You can't throw a rock today without hitting a piece on Joe Paterno, and I'll add my bit. I've read a half-dozen of them and feel myself drawn to the portions that focus on his ignoble demise at the hands of a long-overdue grand jury investigation into Jerry Sandusky. The ones that skip it entirely, as many PSU-based POVs do, or attempt to put it "in perspective" seem to be succumbing to the same disease that felled everyone when Nixon died and people scrambled for good things to say about him other than "he's dead."
Paterno is not Nixon, obviously. Nixon is the most obvious public funeral held in which ill things were not spoken of the dead due to social taboo, rather than reason. I dislike that natural impulse to whitewash. When Christopher Hitchens died I spent a lot of time reading his withering obituaries just to watch him stick the knife in and twist. If that makes me ruthless, okay.
I just can't get over how it all came crashing down. Not only did Paterno and the culture he created shelter Sandusky, Paterno did not seem to feel remorse for half a second. Maybe this is just an addled old man speaking but it is appalling that this came out of his mouth at the impromptu pep rally at his home in the immediate aftermath of the grand jury's testimony:
The kids that were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. Tough life, when people do certain things to you. Anyway, you’ve been great. Everything’s great, all right.
Virtually the entire media edited Paterno's statement into a less awful version because their sense of propriety could not grasp the words that had actually come out of his mouth. This was Joe Paterno. He couldn't have said that. He shouldn't have said anything. He should have been in his house crying to his wife, finally realizing the monstrous consequences of his inaction.
Instead he seemed to think of himself as a victim. A lot of people find ways to blame themselves for massive tragedies they are not responsible for. Paterno was oblivious to his role to the end. Maybe that's forgivable to some people who look at the donations and the football coaching and the Great Experiment. Not me. I have great respect for Chris Grovich of Black Shoe Diaries but I can't read this…
Behind Joe Paterno's Beaver Stadium statue are the words, "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian." They really could have been arranged in any order.
…without inserting "child rape enabler" in any order. That phrase overwhelms the rest. If he did lead a program that strove to prove it was capable of operating at a higher plane that just makes it worse. He was held up—he held himself up—as a man who could achieve success on and off the field in a way that others could not.
Maybe any one of us would have done the same thing if confronted by the terrible truth about a long-time friend. Maybe 90% of people would not have had the courage to blow up a reputation so carefully crafted over such a long period. Maybe Joe Paterno was just being human.
That's not enough when you have a statue. Paterno wasn't supposed to be human, he was supposed to be Joe Paterno. He wasn't and now he never was. He had over a decade to do something about Sandusky and did not. That is no mistake, or misjudgment, or error. It is immensely sad, but in the end Paterno failed his charge more spectacularly than a man who dared less would have. You can call him Icarus if you want; I'm not inclined to give him that benefit of the doubt. The costs were not worth the attempt.
The statue is Joe Paterno now. The man is dead. Hopefully the idea behind the statue can help people be better than the man turned out to be.
[Editor's note: Orson and I both go for the statue conceit. We've seen people crying or overturning news vans in its vicinity it every 30 seconds over the past few months, so maybe not a huge surprise.]
This is clearly not part of the 2011 football preview, except it is. It was not possible to write this year's "The Story" without closing the door on the Rodriguez era. Thus this.
I meant to, but never got around to, writing one of the Rich Rodriguez obituaries that sprouted across the Michigan blogosphere in the aftermath of his firing. At the time I was busy panicking about Les Miles, the lack of Jim Harbaugh, and the possibility someone with as thin a resume as Brady Hoke would get hired.
By the time I'd stopped railing about The Process and the hire it begat, Rodriguez's corpse was cool. People were already complaining about how I wouldn't let the last three years go. So I dropped it. They say things happen for a reason, though, and usually say so at press conferences.
A couple months later I was at show at the Magic Stick. We had no knowledge of any of the bands that were playing; we'd been encouraged to see the headliner by a friend of the MGoWife. Whatever talent the headliner had was overwhelmed by the impression she was the worst person ever*, but the second opener was this quirky trio from Ypsi called Lightning Love. Lightning Love is a twee indie band whose drummer (now) looks like he was acquired from the Megadeth surplus store. Most of their songs are about being a miserable discontented loser surrounded by people just like you**. MGoWife adored them, bought the album and all that, and eventually I came to think of one of their songs as The Ballad of Rich Rodriguez.
This is it. Yes, you're going to have to do this obit multimedia style:
Lightning Love - Friends
Thirty Josh Grobans agree this is more in the spirit of the Rodriguez era than Josh Groban songs. And that's hugely depressing, isn't it?
It's his kid that kills me. Scattered amongst shots of Rodriguez emoting like a mofo are pictures of his son Rhett doing the same. At this point he must wonder why the universe hates his dad. Three years ago Rodriguez was promising his son as a member of the class of 2017. A few months ago this was happening after the Illinois game…
…a few months later it was this…
…and some heretofore innocuous sports photographer got a terrifying glimpse into life as a paparazzi.
