Michigan Football: Why the Rich Rodriguez Experiment Was a Necessity

Drew BulbukContributor IJanuary 26, 2011

A team never wants to plateau and lose respect as a football program.  Sure, it can go outside of the norm and be innovative, but never at the expense of setting the bar. The Rich Rodriguez experiment was about as innovative as they come.  His trickery-laden spread offense had all the bells and whistles to confuse any defense.  It was built on speed and its mastermind was coming to the Big Ten to mystify defensive coordinators all over the conference.


There were a few giant problems with the concept of Rich Rodriguez as a whole though.  Lost in the smooth talking young coach, the crazy points per game average and the Mike Barwis training regimen was an offense predicated on players that have a hard time transitioning to the NFL and a downright confused defense.  The plan was to substitute size for speed, but in no way did we plan on sacrificing the most important aspect of a team: the defense.  Even when we piled on the points, it came at the cost of giving up almost as many.  


But why did it fail?  Was it because recruits don’t care about history and academics?  Was it because our team was too young to get on the same page as its pioneering coach?  Let’s break down the biggest issues.


The Problems


  • Rich Rodriguez was never a Michigan man.  Although it might seem like an overblown concept, it is now apparent that this position holds some water.  Not only did Rodriguez not get it, but he was not publicly endorsed by the big wigs at Michigan.  That goes for broadcasters and both ex-Michigan coaches and players.


  • You have to be crazy to think that the Michigan faithful would be okay putting up huge offensive numbers in spite of a horrid defense.  Things wouldn’t seem right if Denard somehow led us to 10+ wins at the expense of giving up 30 or more points a game.


  • Speaking of Denard, as unique a talent as he is, he is not doing us any favors.  I can’t get enough of his love of the university and what he stands for, but no big recruit wants to be plugged into an offense that has to fool opponents to get the majority of their catches/blocks.  He played to his physical limit this year, but recruits want to go to the NFL and the only way to do that is to have a quarterback who makes a living off being big and throwing passes to pro-style routes.


  • The spread doesn’t show the pro potential of our players.  It calls for a quarterback who does the most of his work running or tricking opponents, smaller, quicker offensive linemen and running backs, and a tight end that is called on most often to block.  Don’t look now, but there’s no reason to come to Michigan if you play offense!  Who wants to be a part of that?


  • The defense.  Ugh.  There could be a whole new paper on the defense, but I’ll just sum it up like this:  In Rodriguez’s third year manning the ship, his defensive unit fell to 108th out of 120 Division 1-A football and gave up 458 points, the most all time for the Wolverines.



The Solutions


  • The Michigan man has been hired!  Brady Hoke was a defensive line coach for Michigan under Lloyd Carr and specifically new Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.  Multiple coaches and players have gone public with their feelings on the hire.  All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson and Tight End Bennie Jopru called Hoke the best coach they’ve ever had.  Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson was so thrilled on the hire that he said he’s more happy for the program than for Hoke.  Coach Carr said that Hoke was a great choice for Michigan the day he was hired.  Heck, even Jon Harbaugh called Mattison a once in a lifetime kind of man and coach.  The praise was imminent and the results will be too.


  • If Mel Kiper made a hot board for defensive coordinators, Greg Mattison would be near the very top.  He took over for Rex Ryan and was running one of the most solid defenses in the NFL when he received the call from Hoke.  I don’t think anyone thought he was a realistic hire and his impact is being felt immediately.  Six recruits have signed with Michigan since Hoke and Mattison signed on half a month ago. 


  • As we transition into a more pro-style oriented offense, the offensive recruits will come running.  Even though he is a spread quarterback, it is obvious that Denard Robinson will stay on campus and under center.  I look for Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges to utilize the Big Ten offensive player of the year by having him throw passes to receivers that are running pro-style routes.  He will run of course, but the future of the quarterback position at Michigan will rest in the hand of a Devin Gardner type passer.


  • The Michigan offense will get back to the power running game and deep passes and the defense will get back to stopping the run first and foremost.  The base defense will be a 4-3(three cheers for four down linemen!) and Mattison is expected to incorporate 3-4 packages in as well.  The NFL uses these formats on both offense and defense, which is exactly what a top recruit wants to see when it comes time to chose a college.


  •  The biggest problem I had with Rich Rodriguez is that he tried to make the players fit his defense, rather than have his defense fit the players.  It was clear throughout his three seasons here that players did not know where they should be on the field.  Missed gap assignments and secondary coverage were an every game fiasco and we gave up way too many wide open passes because of confusion.  In the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State, we had a player run on late because he didn’t know he was supposed to be there.  It’s not like we had over a month to prepare, right?  Sure we started some true freshman, but other teams do as well.  All the mass uncertainty didn’t come down to physical talent, it came down to coaching players on where they had to be.  As Mattison said in his first interview as Michigan’s new defensive coordinator “You can draw up all the great X’s and O’s you want and if they don’t fit the players who are there at that point, it won’t work.”


The reason that the Rich Rodriguez experiment was helpful for the program in my eyes is that it not only allowed a buffer for Lloyd Carr’s retirement, it allowed time for this coaching staff to fall into place.  I call it the Mike Williams Theory.  If Williams had succeeded even decently in Detroit, the Lions probably would have passed on Calvin Johnson for Gaines Adams in the 2007 NFL Draft.  Sure we would be appeased at the moment, but the real big fish would be just down the road a few years.

In the same way, if Rodriguez had done good enough to stay, we’d spend the next who-knows-how-many-years convincing ourselves that this deceptive offense belonged at the University of Michigan.  Sure, we lost Demetrius Hart and Kris Frost this year through recruiting turmoil and change, but the pro-style offense and defense will call on the Curtis Grants and Marcus Lattimores of the country.

Brady Hoke recruited Tom Brady to Michigan and upon hearing that Mattison had taken the defensive coordinator job, acclaimed ex-Gator head coach Urban Meyer called him a "legendary recruiter".  Hoke and company were not only the right men for the job, but they will have the chance to be here for many decades.