OK, as someone with maize and blue in his blood, I'm more than a little biased by the team's 3-9 record last season, the worst ever in the Wolverines' rich history. It's hard not to be disappointed with the first losing season since 1967. And yeah, it's hard to call it a coincidence that last year, in Rich-Rod's first season after taking over for longtime and beloved coach Lloyd Carr, Michigan missed a bowl game for the first time in my life. But there's more to it than that.
Yes, the recent allegations in the Detroit Free Press against Rodriguez and his staff — about the length of offseason workouts and in-season demands on players — play a part in my frustration. But the NCAA rules are complicated. The line is as gray as Rodriguez's hair will be by the end of this. What's the difference between a mandatory practice and a player-sponsored get-together? Does an activity count toward a team's weekly limit if the head coach is not there, but the strength and conditioning coach is? I don't know. And I'd bet that a good portion of the 120 or so Division I head coaches don't either.
Rules are rules, yes. But it's hard to be too upset with a coach doing everything he can to prepare his team for the season, especially when winning ballgames is one of the more important standards by which he'll ultimately be judged.
But another — and probably more important — standard in Ann Arbor is the character and atmosphere that a coach brings with him. Not only does a Michigan coach have to be "a Michigan man," as legendary football coach Bo Schembechler famously stated, but he has to be a down-to-earth, humble, honest, hard-working person who understands the school's history and tradition. He has to be someone who knows the lyrics to "The Victors," someone who gets the importance of the winged helmets, unquestionably the greatest in football.
Former coach Gary Moeller was 44-13-3 in five seasons (1990-94) as the head man in Ann Arbor. But following a drunken outburst and his arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct, he resigned under pressure from the school.
That kind of negativity is a no-go at the home of "the conquering heroes."
And during his press conference earlier this week, Rodriguez tried to stress the positive feeling he's brought to the team, explaining how close he feels to his group of players.
"I love our players like I love my own family," Rodriguez said. "My family loves our players. It's why they're at every practice. You guys that have followed us know that. That's the way throughout our whole staff."
He denied that he or his team broke the rules, but if they did, his defense was that his players want to work hard and that they shouldn't be criticized for that. Other teams around the country — even, ironically, Ohio State — have gone on the record in defense of Michigan, suggesting that not only is it unfair to come down hard on the players for wanting to work hard and prepare for the season, but that just about every other team around has blurred the line between legal and illegal.
"To be great you have to put in more than 20 hours [a week]," Buckeyes safety and captain Kurt Coleman told the AP this week. "That's just the minimum. In any great program, each player is putting in more than what they're required to. And it's all on their own. That's what takes a program to the next level, when guys are going above and beyond the call of duty."
Fair enough, I say. Rodriguez's excuse works for me, but I doubt it'll hold much water with the NCAA investigators.
But there have been more negatives that he's brought to the Michigan football atmosphere.
Rodriguez has been linked to a banned Clemson booster — an accused felon — dating back to his time as offensive coordinator at the ACC school in 1999-2000.
Sophomore Justin Feagin, who played last season as a reserve quarterback and slot receiver, was dismissed from the team this summer for his reported involvement in a failed cocaine deal.
After Rodriguez's arrival early in 2008, Michigan starting guard Justin Boren — the son of a former Wolverines lineman under Schembechler — decided to transfer to Ohio State. Boren said he was leaving Ann Arbor because the program's "family values have eroded" under Rodriguez.
And Boren wasn't the only one. Six-foot-seven quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas after the new coach's arrival saying that he didn't want to play in a run-based spread offense. Rodriguez's response to the defections (as told to ESPN.com)?
"There's always going to be some attrition when there's transition, but there's 120-something guys on the team and we've got a lot of guys that hung through there and wanted to be here. So to make a big deal out of a handful of guys that left, and some of them, frankly, weren't up on the depth chart and weren't doing real well academically as they needed to. More has been made of it than there needs to be."
Basically, don't let the door hit you in the rear end on the way out.
It's not exactly the best way to pay respect to those who came before you, coach. There's a cockiness in Rodriguez that hasn't been seen at Michigan in a long, long time. It's a lack of respect, an inability to live up to the same standard, both morally and on the field. He's brought a different atmosphere, and it just doesn't fit for the maize and blue.
Which brings us back to the current allegations against Rodriguez, his coaches and his team.
Despite the lack of clarity in the NCAA rules and Rich-Rod's passionate defense of the positive sentiment he and his staff are promoting, Michigan athletic director Bill Martin said in a statement on Sunday that the university won't stand for any violations.
"We are committed to following both the letter and the intent of the NCAA rules, and we take any allegations of violations seriously," Martin said. "We believe we have been compliant with NCAA rules, but nonetheless we have launched a full investigation of the allegations."
In an interview last summer with USA TODAY on the Michigan football program, Martin said, "We don't cheat in anything at Michigan — recruiting, expense reports, anything. If you do, you're gone."
We'll see if he sticks to his guns.
Yahoo Sports is calling Saturday's season opener for the Wolverines against Western Michigan a "referendum" game for Rodriguez. "And in the history of Michigan," Dan Wetzel writes, "no one ever thought a game against Western Michigan could possibly mean so much."
In my mind, it doesn't mean a whole lot. Yes, the Wolverines' helmets are still the finest in the country. But the shine has worn off. The gloss has been tarnished. Until someone else is brought in to lead the program back to its traditional place — both on and off the field — it just won't be the same.
Powered by WordPress.com VIP