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Should He Stay or Should He Go?

November 29, 2010

It started with a dull mumble after the Penn State game, became a constant buzz after Wisconsin and somewhere in the 3rd quarter Saturday it became a full-out roar.  The sound I’m referring to of course is the sound of Michigan fans clamoring for the firing of Rich Rodriguez.  Though I touched on it midseason, I like, Dave Brandon, wanted to wait until the end of the season to fully weigh in on whether or not Rich should stay.

And while many are letting emotion dictate their thoughts on this, both privately and publicly, I’m trying to take a logical and objective approach.  Here’s my take:

The Case for Moving On

  • The Record – 15-21 just doesn’t cut it at Michigan.  Even if you give a pass for a 3-9 record the first year due to finding new personnel, we all expected to be back to playing on New Year’s Day by 2010.  Throw in the abysmal Big Ten Record (6-18) and it’s just not an acceptable 3 year stretch under any circumstances.  And if you want to break it down even further, we’re 2-7 against MSU, OSU, and ND.  There is no way to spin the numbers in a positive way for Rich.
  • Big Games, Bad Results – The record against our rivals is tough enough to swallow, but the fact that we suffered double-digit losses to the Top 5 teams in the league this year is even more damning.  With the exception of comeback wins over Notre Dame, there is no “big” game where Michigan has won the game, let alone dominated.  Its one thing to lose.  It’s another thing to not be competitive in the games that matter.
  • Negativity Surround the Program – Sometimes, no matter how good of a guy you are, and no matter how well-intentioned your actions are, things just don’t work out.  A little bit of negativity spins out of control, and you never regain control of the situation.  That seems to be what’s happened here.  Former players, fans, donors, and alumni are all calling for Rich’s head and its all the papers, internet and message boards can talk about.  In short, his approval rating is probably very similar to that of Congress in October 2010.  That negativity may make it impossible for Dave Brandon to keep Rich Rod around. 
  • He’s Not a Good Fit – I’m not going to suggest that Rich isn’t a Michigan Man, because all of his actions suggest that he is.  But he’s always seemed a little bit like a fish out of water in Ann Arbor.  The fans and alumni never welcomed him, and he never really embraced the erudite Michigan mentality.   Whether its our arrogance or his plainspoken ways, it just hasn’t been a good fit.  Given that we hadn’t experience change in 40 years of football, that may have happened with anyone, but it is still a part of the equation.  He just doesn’t mesh with what Michigan fans envision their coach to be.  
  • $$$ Will Dry Up – One of the big concerns as this lack of support gains traction is that many of the donors who would pay for things like luxury boxes, premium seat licenses, practice facilities, etc., would no longer be willing to support the program financially if Rich Rod is retained as coach.  While that is a legitimate concern, the big money donors (Al Glick, Stephen Ross) are apparently still “All-In”,  or at the very least wouldn’t pull their money.  In short, while this may be an issue on Dave Brandon’s radar, it won’t sway the decision.
  • The Debacle that is the Defense – Perhaps the biggest strike against Rich Rodriguez has been his management of the defense.  Under his watch, Michigan has experienced two of its three worst seasons defensively in history, and has gotten progressively worse each year.  This past season set records for yards and points allowed, and they only held one  Big Ten opponent, Purdue, under 34 points.  It was a debacle of epic proportions.  On top of that, in 2008, Rich Rod basically allowed for a coup d’etat of Scott Shafer which probably cost us the Purdue game.  He followed that up by hiring a proven defensive coordinator in Greg Robinson, and then forced him to run a defense that he has never run before.  Both the results and the management of the defense have been a disaster.  Even if Rich keeps his job, he should have very little input into who the defensive coordinator will be in 2011.
  • 

