Thank you for this, Mr. Bacon. It is much appreciated.
also duty-free guys falling over and grabbing their shins
[ED: Make that three parts. Coming Friday: “What does ‘Michigan Man’ mean anymore,” and “What’s next?”
If you live under a rock, John Bacon was embedded in the program the last three years and has written a book about this. It is called Three and Out.]
First, thanks to everyone for your interest, including some 400 readers asking more than a thousand questions. (And big thanks also to Brian for sorting through all those questions and combining them into the most popular categories.) I was not surprised to see they were very smart and often got beyond the surface of the situation, frequently forcing me to re-think the whole thing, when I thought I was long done thinking another thought about the last three years.
3. Were the "fit" issues real?
One of the central questions that came up in various forms was the “Fit, or Lack Thereof,” as Brian reduced it.
I’ll start by working backward, from the final seconds of Rodriguez’s regime. On January 5, 2011, the assistant coaches, staffers, and yours truly were all sitting in the coaches’ meeting room, when Rodriguez walked in, laid a file down on the table, and said, “Well, as expected, they fired me.” He later added, “It was a bad fit here from the start.”
And in many ways it was. I’m not certain it had to be.
People who were living in Ann Arbor in 1968 can tell you about the last outsider to take the reigns: Bo Schembechler. His predecessor, Bump Elliott, was a former Michigan All-American who was smart and humble, with an urbane, conservative manner. He didn’t yell at his players, he rarely swore, and if you said you were hurt, that was enough for him.
When Schembechler’s crew arrived with their wives sporting beehive hairdos and stiletto heels, some Michigan insiders took to calling them “The Ohio Mafia.” The players quickly learned the new guy yelled, swore, grabbed your facemask and literally kicked you in the ass. If you were merely hurt, not injured, but didn’t want to practice, you got left behind when the team plane took off.
Instead of turning his back on the new regime, however, Elliott embraced them, hosting parties for their families and introducing them to important people around town. He did not allow players to come to his office in the Athletic Department to complain about the new guy, either. And when Schembechler delivered what today would be an unforgivable comment about changing “Michigan’s silly helmets,” Elliott, Don Canham, Fritz Crisler and Bob Ufer quietly taught him Michigan tradition.
And, to Schembechler’s credit, he was wise enough to listen, and even seek out their help.
When Michigan upset Ohio State that year, they gave Bump Elliott the game ball, and there was not a dry eye in the room.
That’s Michigan at its best. The last three years were not.
Rodriguez had never been to Ann Arbor before his first press conference, and it was clear he had not prepared, nor been coached – a noted contrast to Brady Hoke’s introduction, when his rehearsed lines won over many doubters.
To cross this chasm, neither Michigan nor Rodriguez did enough, soon enough. I believe Rodriguez should have learned more about Michigan faster than he did, but I also believe he received little guidance. Readers will likely be struck by how often Rodriguez invoked Michigan’s traditions – the helmet, the banner, the rivals – when he talked to his team. And he could have helped his cause by reaching out to sympathetic Michigan groups like the M-Club, filled with loyal supporters who could have helped him when trouble hit.
Both sides of this marriage could have learned a lot from the other. Rodriguez could have gained the kind of polish Michigan usually applies to its players and coaches, much as it did for the initially rough-hewn Schembechler. And Michigan’s famed arrogance – occasionally succumbing to rank snobbism during the Rodriguez regime – could have been softened with some of Rodriguez’s down-home friendliness.
I suspect both sides have learned a great deal since, manifest in Michigan’s almost universal support for Brady Hoke. He isn’t exactly Bump Elliott, either, but he’s been accepted as a true “Michigan Man.”
(More on that Friday.)
4. What was so hard about the transition?
Everyone knows the transition was poorly handled – but it was actually much worse than you think, marked by a lack of preparation, communication, and transparency, not to mention severe undermining of the process and the candidates. It resulted in the famously unified Michigan football family fracturing before Martin named Rodriguez Michigan’s next coach – and it only got worse afterward. For his part, Rodriguez naively assumed he was walking into the same program Schembechler had created.
Rodriguez also made a crucial miscalculation: He honestly believed that the bigger the program, the less time the head coach has to deal with peripheral duties like connecting with former players, alumni and fans – when the opposite is true. The head football coach at Michigan, Texas or Alabama, is, in a very real sense, the leader of that school.
That said, it’s worth remembering: Michigan was hiring Rodriguez, not the other way around. It is the employer’s job to set their employees up for success, and at that central task, Michigan failed badly.
But I still believe that nothing would have helped more than Bo Schembechler continuing to lead the family. When he passed away, Michigan lost more than a coach. It lost its spiritual leader – and five years later he has still not been replaced.
If there were any doubts before that Bo did more than anyone to keep Michigan football at the top, even long after he retired, his absence erased them for me.
