Let me begin by saying this: Rich Rodriguez is a good football coach.
Michigan fans won't want to hear that, but he has a track record of success and wasn't exactly playing peewee football at West Virginia. Despite this, Rodriguez at Michigan was doomed from Day One.
There is an attitude about Michigan football. It can be difficult to explain, but it is unmistakable. The blue bloods come to play in Ann Arbor. Michigan does it a certain way.
They may not have the academic standards of, say, Stanford, but Michigan wants smart, big, talented football players in a pro-style, power scheme. And most of all, the players, fans and coaches need to realize that they are not doing Michigan a favor by being there; it is a privilege to be at Michigan.
This can be an off-putting scenario for many people, and understandably so. The notion is beyond antiquated. Nonetheless, Rich Rodriguez, oddball though he may be, never understood the Michigan culture enough to succeed.
Rodriguez's refusal to acknowledge that there are two additional phases to the game besides offense and insistence on running the spread, particularly when he had pro-style personnel, did anything but endear him to the Wolverine faithful. His affable, humorous nature, which had gotten him far in life up until this point, fell flat on a crowd accustomed to one thing: winning.
Rodriguez didn't appear to take "Michigan" very seriously, and he ultimately paid the price as much for that as anything else.
It wasn't all Rich Rod's fault. Sure, he assembled one of the most inept defensive staffs imaginable. Yes, he trampled all over Michigan traditions, insisting they weren't important.
Indeed, he upset the Michigan community to the point where current players tattled on him to the NCAA. Certainly, he drove off two quarterbacks now starting elsewhere in the FBS.
He brought Michigan their first major sanctions in program history, an 0-6 record against Ohio State and Michigan State, two straight bowl-less seasons, losses to non-automatic qualifiers and an abysmal conference record completely bereft of quality wins.
And to top it all off, he led Michigan to its worst bowl performance in its 100-plus-year history.
But Michigan played their part, too.
Rich Rodriguez knows how to win, but he can't do it if no one in the organization is supporting him. In a culture of total negativity, Rich Rod was never going to get over the hump.
Kids don't want to come to a campus that truly doesn't want them, assistant coaches do not want to constantly be under fire and the coach himself is human. I doubt the constant stress of the job did him any favors, mentally or physically.
That being said, in fact, because of all this, it would have been irresponsible and unfair to keep Rich Rod any longer. He'll move on to greener pastures. Pitt, anyone? The bigger question is where does Michigan go from here?
If Michigan wants to restore their image, something they can no longer sustain on name alone, then the program, not just the stadium, has to come into the 21st century.
It is not a privilege to coach at Michigan. It is a job. The Schembechler tree is no longer bearing fruit, and if Michigan wants a coach capable of returning this program to glory, they will have to pay him his fair market rate, and possibly even above.
This was already a burgeoning sentiment three years ago (see Greg Schiano), but the Rodriguez affair annihilated any doubt that Michigan is no longer a job you cannot turn down.
Nonetheless, Michigan still has plenty going for it. They obviously play in a premier BCS conference, despite the pitiful bowl performance this year, and it is a conference that is about to get stronger with the addition of tradition-steeped Nebraska.
Their facilities are top notch. They have national championships and Heismans decking the halls. The recruiting base is nationwide. Hell, they're the winningest program in college football history. Michigan can be restored.
The obvious choice is a true Michigan man: Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has done the impossible. Stanford has been good in the past, but when is the last time Stanford was dominant? For that matter, has anyone ever been able to use the word "dominant" to describe Stanford before this season?
Michigan is a good school, but Stanford's academic standards leave Michigan's far behind, and yet Harbaugh has built a winner in a very tough conference. Moreover, he's done it in a way befitting of his Michigan pedigree.
However, Harbaugh may not want the job. Beyond the report that he is "highly unlikely" to take the job if offered, Michigan has spurned Harbaugh before. He interviewed with former coach Lloyd Carr for the quarterbacks coach position several years ago and was turned down. He has also made a few derisive comments about Michigan in the past, although nothing too harsh, nor untrue.
But why would Harbaugh want to leave Stanford for another college job? He's got a deep talent base already in place, and while the potential exit of star quarterback Andrew Luck might be a challenge, Harbaugh has already proved his mettle as a recruiter.
His father also coached at Stanford and he attended Palo Alto High School across the street from his current digs at Stanford Stadium. By all accounts, Harbaugh likes the West Coast.
He'll have to consider the pull of his alma mater, but a return to Ann Arbor is anything but a sure thing. Michigan would likely have to put up NFL-type money to lure Harbaugh, and the second Michigan tries to nickel and dime him, the whole thing is finished.
Who would you hire as Michigan's next coach?
Oh, and speaking of NFL-type money, Harbaugh could well spark a bidding war amongst the 49ers, Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins, Panthers and perhaps others. He's the lead candidate for jobs that aren't even open yet.
The next coach in line depends on who you ask. Many want the man twice reported to have taken the job when Rich Rod ultimately landed it, LSU's Les Miles. Miles has won many games at LSU, but an argument can be made that teams he has recruited and coach don't pass the eyeball test.
LSU won 10 regular-season games this year, but the manner in which they did so was iffy, at best. Miles has often been accused of losing to inferior opponents and winning on the strength of what former coach Nick Saban left behind. Even though he has a national championship to his credit, some observers felt that his two-loss squad hadn't even earned the right to compete for that title.
But again, Miles is a Michigan man. He was a player and assistant in Ann Arbor and would bring the brand of football Michigan loves. His critics are numerous in the bayou, and he may be ready for the jump back home.
The opportunity to do so could depend on another name Athletic Director Dave Brandon will likely consider: Brady Hoke.
Hoke, another former assistant at Michigan, has been an FBS head coach since leaving the Wolverines for Ball State in 2003. While there, he lead the team to its first win over an automatic qualifier, its first appearance in the Top 25 and its first appearance in the BCS standings.
He led the Cardinals to a 12-1 record in his final season before leaving for San Diego State, where this season he posted a winning record in the very difficult Mountain West Conference, earning him coach of the year honors.
Of the three, Michigan represents the most significant step up for Hoke. The Mountain West is a strong conference, but it is a fluid situation with teams entering and departing, and it is still without an automatic bid to the big-money bowls.
Hoke's organizational skills and ability to implement his plans are huge selling points, and if Harbaugh is definitely not interested, then he represents the best chance for Michigan to be successful playing "Michigan football."
Though he would not likely be the recruiting juggernaut Harbaugh could be, he will bring with him a detailed, actionable blueprint for the Wolverines to follow.
That is Michigan's short list: Harbaugh, Miles and Hoke. Three Michigan men. And though I don't agree with the widely bandied-about sentiment that Michigan should not have parted with Rodriguez without another coach in place, if they strike out on this list, then things may not be looking up for college football's all-time winners.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a student at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.