Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez to help rebuild their storied football team, much in the same manner that Charlie Weis was expected to at Notre Dame. With both struggling, many are calling for the coaches’ jobs. The reality is that these two programs are on very different paths.
Weis’ first year at Notre Dame, he inherited a fantastically talented team, including NFL draftees Anthony Fasano, Maurice Stovall, Brady Quinn, Tom Zbikowski, and Second-Team All-American Jeff Samardzija. That season, the team went 9-3 and went to the Fiesta Bowl. They went 10-2 the next season with much of that squad still intact. A 41-14 beating at the hands of LSU in the Sugar Bowl signaled the downward spiral for Weis.
Since becoming head coach at Notre Dame, Weis has recruited very well. According to Rivals.com, Notre Dame had a top-10 recruiting class each year from 2006-2008. Having such talent brought into the school, expectations were very high. Notre Dame’s record since bringing in those high recruits is 16-20. When looking at a team with such great talent that performs at such a low level, the blame has to be placed on the head coach.
When Weis was hired, he inherited a talented, seasoned team. Rodriguez wasn’t so lucky. Before he even had a chance to call his first practice, Rodriguez lost most of his offense to the NFL. Jake Long, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Mario Manningham were all drafted, leaving the offensive cupboard all but bare.
Compounding that, several players bolted for fear that their playing style simply wouldn’t mesh with the spread offense. QB Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas, which boasted a much more traditional offense that suited the 6’7” sophomore.
RB Sam McGuffie transferred to Rice, where the spread offense was already instituted and well established, not to mention closer to home. OL Justin Boren found the transition to be so jarring, he decided to transfer to arch-rival Ohio State.
While Rodriguez’s tenure certainly hasn’t been a rousing success to this point, take a look at what the program looked like upon his arrival.
Losing so many talented players to the draft, coupled with the task of instituting a new offensive scheme using only the players who were still on the team from Lloyd Carr’s regime is similar to trying to win a NASCAR race with an SUV. Looking at that initial 3-9 season, seven of those nine weren’t as bad as initially thought.
The opening “shocker” against Utah turned out to be an acceptable loss, considering five months later, Utah would be beating down mighty Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. Penn State and Ohio State were co-Big 10 champs, and Michigan State went 9-4, as did Northwestern.
The losses to Notre Dame and Illinois were disappointing. And while losing to Toledo and Purdue seemed inexcusable, those feelings lessen given the personnel Rodriguez had to work within his system.
The merits of that system have been questioned as well. What kind of success could be expected of the spread offense in the Big 10? Just ask Ohio State.
In the 2007 BCS title game a heavily favored Ohio State team faced off against a Florida Gators team featuring a spread offense. At the end of the night, OSU had no answer for Florida’s speed and ended up getting throttled 41-14.
A year later, Ohio State faced LSU in the title game. LSU’s spread offense ripped the vaunted Ohio State defense for over 300 yards and 38 points. When up and running smoothly, the spread offense has proven it can be successful, even against some of the top defenses in the nation.
This past season, Rodriguez has improved the win total, if only modestly, and he did so with his first full recruiting class. There is only upside to freshmen Tate Forcier and Vincent Smith.
This past season, Michigan ranked fourth in the Big 10 in both scoring and rushing yards. With Rodriguez’s own recruits in place, the offense is starting to develop. The real challenge will be for Rodriguez to improve a defense that gave up the third most passing yards and second most rushing yards in the Big 10 this year.
The improvement in record, however mild, shows that Rodriguez has his team moving in the right direction heading into his third season. Even your harshest naysayer will agree that in order to give a fair appraisal of a college program, the coach needs at least five years to recruit his own players and develop that talent.
That time has been afforded Weis, and after working with several full recruiting classes, the results have been less than glorious.
At the very least, Rodriguez is continuing his high recruiting classes. Rivals.com ranked Michigan’s past two recruiting classes in the top ten nationally. He also has a top 20 class coming in next year.
While all this shines some sun on the beleaguered program, it also helps to protect Rodriguez. The team is now two years deep with recruits he picked. Firing him now and replacing him with someone like alum and number one candidate Jim Harbaugh of Stanford would set the program back at least another three years.
Harbaugh’s offensive system centers around power running, utilizing running back Toby Gerhart and making use of larger, slower offensive linemen in the running game, and big wide receivers. Rodriguez has been recruiting smaller, faster linemen and receivers to utilize in his spread offense.
Hiring Harbaugh would signal another 180 degree turn in philosophy, possibly leading to yet another mass exodus of players. That would leave the roster bare until the next recruiting class came in, and potentially create the same embarrassment that exists now with Rodriguez.
In the last year, Weis hasn’t received a single word of support from anyone of note at Notre Dame. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has recently been supported by both the university president and one of the school’s most successful graduates. When asked whether Rodriguez would return next season, Mary Sue Coleman said she was supportive, and not in favor of creating a coaching carousel.
Alum and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross essentially gave him until the end of next season to show significant improvement: “If he has a bad year next year, he’ll have a lot more pressure.” While Ross doesn’t directly affect the decision either, being the school’s biggest donor in recent years has certainly helped him gain influence.
Rodriguez is showing signs of progress and his team is much improved from that 3-9 disaster. He’s finally seeing his first series of recruits understand the system and execute it. Weis had five years to turn his team into a contender and failed. Rodriguez deserves the same amount to prove that he can get the job done.