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And So The Rich Rodriguez Experiment Comes To An End

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July 1, 2008.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: Michigan will regret this hire. He will get a pass this year as all new coaches do, but I can't see him lasting more than four years in Ann Arbor. Maybe three.

That's what I wrote three years ago just two months before Rich Rodriguez ever coached a game for those guys in the winged helmets. I think it's safe to say I nailed that one, though it was for the wrong reasons.

I had Rodriguez pegged as a sleazy guy. I thought it was sleazy the way he ditched his Alma Mater just a few weeks before they played in a BCS bowl game. Especially after he had turned down the Alabama job the year before and told us through teary eyes how he was a West Virginia man through and through. I thought it was shady the way he slipped into the office and shredded files. Then in his first few weeks on the job he poached a few recruits from other Big Ten teams leading Joe Tiller to call him a snake oil salesman.

I figured Rodriguez would eventually hang himself by bringing shame on the University of Michigan. In a way I was correct in this. Several players defected talking about the lack of a family atmosphere. Alumni complained that Rodriguez didn't appreciate and honor Michigan traditions. Under Rodriguez's watch, Michigan was caught committing NCAA violations for exceeding permissible practice times. It was the first football related NCAA blemish in school history. Then there was the ugly court case with West Virginia, and the shady real estate deals. Recruiting players of questionable character. The list goes on.

I had a hunch that Rich Rodriguez wasn't a guy who did things on the up-and-up, and I would say the record shows I was justified in my suspicion. However, what I did not anticipate was the tolerance the Michigan fan base would have for these transgressions. Through it all, I can't ever recall a Michigan fan calling the man sleazy. In fact, they are still calling him a good man in their post-mortems.

I have to hand it to Rodriguez. The man gives a great mea culpa speech. After each transgression he stood up at the podium to express his sorrow. Then he shed a tear and reiterated he was going to buckle down and work harder. And for good measure, he reiterated about a thousand times that, gee golly, he just wants to be a Michigan Man.

Michigan fans ate it up. Hook, line, and sinker.

Ultimately, Rich Rodriguez's fate came down to wins and losses. Plain and simple. At the end of the day they could overlook the shady recruiting practices. They could overlook the disloyalty to his Alma Mater. They could overlook the questionable real estate deals. They could even overlook NCAA violations and sanctions. But they couldn't forgive 7-6 with a blowout bowl loss. Vince Lombardi's mantra "Winning is everything, it's the only thing," could not ring more true in Ann Arbor.

So now the fans sit like patients in an emergency room. They know their stomach hurts like hell, but they don't know why. They know eventually they will see a doctor. Maybe he will cure what ails them. Or maybe they will get another quack who promises shiny stethoscopes and a lollipop.

I don't say all of this to gloat. In fact, the whole situation saddens me. I've mentioned before that Michigan was always kind of a second favorite team of mine growing up. I want to see Michigan do well. The Big Ten needs Michigan to return. I figured Rodriguez would have had them winning nine or ten games by now. I just figured his lack of ethics and respect for Michigan tradition would have done him in.

Honestly, I don't see Michigan returning any time soon. It's looking like they are headed into another fiasco of a coaching search. I think the one chance they have is hiring Jim Harbaugh, and right now that is not looking likely. The thought of him dipping into western Pennsylvania and New Jersey to pluck his recruits scares me to death. It's sounding like their second choice, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, doesn't even want to return their phone calls. They're already on their third option, and whoever the next guy is will be starting in a hole having to win over half of the fanbase.

Michigan is a dying state as businesses dry up and people flee the rust belt for Florida, Texas, and Arizona. The local recruiting pool is getting more shallow, and "little brother" Michigan State is suddenly growing up. Not to mention the Buckeyes just a couple hours down the road. Michigan's only hope is to recruit on a national scale, and if you're going to do that you better have an impeccable brand. Right now, the Michigan brand is old and rusting. The current freshman class at Michigan was 14 years old the last time the Wolverines were relevant on the national scene. With each passing year that number will get younger and younger until eventually you get to the point where kids grow up cheering for other teams while the Wolverines are an afterthought.

Sure, the old timers will tell them stories about Bo Schembechler and Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. They will fondly recall days when you said "The Game", and everyone knew what you were talking about. But then they'll recall that was probably five head coaches ago. The young guy listening to all of this will roll his eyes, and then he'll check the television guide to see what time the Spartans play. And when that day comes, you will know how Notre Dame feels.