During a talk with a crowd of supporters Friday, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman got asked a question about Rich Rodriguez and the Wolverines' decision to bring him on as head coach. Her answer was clear, concise and ultimately tailored to fit what the Michigan faithful have already made up in their mind: Rich Rodriguez was the wrong hire.
Inside of Ann Arbor, she's likely right. Bringing Rodriguez in upset the wonderland that is Michigan football. He did not have the same comfortable feel Lloyd Carr had at the helm. He certainly did not have the nostalgic feel Brady Hoke brought to the program. Rodriguez did not play to the tradition of the proud program and he sullied their good name with the whole practice fiasco.
However, it is very much a two-way street with Rich Rodriguez and his time in Ann Arbor. The man was not hired to stroke the Michigan ego. He was hired to revamp the team and bring a program that was acting as a dinosaur into a new era. On his end, he had some failings. Rodriguez's team struggled in Big Ten play, could not beat Ohio State or Michigan State and missed bowl games in his first two seasons. Hiring Greg Robinson was a disaster as well.
It is easy to point out the failings and trumpet the "he was not a good hire" line. It works, it fits the "Rich Rodriguez was bad" narrative that absolves Michigan of all guilt save for hiring the guy in the first place. However, it also ignores the fact that Rich Rod did some pretty substantial things well and he was doing it with an employer and a support system that was not all in.
Denard Robinson? That's Rodriguez's doing and one of the bigger reasons for the success of the Wolverines in 2011. Yes, Hoke deserves all sorts of praise for the way the defense played under Greg Mattison, but that offense was the Denard Robinson show as Rich Rodriguez had set it up to be. The players doing the work, the heavy lifting for Michigan, are Rich Rod's guys and there are no two ways around that.
Quite possibly the biggest positive to the Rich Rod story, the reason he was not just the flat out wrong hire, is the revolution of the strength program. Prior to Rodriguez's hire the Wolverines were archaic in their practices. The insertion of Mike Barwis to the program was a plus that cannot go understated. He brought them into today's methods: working fast-twitch muscles, doing Olympic lifts and boosting flexibility. Those changes take time, but the foundation was laid with Barwis revamping of the strength and conditioning program.
Rich Rodriguez was not a successful hire. It is tough to be a success when everyone is not in the boat. When people do not buy into the system you're swimming upstream against your opponents and your supposed supporters. When your own players are not just complaining about the mandatory voluntary workouts, but exposing the extra work to the media, everything gets more difficult.
Rodriguez did not do his part when it came to producing wins and beating rivals. However, to call him the wrong hire is to ignore the fact that Michigan did not exactly do its part either. You can't hope to get ahead while dragging your feet and clinging to the past, not when the new coach is trying to do something radically different from the norm. A look at Ohio State and the way players and fans have embraced Urban Meyer's new methodology shows how different a new coaching situation can be.
The good thing for Michigan and Brady Hoke is the fanbase and administration are now "all in." Hoke's been embraced, and instead of fighting against his own and the opposition, he is merely hunting for wins. What was a tough situation for Rodriguez is a great situation for Hoke. Hoke is seeing the dividends of the Rodriguez era, fans are embracing the coach who more readily fits what they want, and the program is rising as the coach and program grow together.
As Rodriguez starts his new chapter at Arizona, the book on Michigan closes with folks thinking of him as the "wrong guy" in Ann Arbor. It must also be said that perhaps Michigan was not the job that he should have taken—the Wolverines were not exactly ready for him.