The universe's capper:
The universe has watched your gladiatorial antics, Rich Rodriguez, and it is not impressed. Thumbs down.
In retrospect the downed thumbs were inevitable. I mean… the Groban thing. Come on. It was always something. It was Groban or another fake controversy about how people need to "get a life" or his inability to "get it" about rivals. Rodriguez wasn't subsumed by the overwhelming Michigan-ness of Michigan. He either failed to understand the need to throw himself at the shoes of the Great Tradition or just couldn't be anyone other than the guy who grew up in the "holler" and married someone my mother would certainly refer to as "that woman." You know how mothers do.
So the legacy program and local media rejected the organ transplant. The program started throwing t-cells at Rodriguez on day one. Rodriguez chipped in with stormy sideline antics and pouting. When he swore it was weakness; when he choked up it was weakness.
All of that was unambiguously negative for a football coach, but an offshoot of that was having your kid with you in a genuinely touching way. For a human this is the definition of low expectations. You publicly express your affection for your son. You are not a grim military object; you are capable of squeezing emotions other than rage out of your gray heart. Congratulations for not being a one-dimensional character straight out of American Beauty.
But I can't recall ever seeing the kind of father and son shots Rhett and Rich Rodriguez feature in before. Coaches aren't humans. They are walking soundbites wrapped in great swirling cloaks of mythology. Rap on one of their chests. You will get a hollow clang and a statement about senior leadership. Kick sand in one of their faces. You will get a lecture from Peter the Great. Peter the Great will be confused and incensed that he cannot sentence you to hang. Tell one his aunt has been dismembered by bikers on PCP and you will get a statement about senior leadership. Seniors don't do PCP and rip aunts limb from limb, because they have leadership.
Rodriguez was human. He was just this guy. He wasn't supernatural or metallic. If you rapped his chest he would probably get a little weepy. He did not seem like a great leader of men, or a colossus astride anything, or even a dude fully in control of his shit. He, like most of us, was doing okay but sometimes—too often—he was not. When Michigan instituted "The Team The Team The Team" as its official pregame hype theme it drove the point home: there is God, and there is man, and Rich Rodriguez is not God.
There was no clearer evidence of that than his answer to a question posed days before the Wisconsin game. Michigan was 7-3 but a teetering 7-3. The question was something about "how he projected the third season at Michigan." A coach would have blustered something about senior leadership. Rodriguez told it like it was, and though it was already kinda over this seems like the moment when Rodriguez accepted his fate:
"I thought we'd be further ahead.
"I thought a lot of things when I got here."
*[The chorus of every song was functionally "I'm sorry I don't care about you or any of the things you care about, except I'm not sorry."]
**[Or they've been arranged for marimba by a Michigan State fan… which… wow, internet. Vast and deep are your reaches.]
Tommy Tuberville, 1/11/2010:
"We're going to air it out," Tuberville said. "We're going to keep the Air Raid. I think it's something that Tech has hit upon that gives them that identity to recruit."
Rich Rodriguez, sometime in 2008:
“We’ll adapt. I like winning too much not to adapt a little bit to our personnel.”
Brady Hoke, 1/14/2011:
"I think you'd be remiss as a coach if you don't know your personnel, and you try to implement something that maybe you're not quite ready for. There's a way to grow to it. So we're not going to try to put any square pegs in round holes."
Midway through Rich Rodriguez's first season it had become clear that Michigan was spectacularly bad at football for the first time since the 60s, and the blame started to go around. A large portion of it was directed at Rodriguez shoehorning Michigan's pro-style personnel into the spread offense, and it was all dumb. Very dumb. I wrote a post explaining how dumb this was called "The Golden Age of Tin." In brief:
- Despite having NFL talent up and down the roster Michigan was about 70th in offense in 2007. All of that talent left.
- Michigan had moved to a zone running game two years before Rodriguez arrived and he changed very little on the line.
- Four of the five starters skill position starters were freshmen who had never played in a pro-style offense. (Brandon Minor would later return from injury/discontent/quasi-suspension and play pretty well.)
- The run-pass split was almost 50-50 a year after WVU ran 70% of the time.
- The quarterbacks were bad in any system.
A couple years later, Nick Sheridan is a grad assistant, a redshirt junior version of Steven Threet has a 18-16 TD-INT ratio for a 6-6 Arizona State team, and Michigan's spread offense is one halfway decent turnover margin/defense/kicker from being awesome. Rich Rodriguez did a lot of things wrong in his time in Ann Arbor, but installing the offense he'd been running for 20 years wasn't one of them.
Because of all the things he did do wrong, however,
he's in a sad car with sad child. Al Borges is now in charge of Denard Robinson, a bunch of slot receivers, tailbacks no one except Fred Jackson thinks much of, and… well… a pretty decent set of pro-style outside receivers, tight ends, and (probably) offensive linemen.
Borges is going to do the only thing he can do with this personnel: coach a pro-style offense with a vertical passing game. This is not going to be as good for Michigan as continuity would be, but the person to blame for that is the athletic director, or Rich Rodriguez, or some of the things Rich Rodriguez did wrong. Al Borges has not spent the last 20 years figuring out how to get mileage out of quarterbacks who double as drag racers in the offseason. He's spent it saying "no, I'm not Jeffery Tambor" and passing to open up the run.