The Case for Keeping Him

  • Denard, and the Offense – I know it sounds ridiculous coming off of a 7 point effort against OSU, but this offense is special.  Despite only putting up 7 points in the first half, we shredded an OSU defense that had only been allowing 240 yards a game by putting up 258 yards in the first half.  We had similar efforts against Wisconsin, MSU, Iowa, and every other defense we faced this year.  Any doubts about whether or not Rich Rod’s offense can succeed in the Big Ten should be put to rest.  There are still issues with red zone execution and turnovers, but as we have more upperclassmen players, I expect those to go away.   Of course a lot of this can be attributed to Denard Robinson.  He is a very special player, who would be heading to NYC for the Heisman Ceremony if it weren’t for our average record.  If Rich Rod goes, not only do we scrap an offense that is clearly ready to wreak havoc on the Big Ten, but we also likely say goodbye to a Heisman caliber player in Denard.  If RR gets a job elsewhere, I’d be shocked if Denard doesn’t follow him.  Another coach likely wouldn’t be able to use Denard as effectively – and probably not as a full-time QB.  For as bad as the defense has been, the offense has been that good.
  • Injuries – One of the unfortunate things about this year is that we were hit pretty hard by the injury bug.  We played the entire season without our best defensive back – Troy Woolfolk.  We played 60% of the season with our best defensive player, Mike Martin, limping on two bad ankles.  We lost a potential starting linebacker in Mike Jones to a season long injury as well.  For an already thin defense, losing 3 potential playmakers was a death sentence.  On the offensive side of the ball,  Junior Hemingway missed time due to injuries, and Martavious Odoms, maybe our most consistent receiver, was lost halfway through the season.  Beyond that, there were various bruises and bumps that caused talented players to miss a game here or there.  In isolation, you file those under no big deal, but collectively, they probably cost us a game or two along the line. 
  • Upward Trajectory – While our upward trajectory is similar to the US economic recovery, it is still an upward trend.  3-9, 5-7, 7-5, may not be the progress we all expected, but it definitely counts as progress.  While the defense has regressed, there is no question that the offense has gotten significantly better over the last two years.  Not surprisingly, so has our record.  While bringing in a new coach may not stunt that progress, it certainly makes it a possibility.  If we lose players to transfers and washouts, we may end up sitting at 7-5 or worse again next year.  Given our upward trajectory, I’d be shocked if that is our record under RR next year.  In fact, if you look at Stanford’s upward trajectory the last few years, its remarkably similar (4-8, 8-5, 11-1). 
  • Never got a Fair Shake to Start With – One consideration that many are shying away from is that RR never really got a fair shake to begin with in Ann Arbor.  When he was brought in, he was viewed as an outsider.  He was never embraced as a “Michigan Man”, and many players and alumni spent most of the first year pining for Les Miles.  Additionally, there are rumors, and in some cases evidence, of sabotage from inside the program by those loyal to an “old guard” that wanted no part of RR.  This sabotage contributed to the NCAA violations, and undermined RR’s recruiting from the start.  While this isn’t a reason to keep him, it should be a factor in evaluating what he has accomplished so far.  Now that Dave Brandon has cleaned house in the athletic department, Rich Rod can focus just on the football.
  • Youth – This team was by far among the youngest in the Big Ten this year.  In our 2 deep of 22 players, Michigan had 5 seniors, 6 juniors, 7 sophomores and 4 freshmen starting.  By comparison, Ohio State had 18 upperclassmen (11 seniors), 4 sophomores and no freshmen.  MSU had 16 upperclassmen (11 seniors), 6 sophomores and no freshmen.  Wisconsin had 18 upperclassmen (9 seniors), 3 sophomores and 1 freshmen.  We started 11 underclassmen – the top 3 teams in the league started a combined 14 underclassmen!  It’s a huge difference when 18 and 19 year olds go up against 22 and 23 year olds.   Not surprisingly, many of our mistakes were often committed by our younger players.  Youth can’t be a complete excuse, but I’d like to see how these kids perform next year and the year after when they grow up.   
  • No Quit by The Team – One reason administrations often fire a coach is because he has “lost the team”.  There is no evidence of that with this team.  Even facing the largest deficits, this team has continued to fight back each game.   It seems like the players still love him, and are willing to fight for him.  That counts for something.
  • 

Mitigating Factors

Jim Harbaugh – The giant elephant in the room is Jim Harbaugh.  If he wasn’t a Michigan grad and the up and coming coaching star, there wouldn’t be this much angst over whether or not to keep Rich Rod.  Harbaugh has done some amazing things as a coach.  He was 25-2 his last two seasons at San Diego before taking over an 1-11 Stanford team that he has steadily improved to 4-8, 8-5, and 11-1 this year.  Along the way, he also managed to win 3 times against USC.   He’s a Michigan guy, with a great coaching pedigree, that is coveted by many high level Division I programs as well as the NFL.  And from what I understand, if Dave Brandon asks, the answer is Yes.   But after Jim, the list is pretty lackluster.  Former assistant Brady Hoke might be available, but there aren’t a ton of guys with Michigan ties who would jump at the chance to come back to Ann Arbor right now.   If it’s not Jim, it probably won’t be anyone. 

