Editor’s note: Columnist John U. Bacon has been answering questions from Michigan fans on MGoBlog about his upcoming book, “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” (FSG, $28, out October 25, 2011). Last week, he described how he gained access to UM’s football program, and how his book deal emerged. This week, he talks about the early days of the Rodriguez regime, what it means to be a “Michigan Man,” and what his future plans are following publication of this book.
One of the central questions that comes up in various forms about Rich Rodriguez is the “Fit, or Lack Thereof” with Michigan’s program. I’ll start to answer that question by working backward, from the final seconds of Rodriguez’s regime.
On January 5, 2011, the assistant coaches, staffers, and yours truly were all sitting in the coaches’ meeting room, when Rodriguez walked in, laid a file down on the table, and said, “Well, as expected, they fired me.” He later added, “It was a bad fit here from the start.”
And in many ways it was. But I’m not certain it had to be.
People who were living in Ann Arbor in 1968 can tell you about the last outsider to take the reins: Bo Schembechler. His predecessor, Bump Elliott, was a former Michigan All-American who was smart and humble, with an urbane, conservative manner. He didn’t yell at his players, he rarely swore, and if you said you were hurt, that was enough for him.
When Schembechler’s crew arrived with their wives sporting beehive hairdos and stiletto heels, some Michigan insiders took to calling them “The Ohio Mafia.” The players quickly learned the new guy yelled, swore, grabbed your facemask and literally kicked you in the ass. If you were merely hurt, not injured, but didn’t want to practice, you got left behind when the team plane took off.
Instead of turning his back on the new regime, however, Elliott embraced them, hosting parties for their families and introducing them to important people around town. He did not allow players to come to his office in the Athletic Department to complain about the new guy, either. And when Schembechler delivered what today would be an unforgivable comment about changing “Michigan’s silly helmets,” Elliott, Don Canham, Fritz Crisler and Bob Ufer quietly taught him Michigan tradition.
And, to Schembechler’s credit, he was wise enough to listen, and even seek out their help.
When Michigan upset Ohio State that year, they gave Bump Elliott the game ball, and there was not a dry eye in the room.
That’s Michigan at its best. The last three years were not.
Rodriguez had never been to Ann Arbor before his first press conference, and it was clear he had not prepared, nor been coached – a noted contrast to Brady Hoke’s introduction, when his rehearsed lines won over many doubters that day.
To cross this chasm, neither Michigan nor Rodriguez did enough, soon enough. I believe Rodriguez should have learned more about Michigan faster than he did, but I also believe he received little guidance. Readers will likely be struck by how often Rodriguez invoked Michigan’s traditions – the helmet, the banner, the rivals – when he talked to his team. And he could have helped his cause by reaching out to sympathetic Michigan groups like the M-Club, filled with loyal supporters who could have helped him when trouble hit.
Both sides of this marriage could have learned a lot from the other. Rodriguez could have gained the kind of polish Michigan usually applies to its players and coaches, much as it did for the initially rough-hewed Schembechler. And Michigan’s famed arrogance – occasionally succumbing to rank snobbism during the Rodriguez regime – could have been softened with some of Rodriguez’s down-home friendliness.
I suspect both sides have learned a great deal since, manifest in Michigan’s almost universal support for Brady Hoke. He isn’t exactly Bump Elliott, either, but he’s been accepted as a true “Michigan Man.”
Train Wreck of a Transition
Everyone knows the transition was poorly handled – but it was actually much worse than you think, marked by a lack of preparation, communication, and transparency, not to mention severe undermining of the process and the candidates. It resulted in the famously unified Michigan football family fracturing before then-athletic director Bill Martin named Rodriguez Michigan’s next coach – and it only got worse afterward. For his part, Rodriguez naively assumed he was walking into the same program Schembechler had created.
Rodriguez also made a crucial miscalculation: He honestly believed that the bigger the program, the less time the head coach has to deal with peripheral duties like connecting with former players, alumni and fans – when the opposite is true. The head football coach at Michigan, Texas or Alabama, is, in a very real sense, the leader of that school.
That said, it’s worth remembering: Michigan was hiring Rodriguez, not the other way around. It is the employer’s job to set their employees up for success, and at that central task, Michigan failed badly.
But I still believe that nothing would have helped more than Bo Schembechler continuing to lead the family. When he passed away, Michigan lost more than a coach. It lost its spiritual leader – and five years later he has still not been replaced.
If there were any doubts before that Bo did more than anyone to keep Michigan football at the top, long after he retired, his absence erased them for me.
The Blame Game
I know: you want to know what happened to the defense, and who is most to blame for the disappointing last three seasons.
It’s not hard to identify a handful of contributing factors, all of which were necessary, but none sufficient to guarantee failure. We have a dozen variables in both cases, but no control group, so it’s ultimately impossible to be completely certain what, precisely, was the most important straw.
