Rich Rodriguez wraps up his third season as head coach at the University of Michigan today, and rumors have been swirling that the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State will be his final game at the helm of the Wolverines.
It's been a tumultuous reign at the top of the Michigan football program for Rodriguez, as both he and the program have been engulfed in controversy, and the team has suffered through some of the worst seasons in the school's football history.
Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor with the lofty expectations of carrying on the winning tradition that's followed Michigan football since its inception, having been cultivated most recently by coaches Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. Instead, the program has taken great steps backwards, with no bowl games and heaps of NCAA controversy to deal with, all under the watch of Rodriguez.
2010 marked the first year Michigan was bowl eligible in his time as head coach, but the Gator Bowl could also be the end of the RichRod era. The lingering question, though, is whether or not this is the right time for the Wolverines to part ways with their head coach? Here we'll go through five potential reasons to dismiss Rodriguez, as well as five reasons for him to get another shot to lead the Wolverines back to glory.
Before Rich Rodriguez even coached a game for Michigan, he was embroiled in controversy, thanks to his abrupt departure from the West Virginia football program that he'd guided into national championship contention.
Rodriguez had just renegotiated a contract to stay on as Mountaineers coach four months prior to his announcement as Michigan head coach, and he had constantly been pledging his allegiance to the school he'd played for back in his collegiate days.
College football coaching is clearly a competitive landscape featuring much turnover and jockeying for top jobs such as the Michigan one, but Rodriguez showed a decided lack of tact in abruptly resigning after the team's final regular season game, even flip-flopping on his initial intention of coaching WVU's bowl game during that postseason.
Leaving a relatively small program for a bigger national job is one thing, but then getting tangled up in litigation with the school that gave you your big break as a head coach is another matter.Contract details related to buyouts and whether or not breach of contract occurred escalated between Rodriguez and West Virginia, and it was an extremely messy divorce that had to give Michigan's athletic department and the team's fans some pause when considering how Rodriguez would operate as a leader of men.
His character red flags have only continued to pop up since this initial controversy, and character is a big part of being a college head coach, given the malleable natures of collegiate athletes. Rodriguez's character remains in question, and this first incident should have made that clear to Michigan and could be more fuel to his potential firing.
The fast-paced, yard-eating offensive system that Rich Rodriguez developed is what ultimately drew Michigan's interest to him as a head coach. He is widely credited for innovating on the offensive side of the ball with his spread-option offense, and it's what propelled him to the success he enjoyed at West Virginia.
But it's not the type of offense that can be immediately put in place and made to click on all cylinders. It is an extremely fast-moving offensive style that not every athlete is cut out to be a part of. So it requires getting the right players, getting the players up to speed (pun not intended) in how to run the offense, and then molding them to actually be able to execute it during game days.
The first two seasons under Rodriguez, the Wolverines' roster still had holdovers from the pre-spread system ran by previous coach Lloyd Carr. In 2010, though, things have started working for Rodriguez and his recruits, led front and center by dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, an early favorite for the 2011 Heisman Trophy.
It may be that 2011 will be an offensive breakout for Michigan, as they get fully comfortable with Rodriguez's style of play, and his recruits blossom in the system. So why drop the ax on him before his efforts to cultivate talent ultimately pay off?
The Big Ten is always a tough conference with top national teams, but it's extremely rare for Michigan to go three full seasons with such poor showings against conference opponents. Rodriguez's conference record is a measly 6-18, and even in this his best season so far as the Wolverines' head coach, Michigan's in-conference wins were less than impressive.
Michigan struggled to win on the road against Indiana, needed three overtimes to win an insane game at the Big House against Illinois and then posted a solid road win against Purdue, a team that finished near the bottom of the conference standings.
Michigan has had no success against the conference powers in Rodriguez's tenure, and Wolverine fans are no doubt disappointed with how lopsided the bitter Ohio State rivalry has gotten in recent years. If Rodriguez had been able to rally his troops to compete more in the tough Big Ten, it's possible that he might be feeling less heat at the end of his third season.
But even if the school wants to wait and see if Rodriguez can improve in 2011, it's a bad sign given how tough the conference looks to remain going forward that he's been able to find very little Big Ten success thus far.
Rich Rodriguez took one year to get things going at West Virginia, as his program rebounded from an opening year posting a disappointing 3-8 record to see great success in subsequent years. But he really didn't start clicking at the helm of the Mountaineers until his third season running the show, when West Virginia won the Big East conference title and landed in the Gator Bowl, a high-profile postseason game.
There are some similarities in his Michigan stint thus far, as he started out with an extremely underwhelming 3-9 record in his first year. The difference, of course, is that the spotlight shines much brighter at the Big House thanks to the numerous national championships and the winning legacy of the school.
But here Rodriguez is in year three, and again his team is showing improvement, finally bowl eligible after two years missing out on postseason play. It's possible that this is just the start for Rodriguez and Michigan, given his track record at West Virginia.
After he finished his third year running the Mountaineers, he went on to post a 40-9 record over four more seasons while also winning two bowl games and getting the Mountaineers into the national title picture. Could the same history repeat itself at Michigan? It's possible, and it's a good reason to give RichRod one more shot.
Throughout its storied history, Michigan football has been squeaky clean in terms of accusations or investigations by the NCAA. That type of off-field controversy was reserved for the basketball program, and the football ship was usually on the straight and narrow.
But then came Rich Rodriguez in 2008, and then started NCAA drama that continues to plague the program in 2010. Rodriguez has been accused of failing to adhere to practice time rules laid out by the NCAA, and Michigan was formally charged with five major rule violations this past February.
Rodriguez was also accused of circumventing the rules restricting the number of coaches a coaching staff can deploy by using graduate assistants above and beyond their usual capacities.
