Thank You, Rita: Both Alabama And Michigan Fans May Owe Her Thanks

Douglas WebbCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2009

Though Mal Moore didn't know it at the time, he'd just dodged a bullet, not the kind of bullet that hurts people, but the kind that destroys football programs.

The football Head Coaching job at the University of Alabama had been open since the firing of former Coach Mike Shula in late November.  Moore had promised then that he would bring in a successful head coach with excellent credentials.

There was interest in "the old ball coach" from some on the search committee.  Feelers were put out and though Spurrier wasn't interested, he did use it to get more money out of Gamecocks officials.  That allowed Coach Moore to go after the man he wanted all along. 

Contact with Nick Saban was made through intermediaries.  Saban let them know that although he was interested in the job, he would not discuss it until the season was over.

That was just a couple of short weeks away.  Definitely worth waiting for to get the coach you want right?  Once again there were others on the search committee that thought it was risky to wait. 

They were afraid by then that the man they considered number three on their list, Rich Rodriguez, would be gobbled up by one of the numerous programs currently looking for a new head man.

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Moore crumbled to the pressure and agreed to talk to Rodriguez.  A meeting was set up for a Tuesday Night, the night before the College Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.  Moore flew up to New York City where he met with Rodriguez and his wife Rita.  The discussion last a little over an hour.

Rodriguez had grown up just 30 minutes away from the campus of West Virginia.  He had played college football there as well.  His wife Rita had been a cheerleader on the WVU Cheerleaders squad.  They had heavy roots in the community.  Moore realized it might be tough to pull them away from there.

How heavy those roots were was made crystal clear on the Friday following their meeting with Moore.  Rodriguez received a frantic call from his wife.  Apparently a local radio station had been broadcasting that her husband had taken the Alabama job and that the contract was already signed.

Rita had been nearly hysterical.  In between the tears, Rodriguez managed to convince her it wasn't true.

Still there were those that thought it would be worth the effort.  Moore knew that Rodriguez would be in Jacksonville to help promote the Gator Bowl.

The Mountaineers would be facing Georgia Tech on New Years Day.  He managed to set up a time to speak with Rodriguez and his agent Mike Brown.

It was at that meeting that Moore made his offer and the groundwork was laid to bring the Rodriguezes to Tuscaloosa.

Here is where things get a bit hazy.  Depending on which side you choose to listen to one of two things happened.  Either Rodriguez accepted the coaching position but asked that he be allowed to return to Morgantown to break the news to his wife and team.

A move that Moore could certainly understand since he had watched Dennis Franchione slink out of town like a snake to take the Texas A&M job. Franchione did so without so much as saying a word to his team.

Moore agreed to allow Rodriguez to go provided his agent would stay and continue to hammer out the details of the contract.

The second version is that an offer was made but Rodriguez had asked for time to think it over.  He left to head home while his agent stayed behind to further discuss potential details of a deal with Moore. 

Once he got home he told Rita the details of the Alabama offer.  She again let him know her feelings on the situation but he convinced her that they needed to wait and see how West Virginia responded. 

He told her that if the Mountaineers came close to matching the Alabama offer, that they would stay.

Those behind the money with the Mountaineers did just that.  They anted up the money and came up with an offer for close to $2 million a year.  They also agreed to begin right away on facility improvements.

That was all the Rodriguez's needed to hear.  Moore was contacted with Rodriguez's response.  Rodriguez then left to go have dinner with his team and to let them know he had decided to stay on with the program

Bullet dodged.

It's not that Rodriguez is not a good coach, he is.  His coaching qualifications were never the issue.  The question was how he, and by extension his wife, could stand up to the pressure cooker that is Alabama football.

Don't get me wrong, Michigan is big-time football.  Football is different in the south though, even more so in the state of Alabama where there are no professional sports. 

College football is everything in Alabama.  It's a nearly religious experience for Tide fans.  They live it 365 days, 8765 hours, 526,000 minutes, or 31.6 million seconds a year. 

They demand excellence and will accept nothing less. Averaging nine wins a year most anywhere else in the nation will get you a contract extension with a raise.  At Alabama, it will get you fired.

Once again Moore had to deal with a black eye.  People in the media were saying how he'd lost control of the search. 

Others went on about how it had become apparent that no coach of any consequence wanted anything to do with the Alabama job, and Alabama fans just needed to accept that.

Moore again repeated his original response.  He intended to bring in a successful head coach with excellent credentials.

Moore met with other members of the coaching search and it was decided that they would once again make a run at Saban.  The Dolphins season had since ended, and Moore felt that might be the difference they needed to get Saban to at least listen to an offer.

Moore contacted Saban through his agent Jimmy Sexton.  Saban agreed to meet with him so on New Year's Day, roughly one month since Shula's firing, Moore boarded a private jet and headed for Miami.

The two men met and one by one Moore agreed to Saban's demands.  When they eventually had an agreement, Moore wanted Saban and his family to fly back to Tuscaloosa with him that day.

Moore drove Saban to his home and waited outside while Saban and his family packed their bags.  While packing Saban called Wayne Huizenga to let him know he'd agree to take the Alabama job.

Huizenga pleaded with Saban to take the night to think it over.  Out of respect for Huizenga, Saban agreed to do so although he and his wife, Terry, felt they already knew what they wanted to do.

When Saban went outside and let Moore know that he needed one more evening to think things over.  Moore reluctantly agreed, though he let Saban know that he could wait no longer.

Moore later admitted that after hearing Saban's request, he felt for sure as though he'd lost him.

The next morning, Jan. 4, Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga was at the Saban's front door. He was ready to make one last-ditch effort to keep his coach. 

As things turned out however he never got the chance.  Saban let him know that after discussing everything with his family, he felt it was in their best interest to take the Alabama job.

Later that day, about the time that Huizenga was holding a press conference at the Dolphins headquarters to announce Saban's departure, Saban and his family were on their way to Tuscaloosa where Saban would be announced as Mike Shula's replacement at a brief news conference.

It's been nearly three years since then and in that time Saban has done a miraculous job of turning around the Alabama program. 

He and his coaching staff are tireless recruiters landing back to back No. 1 classes.  After just three recruiting classes Saban had Alabama back in contention not only in the SEC, but at the national level as well.

One year after turning down the Alabama job Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia to take the head coaching job at Michigan.  His parting with West Virginia had been less than amicable. 

His first season with the Wolverines was a disaster.  Without the right kind of talent on hand to run Rodriguez's version of the spread offense, Michigan sputtered to a 3-9 record.

It was the worst win-loss record for Michigan in 41 years.  It also forced them to miss playing in a bowl game for the first time in 34 years.

In response to heavy criticism from Wolverine fans during the season Rodriguez's response was "Get a life."

Asked how he thought his first season should be remembered Rodriguez said, "Hopefully we will remember it as a blip on the screen, a one-time happening."

Rodriguez is probably right, given time to recruit the type players that will have success in his offense, there is little doubt he will turn things around.

If you take successful coaches like Saban and Rodriguez, and put them in charge of elite programs like Alabama and Michigan, they are going to win.

It won't be surprising at all to see both teams winning titles and winning them soon.

And in an odd way, they both have Rita Rodriguez to thank for it.