Strong language contained herein. Three and Out is a book about the short, tumultuous reign of Rich Rodriguez at Michigan.
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The week after Michigan collapsed against Illinois in 2009, they prepare to take on Purdue.
A weary Rodriguez wearily surveys his weary troops, because he has to or the media will write about other things…
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The Friday night before the Purdue game, Rodriguez dug at his meal like a hungry prisoner who was sick of eating the same gray food every night. When I told him I was surprised that the guys seemed loose, like they were still having fun and staying positive, he stared at his food, paused, and said, “I don’t care.
“I don’t care anymore about trying to analyze the psychology of these guys, especially for the press. I just want them to freakin’ play. I’m sick of it.”
Sick of what?
“Everything. I’m sick of the situation I’m in. I’m sick of the crap I’ve got to deal with every week. I’m sick of people not taking responsibility.” A case could be made that all happiness is feeling like you have possibilities. When someone wins the lottery, he’s happy not because he won the lottery but because he suddenly has dozens of options he didn’t have the day before.
But the corollary is also true: All unhappiness is feeling like your options are shrinking and the world is closing in on you. That you’re trapped. Rich Rodriguez’s options were shrinking. By the time he arrived in Ann Arbor, it was clear he could not go back the way he had come. But after only twenty-one games at Michigan, it had become just as clear there would be only one way he could stay: winning football games. And fast.
Every Friday night, between the dinner and the movie, the offense and defense met separately with their coaches to go over the scouting report one last time. But this week, instead of reviewing the opponent, they reviewed a tape of their practices that week. The message was simple: The Illini didn’t beat the Wolverines. The Wolverines beat the Wolverines.
Job 1: Hold on to the damn ball. There was a reason John Heisman famously showed his players a football and said, “Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football.”
But John Heisman never met Tate Forcier. On one play Rodriguez showed that night, Forcier held the ball like an oversized sponge and swung it around like he was washing his windows with it. Sure enough, the defense soon forced a fumble.
“High and tight, high and tight, high and tight,” Rodriguez said with relative calm. “Anything else is selfish. It shows disrespect for your teammates, and I know you’re not selfish, and I know you don’t want to disrespect your teammates.”
Here he was, going into the tenth game of the season, reviewing something they had covered on the first day of spring ball, the first day of summer practice, and just about every day since. It was pretty clear Rodriguez was tired of that, too.
But he knew it came with coaching young players, and he usually enjoyed the teaching process. But they were repeating the same lessons too often, which became especially aggravating when he had no idea how many lessons they would get.
Job 2: In the spread option offense, the quarterback has to take three steps and throw it. Not four steps. Not five steps. And no hitches, either. Three and throw. Three and throw. The timing was simple but exact—and it was everything. Any freelancing and incompletes, sacks, and interceptions soon followed.
And that’s exactly what Rodriguez saw next on the practice tape: Forcier taking three steps (an improvement), seeing his receiver open— but then hitching, which allowed the linebacker to cover the receiver. Rodriguez was calm but firm. “I’m sure I will not have to see on Monday any tape of any Michigan quarterback taking three steps and a hitch when he should be taking three steps and throwing.”
Next play, same thing, but this time Forcier threw it behind the receiver. The linebacker just missed making the interception.
“That one’s late. Why? Three and hitch instead of three and throw. I’ve been doing this for twenty years! I didn’t just wake up and come up with this thing. We have refined this over time. We know what works. We’re not guessing! Three steps and throw! THROW! You’ve got to trust the timing!”
But it was really more than that. The quarterbacks had to trust the system—and the coaches who had created it.
The flipside was just as simple: The coaches had to remember that Forcier was still a freshman. And even though Rodriguez’s quarterbacks on every team he’d coached eventually won Conference Player of the Year, not one of them did it his first season.
If the Illinois game could be reduced to Michigan’s four tries from the 1-yard line, Michigan’s season likewise boiled down to four great chances to win just one game to secure a bowl bid: Michigan State, which ended in overtime; Iowa, which ended one pass short of a winning field goal attempt; Illinois, which broke on the 1-yard line; and Purdue, which looked like an eminently winnable game. But like the fourth-and- 1 play against Illinois, the pressure mounted with each failed attempt. This was Rodriguez’s last best chance at match point.
Blow it against the Boilermakers, and the odds would only get taller against Wisconsin, and taller still against Ohio State, still in the hunt for a national title. Collars were tight in Ann Arbor.
The quarterbacks didn’t think Purdue would be a pushover, either. “They’re good, they play hard,” Sheridan said later that night in his hotel room. “Much harder than Illinois.” And then, unable to let Illinois go: “I still can’t believe we lost to those guys.”
“Don’t let ’em beat you twice,” Forcier said, as a half- joking warning they’d all heard a hundred times. “Man, we just got to win again. That’s been driving me fucking nuts. We just got to win again.”