Column: Michigan Football’s Cautionary Tale

Saga of Rich Rodriguez highlights college football beast
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Editor’s note: A version of this column appeared in the Jan. 6, 2011 Wall Street Journal.

For the past three years I have been granted unfettered access to the Michigan football program, from the film room to the locker room, to write a book about what I’ve seen. Titled “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” it will come out this fall.

Before I walked into my first staff meeting, I thought I knew college football, and particularly Michigan football, as well as anyone out there. But after three years of seeing everything up close, I can tell you this unequivocally: I had no idea.

College football is based on a central conflict: It’s a billion-dollar business that can generate enough revenue to fund whole athletic departments and enough passion to fuel endowment drives for entire universities, but it’s all built on the backs of stressed-out coaches and amateur athletes.

College athletic departments now resemble modern racehorses: They’re bigger, faster and more powerful than ever, but still supported by the same spindly legs that break too easily and too often. Michigan’s $226 million renovation of its stadium – already the largest in the country, and twice as big as many NFL stadiums – the coaches’ spiraling salaries, and the seemingly insatiable need to build new facilities for its 26 other varsity programs, all depend on selling football tickets, seat licenses, luxury suites and TV rights. And all that still depends on the arm of a 20-year-old quarterback, or the foot a 19-year-old kicker.

That’s why coaches work 100-hour weeks recruiting, practicing and watching endless hours of film – only to see that 19-year-old kid miss the kick anyway. When that happens, the head coach can expect to get thousands of nasty emails, and just a few hours of fitful sleep.

The coaches have to ask their players to work almost as hard – not just on the field but in the weight room and in the classroom. I followed Michigan’s Big Ten MVP quarterback, Denard Robinson, for one day, which started at 7 a.m. with treatment for his swollen knee, followed by weightlifting, classes, an interview with ESPN Radio, more treatment, meetings, practice, a third round of treatment, dinner and study table. When he walked out of the academic center at 10 p.m., two middle-aged men who’d been waiting all night asked him to sign a dozen glossy photos. I went home exhausted – and I hadn’t done anything more than take notes.

Conditioning, however, was even harder. I worked out with the strength coaches for six weeks, just to see what it was like. They doubled my bench press and tripled my squat – and also showed me I could throw up from running or weight lifting. I had not known that. After each workout I collapsed on my couch for an hour or two — not to nap, mind you, but to whimper in the fetal position like a little kid.

How those players got any school work done at the end of those days is a mystery to me. And, thanks to Michigan’s self-imposed penalties, the Wolverines actually worked fewer hours than the NCAA allowed. What they do is not against the rules – that’s the real story there – it’s just very, very hard.

If any of Michigan’s 125 players do any of these things poorly, or not at all, that’s the head coach’s problem. And if any of those failures hit the papers, the talk shows or the blogs, it’s an even bigger headache.

This beast we have created may be bigger and stronger, but the coach’s job security still rests on kids who might weigh 300 pounds and can squat twice that, but still can’t grow a respectable mustache. They really are just kids.

Having seen it all up close, I know this much: I don’t care how much money the head coach gets paid or how famous the quarterback is. I would not trade with either of them. And if you saw how they lived, as I did, you might not either.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Mike Hartwell
    January 7, 2011 at 10:22 am | permalink


  2. January 7, 2011 at 10:54 am | permalink

    It has seemed to me, for some time now, that to call college football “amateur” is quite a stretch. It seems much more like “unpaid minor league” play to me these days.

  3. By junior
    January 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm | permalink

    The Rich Rodriguez era was a sad chapter in the University of Michigan football program.

    His constant conflicts with boosters. His turbulent personal financial and legal matters detracted from the operation of what had been one of America’s premiere college football programs.

    I wish Mr. Rodriguez well but hope the University of Michigan administration uses greater care in the selection of a successor.

  4. By Mark A. Hiselman
    January 10, 2011 at 2:16 am | permalink

    I developed tremendous respect for the student-athletes I tutored at U of M years ago. To think and act like a champion required self discipline. For some on particularly difficult days, each action had purpose. Being a champion required intent; being a leader inspired teammates.
    Most students use their mental energy to control their intellect. But a student-athlete also has to use the mind to excel physically, and to aid the team by inspiring their intellectual, physical and spiritual development. By aiding the team, the athlete matures emotionally. When a coach understands the metaphysics of the complete sportsman, each Michigan Wolverine will exceed internal limitations.