Next Men: Putting Perspective on the Michigan Wolverines' Reinvention

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Next Men: Putting Perspective on the Michigan Wolverines' Reinvention
(Photo by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It seems that the popular thing to do these days among college football fans is to rip on Rich Rodriguez and the recent struggles of the University of Michigan football program.

For the better part of 40 years, Michigan was a symbol of stability, consistency and excellence.

Since Bo Schembechler was hired in 1969, only three coaches have graced the Michigan sidelines prior to Rodriguez’ arrival last season.

Those three, Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, followed the same model of football—a punishing running game, an efficient passing game and a strong defense—to amass an overall winning percentage of 76.8, including 80.9 percent in the Big Ten conference. Throw in 21 Big Ten championships, 35 straight bowl games and a National Championship, and one can see why opposing fans are so quick to pile it on after one bad season.

Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor amidst a firestorm following Carr’s retirement in 2008 and Michigan fans and alumni were torn. Most had wanted former Wolverine offensive lineman and assistant coach, and current LSU head coach, Les Miles to replace Carr. Others wanted Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano or someone promoted from internally. A few wanted Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. All of those candidates seemed to fit the mold of the previous 40 years.

Yet it was Rodriguez who landed in Ann Arbor, spurning his alma mater, West Virginia University, and bringing with him an offense as unfamiliar to Michigan football as staying home for the holidays.

Some of the Michigan fan base was skeptical of an outsider with a wacky offense inheriting its most coveted throne. “What about our tradition?” they asked. “He’s not a Michigan man,” they cried.

When five-star sophomore-to-be quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas and offensive lineman Justin Boren transferred to Ohio State citing an “erosion of family values,” the mob grew louder.

Then came the season. Losses to Utah, Toledo, Purdue and Northwestern, as well as all three rivals resulted in the worst season in 46 years. The first losing season since 1967. The most losses in school history. The end of the longest bowl streak in the nation.

Obviously Rodriguez was the wrong man for the job. His offense can’t hold up in the bruising Big Ten. He’ll be gone in two years. Michigan football is descending into obscurity.

I, however, do not believe the sky is falling. In fact, I’m actually excited about the direction of Michigan football.

Would I like to have avoided a losing season? Absolutely. Would I like to have gone to a 34th consecutive bowl game? You bet. Would I like to have beaten Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State to a pulp? More than anything.

But, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want.

As much as football fans hate it, especially in these days of immediate gratification, sometimes success requires perseverance through tough times.

With all the success that the Michigan football program has enjoyed in its storied history, it has had a proud tradition of leading the way on the college football landscape. From Fielding Yost’s “point-a-minute” teams and invention of the linebacker position in the early 1900s to Fritz Crisler’s “Mad Magicians” and institution of separate offensive and defensive units in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Michigan has a history of change and innovation.

Historically speaking, the hiring of Rodriguez is nothing new for Michigan football. Bennie Oosterbaan, who coached the Wolverines from 1948-58, was hailed as “the best offensive mind in college football” by Crisler. Many consider Rodriguez one of the top offensive minds in college football today.

It all comes down to a matter of perspective. Last season’s growing pains were not a reflection of Rodriguez’s coaching abilities or the fall of the Michigan football program. They were a result of a complete overhaul from one way of doing things to another.

Take Apple, for example. Throughout the 1980s, Apple Computer, Inc. dominated the computer market until it became outdated and passed up by its competitors.

In need of something new, the company overhauled its image and is now considered by Fortune magazine to be the most admired company in the world. One of its main criticisms during its downslide was its cost, but by enhancing its image and its product, consumers now know they are getting a great and “sexy” product despite the higher cost.

Apple was able to reinvent itself without losing its roots. Likewise, Michigan’s hiring of Rodriguez should be seen as a commitment to reinventing the football program and tapping into its rich tradition of innovation, rather than a departure from “Michigan football.”

Last season was hard to stomach for Michigan fans. Hearing opposing fans laugh in our misery makes it even worse. But despite that, it makes me even more proud to be a Michigan fan.

For my entire life, Michigan has been expected to win nearly every game it played. It was a great, and boastful feeling. Then Ohio State hired Jim Tressel, who has won seven of the eight games he has coached in the rivalry. Then Michigan lost four straight bowl games, including three Rose Bowls. Then, a senior-laden Michigan team lost at home to Appalachian State.

Suddenly, mighty Michigan was no longer feared. It became synonymous with underachieving. It no longer had the upper hand against its most bitter rival. Its leader for the last 13 years retired. A chapter had to be closed, and a new one had to be started.

Enter Rodriguez, an innovator who has had success everywhere he has been. He won 59 percent of his games at NAIA Glenville State in his first true head coaching position, then won 70 percent of his games at West Virginia, including four Big East titles in seven years.

He also coordinated Tulane’s offense to a 12-0 record in 1998, and took a Clemson offense that averaged just 19.9 points and 304 yards per game the year before he arrived to a 9-3 record in 2000, averaging 36 points and 446 yards per game.

The guy knows how to run and offense and he knows how to win. It just takes time.
Instead of big, hulking offensive linemen, he needs smaller, faster linemen. Goodbye Boren, Kurt Wermers, Dann O’Neill, Jeremy Ciulla, Grant DeBenedictis, Brett Gallimore and Alex Mitchell.

Instead of big, tall pro-style wide receivers, he needs small, quick slot-type guys. Goodbye Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Toney Clemons. Hello Terrence Robinson, Martavious Odoms, Roy Roundtree, Teric Jones and Jeremy Gallon.

Most importantly, instead of a tall, pro-style pocket-passing quarterback, he needs fast, shifty spread-option guys. Goodbye Ryan Mallet and Steven Threet. Hello Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.

Just like that, he’s got the foundation of his offense to develop for the next four or five years along with the subsequent recruiting classes.

Winning with a bunch of freshmen isn’t going to happen overnight. Once they learn and grow in the system, the winning will come.

As much as opposing fans like to call it an excuse, the truth is that it just takes time to overhaul your roster to fit your needs. Sure Rodriguez may have won a couple more games last season by running a “normal” offense, but at what cost? Is it worth preserving a couple of streaks to risk slowing down the reinvention process?

I say no. And that is where the excitement lies. Of course Rodriguez didn’t try to go 3-9 last season, but as the next couple of years play out and we gain more perspective, I am confident that we will look back on that season as a sort of necessary evil.

Just like when you're building a new house and you can’t wait to move in, I can’t wait for the excitement of the new Michigan football when the renovation is complete. The teams that will be dazzling the Big Ten with lightning-quick backs and receivers, racking up points the way Crisler’s “Mad Magicians” did 62 years ago.

For now though, I’ll keep watching the new Michigan Wolverines take shape and grow. And I’ll find much more delight in watching the team go 7-5 in 2009 than I did when a Michigan team full of NFL talent went 7-5 in 2005.

And you never know, maybe this year's team will overachieve.

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