All in all, this is a messy reality that had never been thrust upon Michigan football. Rodriguez parted poorly with West Virginia, and now he's brought ugliness to Michigan that the school has never before had to deal with. Given all the losing that's also accompanied this controversy, it may not be worth it to keep Rodriguez around to weather the storm.
Jim Harbaugh is the coach most hotly linked to taking over for Rodriguez, should Michigan relieve him of his coaching duties.
But is that a big improvement for the Michigan program? Yes, Harbaugh has had great success running the show at Stanford, as evidenced by the Cardinal's impressive 11-1 record this year, put together in dominant fashion. But he has only been coaching at the top level of college football for four seasons and had to deal with his own growing pains as he rebuilt the Stanford program.
Harbaugh has the Michigan pedigree, given that he played quarterback for the Wolverines and grew up in Ann Arbor. But will he be able to step into the glare of the position and outperform Rodriguez from the onset of his time as coach?
And if for some reason Harbaugh doesn't land in Michigan, are there other quality candidates out there that would trump Rodriguez? Stability with Rodriguez in charge might outweigh a total change at the top of the program under a new coach.
News media and departing players have openly questioned Rich Rodriguez's style of dealing with players, in terms of his treatment, language and general approach to coach-player relations. The highest profile instance is that of offensive lineman Justin Boren, who transferred to the hated Ohio State and cited the fact that the coaching staff didn't have any family values as a part of his decision to leave.
Coaches are all known to yell and verbally rip players, but the level to which Rodriguez partakes in this behavior has been questioned. So, too, has his behavior in the face of allegations of his job being in jeopardy. As recently as a month ago at the team's annual banquet, Rodriguez emotionally pleaded publicly to retain his job.
It's a bit of an erratic move to make your own personal job situation so public and such a point of discussion in the face of rumors.
Is his temperament right for running such a big program like Michigan? Will he ultimately do the program more harm than good in terms of his treatment of players and potentially how he's perceived by recruits considering the Wolverines?
The offense that Rodriguez developed and used to great success at his previous coaching stops, and now at Michigan, is clearly paying off now that the right players are plugged in on offense. Even more new recruits should end up on campus at Ann Arbor, hand-picked by Rodriguez for his system.
So why abandon the plan put in place in 2007 now after two rough seasons, with some clear improvements shown in 2010? The real faults of the Michigan team in 2010 were on defense and special teams. Obviously these fall under Rodriguez as the head coach, but injuries played a huge part in why the Wolverines defense was so bad.
It's possible Michigan is a healthier defense away from contending in the Big Ten, given how prolific Rodriguez's offense has shown to be at times this year. If he's ousted and replaced, the offense could wind up taking a step back, even in spite of having a premiere athlete on the roster in Denard Robinson.
Since things are starting to click on the side of the ball on which Rodriguez specializes, it seems reactionary to give up on his system at this moment, despite how rough things have been for the program.
Even if the Michigan athletic director, Dave Brandon, decides to retain Rodriguez and pledges to give him another shot, it will only ramp up the speculation that he'll be dismissed as soon as the Wolverines face any adversity in 2011.
The players and fellow coaches see the writing on the wall, and have heard the constant drumbeat of talk of Rodriguez being dismissed. It's now the seemingly best time for Michigan to part ways with Rodriguez, as the season is coming to an end and all signs point to the change.
If he returns, the hot seat will be at its hottest in 2011 and could make for an extremely tense and tight atmosphere surrounding the team in a year where they'll be expected to improve and post more than the seven wins they mustered in 2010.
Continuing with Rodriguez makes anything less than nine or 10 wins an immediate dismissal. A new coach coming in at this point would ease the heat coming from a severely disappointed fanbase.
Going back to 2009, Rodriguez's recruiting classes have been graded pretty strongly. 2009 was the cream of his recruiting crop, according to Rivals.com's football recruiting-class rankings. They had Rodriguez's crop of '09 recruits as the No. 8 class in the country, and his subsequent two classes have been in or near the top 25 in the country, according to the site's rankings.
Even in spite of all the issues that have swirled around the coach and the program, young athletes still want to play at Michigan and for Rodriguez. Given this success, and the potential shown by some of the freshman and young players that have stepped up for the Wolverines, it is clear that Rodriguez has a plan in place for remaking the team in a positive way going forward.
If the talent is still coming through, the wins are sure to follow, potentially as soon as 2011. It's also risky to dismiss Rodriguez given the agreements he's been able to secure from talented young players, and Michigan has just recently suffered talent leaving the school (see: Ryan Mallett, for one) once a new coach took over.
If the school gives Rodriguez one more year, it's possible his recruiting finally pays big dividends.
Rich Rodriguez has only had three years to get things right at Michigan, and he hasn't been able to do so. He's only made it to one bowl, and the team has had no success in a conference they routinely dominated for years.
He's had some positives in terms of implementing his offensive system and see it start paying off as his players have started to emerge and develop. And he hasn't had a ton of time to let things organically develop for his team, given the short length of his time in charge.
But the numerous off-field issues that have also hounded Rodriguez are what makes me think the best move Michigan can make is dismissing the coach in this coming week after the Gator Bowl.
Michigan can't stand for the NCAA investigations and violations, as well as the numerous issues brought up regarding Rodriguez's character and treatment of players. When you couple those issues with all the losing the school's suffered through in Rodriguez's time in charge, it's a bad idea to try and wait and see if 2011 is the year when all things align for the Wolverines under RichRod.
It would be better for Michigan football to act now and make a change and deal with whatever problems will come with bringing in yet another new coach after only a short time. Because it truly seems like Rich Rodriguez is in a no-win situation in Ann Arbor.
It would be best for both the coach and the program if they parted ways, as he could use a new start to re-establish his reputation and image, and the school could use a bit of a reboot after the last three years.