Disclaimer: This is in no way, shape, or form an article advocating the firing of Rich Rodriguez. His offense is finally looking the way it was supposed to. This is merely an analysis of the coaching decision taken three years after the fact.
Three years ago, Michigan football was looking for a new head coach. They had just lost to Ohio State AGAIN and had suffered an embarrassing loss to Appalachian State.
While Lloyd Carr had performed admirably, Bill Martin and the athletic department were clearly looking for someone to rejuvenate a program that had stagnated a bit of late.
Hence, Rich Rodriguez was hired.
Aside from the unrealistic, childlike criticisms of alumni infatuated with Les Miles, this was a well-received move at the time. Rodriguez was an offensive genius who had come within a hair of the national championship and had won two BCS games. Miles was happy at LSU.
Though the personnel on the roster were ill-suited for the spread, everyone rested assured that Rodriguez would eventually get the program back to prominence.
Fast-forward three years. You know what? I still think Rodriguez can make this an elite program. Questions remain about his ability to field a solid defense, but can you imagine what this team will (likely) look like with Denard Robinson as a senior and even an average defense?
However, it is tough to deny that the last two years (and possibly three with this one) have been extremely painful.
It is easy to say, "Let's be patient." Try telling that to the students who enrolled at Michigan in 2007 whose best season has been one in which they lost to Appalachian State and three other teams. They will graduate with a losing record against MSU, one of the most pathetic things any self-respecting college football fan can admit.
Not all of this is Rodriguez's fault. However, he has failed to recruit or develop a middle linebacker to replace the infinitely underwhelming Obi Ezeh. He has had bad luck in the secondary, but the lack of speedy Rodriguez recruits there is very concerning.
Of course, things are starting to look better. Rodriguez has emphasized defense more the last two recruiting classes after getting his quarterbacks. But that does not change the last three years. Could all of this have been avoided?
I'm going to finally say what everyone has been thinking for a long time: Yes.
Jim Harbaugh would have been a better hire.
That doesn't mean Rodriguez was a bad hire; we have potential to be great with him at the helm. He can hire an elite defensive coordinator and focus solely on the offense (a la Andy Reid), but the painful transition could have been avoided completely.
Harbaugh has taken the laughingstock (outside of Wazzu) of the Pac-10 and turned it into an elite team. Imagine Northwestern challenging for a Big Ten title. That's what Harbaugh has done despite facing stringent academic requirements. He has developed his own Heisman contender at quarterback in Andrew Luck and a nasty attitude at the Harvard of the west.
Make no mistake: The transformation Stanford has undergone is nothing short of remarkable. Even Stanford was down, Harbaugh found a way to beat USC (three years in a row and counting, including a 55-21 massacre last year). Harbaugh's teams play tough, physical defense, and his offense would have been perfect for guys like Ryan Mallett and Brandon Minor. Perhaps he could have gotten Carlos Brown to play like he owned a pair too.
Let's imagine, for a second, what would have happened if Harbaugh had been hired. Mallett probably would have stuck around. Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington likely would have stayed (seeing the opportunity to improve their stats), and while the offensive line would have been quite poor, talent at the skill positions would have allowed us to be successful. The defense would have been at least as good.
How would season one have gone? I'm guessing UM still loses to Utah, Penn State, and Ohio State and picks up wins against Notre Dame, Purdue, Toledo, Illinois, Michigan State, and Northwestern. That's 9-3, but to be conservative let's say Michigan loses to Illinois (Juice Williams simply had our number). That's still 8-4.
Mallett would have returned as a junior, the O-line would have improved, and the defense would not have been as bad as it was in 2009. Last year, Michigan probably would have been a Big Ten contender.
Furthermore, one has to think that Harbaugh could have figured out a way to force OSU's mistake-prone QB into turnovers and bridge the talent gap to cause an upset. I definitely wouldn't rule it out.
One reason I won't offer for Harbaugh is that he is a "Michigan Man." While I think he is, I don't think Rich Rod isn't. Rich Rod is a tough guy, but throughout his career he has showed integrity in different ways (Brock Mealer).
I believe Harbaugh wasn't hired because of his comments regarding Michigan's academic program for athletes. But let's reexamine those comments.
Harbaugh said athletes were funneled into general studies programs at Michigan and touted Stanford's unwillingness to do so.
There are a few things to take note of:
1. This can be applied to many schools besides Michigan. As Demar Dorsey's case demonstrated, Michigan's academic standards are stronger for athletes than most other schools. So I doubt Harbaugh really had any animosity towards Michigan. He was merely mentioning it since that was the program he had had the most experience with.
2. My dad always used to say, "Your friends will criticize you. Your enemies will not tell you when you're wrong because they will enjoy seeing you fail." As Harbaugh defended himself, he merely believed Michigan could (and should) hold itself to a higher standard. The guy still loved Michigan.
A little more humility by the athletic department would have gone a long way. Harbaugh would have brought a younger, tougher, and more energetic persona to the position than Lloyd Carr and probably would have brought this program back much faster than Rich Rodriguez will (though I do think he will eventually). If I had a hot tub time machine, I would go back and hire that guy.