Nonetheless, if I don’t feed the bulldog something I’ll probably get my hand bitten off, so here goes.
Let’s start with the defense. When people ask if the shockingly poor performance was the result of inheriting weak talent, transfers, a stretch of freak injuries, youth or coaching, I say: Yes. It is simply impossible for your defense to drop to 68th then 82nd then 110th without all those factors playing a part. But the hardest to tease out is coaching.
We do know a few things, however. Failing to get Jeff Casteel was much bigger than probably anyone realized at the time. Bill Martin failed to pony up a few more bucks and a guaranteed contract to get him, while Rodriguez – who would not come to Michigan without Mike Barwis and the promise of a million-dollar weight room – was apparently willing to leave without his defensive coordinator. If he could do it again, he would probably insist he wasn’t coming to Michigan without his trusted defensive coordinator.
After that, Michigan never gave Rodriguez sufficient bait to get his top choice to replace Casteel. When Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson arrived in Ann Arbor, they inherited a staff of strangers who had been loyal to Rodriguez for years. Shafer and Robinson are both decent guys who’ve been successful elsewhere, but it clearly didn’t work at Michigan.
At the end of the day, however, the head coach is responsible for his team’s performance, and that obviously includes defense.
Likewise, there was no shortage of variables contributing to Rodriguez’s demise. The long list includes: the horrible transition; his Honeymoon from Hell (including overblown PR problems over buy-outs, departing players, and even shredded papers); his 3-9 debut; the Detroit Free Press feature and subsequent NCAA investigation; the string of four crucial losses in the middle of 2009 and three in middle of 2010; and the final Bust. Obviously, some of those are on Michigan, and some on Rodriguez.
The Rodriguez reign was fatally damaged by two main causes: the harm done by detractors inside and outside the program, and his own missed opportunities – from PR problems to those seven lost match points in 2009 and 2010, any one of which would probably have been enough to deliver him to a new era when he could focus more on football than survival. In particular, I believe the 2009 game against Illinois, which blew up when Michigan failed to score on a first and goal from the one-yard line, marked the Continental Divide of the Rodriguez Era.
So, it’s not true that Rodriguez had no chance. He had seven. It is true, however, that his chances were greatly diminished by detractors inside and outside the program.
Assigning blame essentially boils down to weighing the factors above. But on one crucial point – really, the most important of all – there is absolutely no shade of gray whatsoever. Rodriguez, his staff, and his players (after the 2008 team graduated) worked extraordinarily hard to win every game.
Some powerful insiders, however, were working just as hard to see them fail. That is not a matter of degree. It’s a clear-cut, black-and-white difference – something I have never seen in all my years researching Michigan’s long and admirable history. But the people who suffered the most were the least to blame: the players.
As former offensive line coach Greg Frey told me, while driving to Mott Hospital one night, “I think about guys like Moosman and Ortmann and Brandon Graham. Man, those guys work their asses off. They care about their teammates. They stayed. They get pushed aside in all this, and that’s all right? That’s sad.”
When Angelique Chengalis of The Detroit News asked Ryan Van Bergen how it felt to see hundreds of alums returning to support the new coach, he said, “You know, it’s kind of unsettling… It’s great they’re back, but it’s kind of, where have they been the last two or three years? We’ve still be wearing the same helmets since they were here.”
Who deserves how much blame can be debated.
But who was working against the Wolverines, and who suffered the most because of it, cannot be.
Rodriguez and The Michigan Man
The term “Michigan Man” probably goes back to the day men arrived at Michigan. But it’s taken more than a few twists and turns since – and not always for the better.
Fielding Yost gave the term “Michigan Man” a boost when he started using it in his speeches. But the phrase really took off in 1989, of course, when Schembechler announced he was firing basketball coach Bill Frieder, on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament, because Frieder had signed a secret deal to coach Arizona State the next season. This prompted Schembechler to bark: “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!”
Pundits have wondered exactly what Bo meant, but I think it’s pretty simple: anybody coaching at Michigan better be completely committed to Michigan.
The phrase took on more weight four years ago, when a reporter asked brand-new head coach Rich Rodriguez if the Michigan coach had to be a Michigan Man. He joked, “Gosh, I hope not! They hired me!”
He was criticized for that – and not without some justification, in my opinion. The question was inevitable, and it exposed Rodriguez’s superficial knowledge of the program upon his arrival, and the athletic department’s failure to prepare its new coach for his mission.
From that point on, the phrase was used more often to beat somebody over the head – usually Rodriguez – than to underscore the values it’s supposed to represent, much the way extremists use “patriot” to castigate someone as un-American.
At the “Victors’ Rally” held in February 2010, Rodriguez wanted to show that he’d gotten the message. So, he closed his speech by saying, “I’m Rich Rodriguez, and I am a Michigan Man.” This time, he was criticized for being presumptuous.
Finally, with great humility, he told the crowd at his final speech at the Bust in December 2011, “I hope you realize, I truly want to be a Michigan Man.” But this time his critics said a true Michigan Man wouldn’t have to ask.