Coincidentally, the best example of what happens when you replace a Rich Rodriguez-type coach with a more passing-oriented guy is when West Virginia replaced Rich Rodriguez with Jeff Mullen. Mullen was the QB coach responsible for turning Wake Forest into a miraculously effective offense through 2007 and arrived in Morgantown promising more balance in the Mountaineer offense. He got it:
Unsurprisingly, passes got less effective as they became more frequent. The thing that dropped WVU from a national title contender to just another top 25 team was that despite rushing less, rushes also got less effective.
If you're thinking Steve Slaton's exit for the NFL may have had something to do with that, replacement Noel Devine actually rushed for 6.3 YPC. What happened? Burgeoning Wolverine Star has a table of its own that highlights the severe drop in productivity from quarterback legs that started as soon as Rodriguez left. Pat White's rushes were exactly as frequent—down to a tenth of a percentage point—as they were in 2007 but his productivity dropped alarmingly. White averaged 6.7(!) YPC under Rodriguez and just 5 under Mullen.
While it's possible the schedule was tougher and the team weaker after Owen Schmitt and a few others graduated, Devine's numbers suggest the most likely explanation for that huge drop is that Mullen didn't know what the hell to do with White.
So. Michigan fans wishing to protect their soul-tingly-bits would do well to regard quotes like these from Borges as gentle untruths created for public perception:
"I've been doing this for 24 years. I'm no genius and I do not pretend to be one, but I have a hell of a lot of experience with a lot of different types of quarterbacks."
But when Borges goes on to compare Robinson to Michael Vick and what he's doing with the Eagles…
"They said Michael Vick couldn't be a West Coast-style quarterback, and he's one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL. Why? Because they put him in situations to run and throw. Denard is 6-feet tall, like Michael Vick. He can run and he can throw and make things happen. If Michael Vick can do that with the Philadelphia Eagles, why can't Denard Robinson do that at Michigan?"
…he suggests that "a lot of different types of quarterback" boil down to guys running NFL offenses with various scrambling add-ons. This is not a fluke. Borges has an array of quotes along those lines. It's also not very realistic. Vick's long and winding journey to becoming a good NFL quarterback took ten years of intensive coaching. When he was three years out of high school (like Denard will be next year) he had a 9-7 TD-INT ratio; VT ran 74% of the time. Their offense was a grab-bag of spread 'n' shred mixed with pro-style that featured a heavy dose of option and even more "Mike Vick makes one read on seven-step drop and starts running." It was pretty effective, but it was even more run-heavy than Rodriguez's Pat White days and took the most outrageously athletic player in the last two decades to make it go.
I'm not sure Denard is quite that, and if we're talking about putting Denard in positions to run or pass that just sounds like a lot of rollouts. And here's the weird thing about Robinson: the guy hates running the ball when he's not explicitly directed to. When he got to the edge this year he invariably chose to throw even when it was third and three and there wasn't a guy within six yards of him.
run run run run run nooooooo okay [ninja stuff] wooooo
Maybe that's because Michigan's offense revolved around Denard running 25 times a game and he didn't want to put any more tread on his tires, but seriously, how many times did you scream "run!" at the TV or field last year?
Maybe this will work out. Maybe Michigan will run four verticals at opponents until their safeties scream for help, whereupon Denard will be able to enact one-read-and-scramble. It would be easier to imagine this happening with Braylon Edwards on the outside, but Michigan did have some success throwing deep in the bowl game and I'm guessing Denard's going to spend most of his offseason throwing fly routes.
But if it doesn't, there's no alternative. Coaches are old and crotchety and just are who they are. They have a very specific, gradually moving corpus of knowledge and when they deviate from that performance suffers. Borges is an effective coordinator with a certain sort of offense. Without it he's probably going to be a version of Jeff Mullen. This is no one's fault, really, just like it wasn't anyone's fault three years ago when Rich Rodriguez surveyed his offensive personnel and felt the crevasse beneath him inch open for the first time.
Tommy Tuberville, 12/27/2010:
"I still believe in running the football," he said. "More than what they did in the past. That's the biggest difference. We want to be a bit more physical and be able to run the ball, which will help throwing it down the field, too."
RIP, air raid. RIP, spread 'n' shred.
BONUS: we should put together a pool for when and where the first column approvingly citing Borges's ability to adapt relative to Rodriguez by comparing their first seasons shows up. Bonus points will be awarded for the most irritatingly shallow glossing over of the difference between junior Denard Robinson with seniors around him versus freshman Threetsheridammit surrounded by fellow freshmen.
DISCLAIMER SECTION: I expect these things next year: Denard is a better thrower, turnover margin is a lot better (fourth year running, that prediction), all yardage metrics drop, scoring drops slightly from 25th but is better distributed across the schedule, FEI plummets. Improvement from the defense and, god willing, kicker will mask a drop in offensive power.