness.

At Arizona, I hope he finds it.

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