And thus, the silliness of the entire exercise had come full circle. The phrase had become so distorted, Michigan’s critics started using it as a mocking insult. Much like the word “classy,” it seemed, whoever uses it, probably isn’t.
Despite my temptation to chuck this overused and little understood phrase forever, I still think there’s something to it. Everyone knows the values it’s supposed to stand for: honor, sacrifice, pride in your team, and humility in yourself, all in one. But ultimately, to define it, I have to resort to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Pardon the comparison, but when it comes to the phrase, “Michigan Man,” I know it when I see it, too. They might be Big Men on Campus, but they don’t act like it – in college or afterward. The men I’ve been lucky enough to get to know – many as good friends – really do put their team and their school before themselves, and become the kind of adults you want to be your employee, your colleague, your boss, your neighbor, your brother-in-law. Not because they played football for Michigan, but because they represent its values. And they really are different than the players I’ve met from other schools.
I can cite too many men who fit this description, and too many examples of their conduct, simply to dismiss it.
Here’s a small one: a few years ago the football alums of Ohio State and Michigan were invited to an event in Columbus. The Buckeyes showed up wearing everything from sport coats to sweatshirts and jeans. But the Michigan alums arrived wearing coats and ties. No one told them what to wear. Bo had already passed away. But they simply knew, reflexively, if you represent Michigan, this is how you do it.
A bigger example: a few years after graduating, Scott Smykowski, a former backup under Schembechler, discovered he needed a bone marrow transplant, but his health insurance wasn’t going to cover all his expenses. That’s all Schembechler needed to hear to rally Michigan Men from coast to coast. And that’s all they needed to hear to raise $150,000 in just a few weeks – even though most of them never played with Smykowski or even met him. That’s what being a Michigan Man meant to them.
When I speak at Michigan events, I often end with a quote from arguably the first important Michigan Man, Fielding Yost. Near the end of his life, they held a big banquet for him called, “A Toast to Yost from Coast to Coast,” which was broadcast nationwide by NBC. After all the speakers had paid tribute, he got up in his eponymous Fieldhouse and said, “My heart is so full at this moment, I fear I could say little else. But do let me reiterate the Spirit of Michigan. It is based on a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways. An enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan Men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts. And a conviction that nowhere, is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.”
It gets me every time. But what really gets me is the response from the people in the audience. None of them ever met Fielding Yost. Most of them weren’t born when he passed away in 1946. Most of their parents weren’t, either. And yet, when they hear these words, they nod involuntarily, the words resonating with something deep inside them, and they are often glassy-eyed when I finish the quote.
If you could stand on that podium and look out on those faces, you would not have to wonder if the idea of the Michigan Man is for real.
Despite the best efforts to kill it, it is still very much alive.
Some people have asked what’s in my future, given the response that some Michigan administrators have had to my book. Despite the sacrifices I mentioned in the first column – time, money, and possibly professional opportunities – writing it was my decision, naturally, and I don’t regret it. Given my choices, trying to write an honest book is certainly more appealing to me than trying to keep everyone happy and produce a book I could never respect.
Plus, I had the chance to see a big-time program from the inside that no fan, and no reporter, has ever had – and probably never will again. If there was one great privilege that I hope every reader can share, it was getting to know these young man not as gladiators but as human beings – some of the best I’ve met. If you were proud of Michigan football before, I can tell you this: getting to know these guys can erase much of the cynicism we all feel for college football these days. They were, quite simply, the real thing.
None of that, unfortunately, solves the problem described above. David Brandon and Lloyd Carr, through various means and channels, have made their contempt for the book (and its author) plain enough. I have no idea what’s going to happen with my various ties to Michigan, including my teaching arrangement, but I’d probably be foolish to count on anything.
It’s almost impossible to write anything interesting without at least some cooperation and access, and I might find those in short supply under the Brandon regime. I will likely have to go “off the reservation,” if you will, to pursue future projects. And perhaps it’s time.
But I also believe this book would cost me a lot more if I were writing about Kentucky basketball under Eddie Sutton or, say, Ohio State football (as a convenient example). Those schools and fans generally don’t want the truth, and will attack anyone who attempts to deliver it – witness Kirk Herbstreit’s forced move to Tennessee. Michigan football fans are very demanding – they expect a first-class program on and off the field – but they also want the truth, and they can handle it.
I feel the same way. After all, I learned how to do all the things I needed to write this book – researching, writing and thinking critically – from world-class professors at the University of Michigan. But the most important principle Michigan taught me was the central importance of pursuing the truth without fear, wherever it leads.
For those who say this book will hurt Michigan, I can only respond: not the Michigan I know.
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the upcoming “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” due out Oct. 25. You can pre-order the book from Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor or on Amazon.com. His first local book signing will be at Nicola’s on Friday, Oct. 28.
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