Recruiting/APR – One of the other landmines Dave Brandon has to side step is how a coaching change will affect recruiting as well as the current roster.  Due to massive defections and a few washouts, we are dangerously close to violating the NCAA’s APR regulations, which monitors the number of athletes you recruit who leave school.  Those who leave in good academic standing hurt you less, but they all count.  If we get too many, we can be docked scholarships.  On the recruiting side, we’ve invested 3 years in building a spread roster, and have commitments from one of the top running backs in the country for next year, Dee Hart.  It’s possible that much of this recruiting class goes elsewhere if Rich Rod and his spread offense goes elsewhere.  And as I mentioned above, it’s also possible that Denard Robinson leaves.   These things will have to be factored in before Dave makes a decision. 

Conclusion

As I’m sure Dave Brandon already has realized, this is a difficult question to answer.  In cases where the coach has been a complete failure and has shown no sign of progress or hope, you can dump the coach and move on.  But that’s not the case here. 

From where I stand, the best approach is to look at the coach you have and the expectations you have for the program.  And then make a realistic assessment of whether you think your coach can reach those goals, and how long it will take him.  Then I’d look at the available coaching candidates (Jim Harbaugh), and I’d decide if he can get us to those goals faster.  

I’ve always believed that no matter how good your coach is, if you think you can get better, you make the move.  Joe Dumars did that with Rick Carlisle and the Pistons after back to back 50 win seasons.  He brought in Larry Brown, and they won an NBA title.  It’s not about loyalty, or what a coach deserves.  It’s about  what you expect your coach to deliver, and who can deliver it the fastest.  Given that Harbaugh may face attrition, and may have to revamp the roster, I’m not sure that he gets us where we want to go faster than Rich Rod.  But if Dave Brandon believes that Jim can do it faster, then he should make the change. 

Unfortunately, my only conclusion is that we are caught between a rock and a hard place.  If Jim Harbaugh were not part of the equation, I don’t think that Rich Rod would be fired.  He certainly has some negatives, but for me his positives still carry the day.  But when you factor in what Jim Harbaugh might bring to the program in terms of energy, uniting the fanbase, players and alumni, its easy to see why Dave Brandon is taking his time in making his evaluation. 

I can’t predict at this point which way this is going to go, and frankly, I can’t tell you which way I want it to end up. My gut tells me that Dave Brandon is looking for a way to keep Rich Rod.  I think he likes him personally, likes the way he represents the program, and is excited by the offense.  Unfortunately, the losses to OSU and Wisconsin have really turned up the heat.  Had those games been closer or had we won one, I think Dave Brandon would have given Rich an extension, and forced him to clean house on defense.   But given the current climate, choosing Jim might be the only way to make this work, because if we keep Rich, he fails, and Harbaugh goes elsewhere, the Michigan fanbase will go ballistic.  And any credibility and good will Dave Brandon has amassed will be gone.   

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Ron permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:45 AM

    Good analysis, but my guess is that Brandon will dump RR after Jan. 1st. There is no reason that our offense cannot keep progressing with a new coach. A new coach does not have to automatically change the whole offensive strategy. And I am not convinced that there would be any major defections if RR goes, not even Denard (if he is given some assurance that the team strategy will not change drastically). A good coach works with the talent he has and builds upon it. He doesn’t try to tear it apart and put in a whole new system.
    The biggest mistake by RR was to allow the defense to continue its fruitless strategy throughout the year. He should have stepped in and worked with the (other) Robinson and adjusted the defense in a way that allowed it to be much more successful than it was. Additionally, he never developed the special teams to be at least respectable…if not actually a positive force. Defense and special teams were a joke for a Michigan team. How do you let that happen over 3 years?
    I think Brandon cannot afford to give RR another year (or two). I, for one, have no confidence that 2011 or 2012 under RR can achieve the goals that must be achieved. I see no basis for thinking that RR’s team can keep the winning trajectory going up adequately.
    This is not a knee-jerk emotional response. This is a realistic look at the situation and the potential situation for the future of Wolverine football.

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