Legends naturally have a special kind of greatness for which no case needs to be made, but even in a history full of great coaches, Bo Schembechler was a rare exception. His case for greatness makes itself.
Before he had even stepped down as coach, he came to define Michigan football, and for the 20 years he ruled the sidelines, he was tough and cantankerous but practically revered. Watching Michigan play was like being witness to a pure slice of his brain.
By contrast, Rich Rodriguez has a quirky, cultivated football sense with a disarming charm and little of the self-seriousness common to others. He is modern with a dash of folksy bordering on unctuous.
Anyone who knows anything about Michigan football would immediately think that Rodriguez would make a very strange bedfellow for the maize and blue, because Michigan is a team usually impervious to trends. This includes the zone read offense, which had already come into vogue elsewhere in college football, and yet Michigan hired the coach who was essentially the zone read’s patriarch.
Normally tradition forms a bulwark that wards off outside intrusion, but fears of stagnation born out of a blind adherence to the past and losses to Division I-AA schools tend to cure a program of institutional nepotism. Rodriguez had the benefit of being known as an innovator, and he was the best coach available at the time, which is a common draft strategy and an even more successful coaching one.
Even in a sport that thrives on tradition, Michigan feels strangely idiosyncratic. Other teams often require an infusion of new blood to stay relevant, but for 40 years Michigan operated more like a business with its own stodgy internal chain of command. Best-selling business author Jim Collins once observed that 90 percent of the CEOs in highly successful companies are recruited internally.
But most successful sports coaches ascend the professional ladder by moving from job to job. The truly motivated ones rarely wait around for opportunity; it’s in their nature to be mercenaries. Even the most sacred of patron saints were once outsiders.
I think it's fitting that Schembechler never lingered. He had actually gone out on top and pursued other challenges. True coaching icons are seen as timeless and enduring, and their legacy indefatigable, but even coaches have career windows. The same mixture of timeliness, relevance and drive that made Francis Ford Coppola a great director in the 1970s also made Pete Carroll great in the 2000s.
Despite a few mind-bending losses, even Lloyd Carr had an ephemeral period of greatness: in a stretch between 1997 and 1999 he was 8-1 against opponents ranked top-10 at the time.
But by the end of his career, Carr was too entrenched in his ways to adapt. Other coaches had passed him by, and in the twilight of the old regime, no one wanted another "insider" to replace him.
The problem for Rodriguez, by contrast, is that he has never come in from the cold. Until he wins he will continue to be an outsider and the coaching job will be essentially room for rent. With each mounting loss Rodriguez feels like the most isolated man in the world.
What makes it even more difficult is that it is easy to like Rodriguez. He is no Howard Schnellenberger, who alienated just about every Oklahoma fan in 1995 by denigrating Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer in what amounted to a clinical excision of the heart of Sooner nation. Bill Callahan, another coach who had come under fire for transgressions against Nebraska’s tradition, was simply unlikeable.
One can argue about how much Rodriguez has actually upset the natural order, but if he is to mend the schism at the heart of Michigan football, he will have to reach a bowl game this season and return the team to national prominence in 2011.
Otherwise, there will be pressure to fire Rodriguez, and much of that will be justified: with another losing season it is difficult to see how he could sustain any kind of recruiting success. All remaining faith in him would be lost.
This will be a season of high anxiety and primal fear. Every game will unlock the sensations that our ancestors felt when they ran from jungle cats.
And with the memory of 2009 still fresh in the mind, a win against Connecticut in the home opener will be met with caution, but a loss will produce the exact opposite reaction.
Until the season is over, nothing can be won; everything can be lost.
If Michigan does lose to UConn, then there is the real possibility that the team may also lose to Notre Dame and start the season 0-2. This is followed by two guaranteed wins, in Massachusetts and Bowling Green, but by then the wave of fan sentiment might already have turned against him. Additionally, a bad start is likely to carry over into the Big Ten schedule, where there are only three likely wins on the landscape: Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue.
Provided that there are no other upsets, Michigan State might be the only team standing between another five win season and a possible bowl trip, and the memories from last year are still vivid: the Michigan State game was the point when a flawed team with temerity and toughness simply became a flawed team. Michigan needs wins where they can be had, which makes Connecticut possibly the most important game of Rodriguez's tenure.
Michigan fans rarely resign themselves to a sense of fatalism, but Rodriguez is in the worst of all situations. There are legitimate reasons for his slow start, but there is nothing logical that can remedy a loss to UConn. In his third season, this is a team that Rodriguez is expected to beat.
Some commentators may lament the condensed period under which coaches are evaluated, but the truth is that the first few years are solid indicators of their eventual success, and great coaches have needed very little time to revive a traditionally successful team.
If a coach is still struggling three years into his tenure, then it is likely that he will continue to struggle. The coaches who require six or seven years to reach their peak—Jim Grobe, Gary Pinkel, and Mike Leach—did so at institutions that allowed them to operate with little pressure and expected only modest success.
But there are many reasons to believe that Rodriguez can defy those historical averages. Chief among them is the fact that the team started from a position that, apart from the winged helmets, barely resembled the talent of a traditional Michigan team.
Even now, much of the team is cobbled together from the old as well as the new, and the defensive depth has yet to be fully replenished. These problems are a reflection upon the tumultuous transition rather than Rodriguez himself. He will never get a “fair opportunity” until he has won or lost with a team full of his players.
However, it is also undeniable that progress has been slowed by a number of mistakes. The Shafer experiment was a failure, and some may argue that he shouldn’t have wasted time recruiting Terrelle Pryor or Demar Dorsey. But even his mistakes are things that might be potentially correctable.
A 7-5 record would probably be enough forward momentum to save his job, because barring some stagnation the team is only going to be more formidable next year. In order to buy that kind of time, Rodriguez must first beat UConn and salvage the 2010 season, or else Michigan fans may face an uncertain future and another agonizing rebuilding process with another coach.
For now the talent is palpable enough that fans won't resign themselves to hopeless indifference, but it is still too frail to inspire anything but dread. The worst fear is that Rodriguez simply proves incapable of building a Michigan defense. That is something that can only be revealed with time.
There is only one ambiguous outcome to the season, and that is if the team goes 6-6. Would Michigan still retain Rodriguez’s services, or would they let him go? It is hard to know what those in charge would think, but if the situation deteriorates rather than improves, fans may simply wash their hands of this strange experiment and clamor to bring a Michigan man like Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh back into the fold.