5. PRETTY MUCH THE Q: Who does John Bacon blame for the last three years?
I know: you want to know what happened to the defense, and who is most to blame for the disappointing last three seasons.
It’s not hard to identify a handful of contributing factors, all of which were necessary, but none sufficient to guarantee failure. We have a dozen variables in both cases, but no control group, so it’s ultimately impossible to be completely certain what, precisely, was the most important straw.
Nonetheless, if I don’t feed the bulldog something I’ll probably get my hand bitten off, so here goes.
Let’s start with the defense. When people ask if the shockingly poor performance was the result of inheriting weak talent, transfers, a stretch of freak injuries, youth or coaching, I say: Yes. It is simply impossible for your defense to drop to 68th then 82nd then 110th without all those factors playing a part. But the hardest to tease out is coaching.
We do know a few things, however. Failing to get Jeff Casteel was much bigger than probably anyone realized at the time. Bill Martin failed to pony up a few more bucks and a guaranteed contract to get him, while Rodriguez—who would not come to Michigan without Mike Barwis and the promise of a million-dollar weight room—was apparently willing to leave without his defensive coordinator. If he could do it again, he would probably insist he wasn’t coming to Michigan without his trusted defensive coordinator.
After that, Michigan never gave Rodriguez sufficient bait to get his top choice to replace Casteel. When Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson arrived in Ann Arbor, they inherited a staff of strangers who had been loyal to Rodriguez for years. Shafer and Robinson are both decent guys who’ve been successful elsewhere, but it clearly didn’t work at Michigan.
At the end of the day, however, the head coach is responsible for his team’s performance, and that obviously includes defense.
Likewise, there was no shortage of variables contributing to Rodriguez’s demise. The long list includes: the horrible transition; his Honeymoon from Hell (including overblown PR problems over buy-outs, departing players, and even shredded papers); his 3-9 debut; the Free Press feature and subsequent NCAA investigation; the string of four crucial losses in the middle of 2009 and three in middle of 2010; and the final Bust. Obviously, some of those are on Michigan, and some on Rodriguez.
The Rodriguez reign was fatally damaged by two main causes: the harm done by detractors inside and outside the program, and his own missed opportunities – from PR problems to those seven lost match points in 2009 and 2010, any one of which would probably have been enough to deliver him to a new era when he could focus more on football than survival. In particularly, I believe the 2009 game against Illinois, which blew up when Michigan failed to score on a first and goal from the one-yard line, marked the Continental Divide of the Rodriguez Era.
So, it’s not true that Rodriguez had no chance. He had seven. It is true, however, that his chances were greatly diminished by detractors inside and outside the program.
Assigning blame essentially boils down to weighing the factors above. But on one crucial point – really, the most important of all – there is absolutely no shade of gray whatsoever. Rodriguez, his staff, and his players (after the 2008 team graduated) worked extraordinarily hard to win every game.
Some powerful insiders, however, were working just as hard to see them fail. That is not a matter of degree. It’s a clear-cut, black-and-white difference – something I have never seen in all my years researching Michigan’s long and admirable history. But the people who suffered the most were the least to blame: the players.
As former offensive line coach Greg Frey told me, while driving to Mott Hospital one night, “I think about guys like Moosman and Ortmann and Brandon Graham. Man, those guys work their asses off. They care about their teammates. They stayed. They get pushed aside in all this, and that’s all right? That’s sad.”
When Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit News asked Ryan Van Bergen how it felt to see hundreds of alums returning to support the new coach, he said, “You know, it’s kind of unsettling… It’s great they’re back, but it’s kind of, where have they been the last two or three years? We’ve still be wearing the same helmets since they were here.”
Who deserves how much blame can be debated. Who was working against the Wolverines, and who suffered the most because of it, cannot be calculated.
Thank you for this, Mr. Bacon. It is much appreciated.
your avatar looks familiar and is comforting.
"We were right"?
Or will that earn me another 30 days in the Principality?
Or should I just say what a sweet moment of victory and confirmation this is for MGoBlog and John U .Bacon, as he establishes himself as one of the great new voices in sportswriting in America, and MGoBlog establishes itself as one of the greatest team-blogs in the world?
Or how about just Muppets?
But I really fail to see how reading any of this can cause a Michigan fan to want to celebrate, as your use of the Muppets suggests.
It's almost like you're saying "The program suffered mightily for 3 years, but I WAS RIGHT ABOUT WHY IT SUFFERED! WOOOOOOO!!!"
As somebody said in the previous post that landed you your own blog, your obsession with being right is almost unhealthy. Regardless of whether or not you were right, this isn't muppet-worthy.
Here's your money quote: "it’s great they’re back, but it’s kind of, where have they been the last two or three years? We’ve still be wearing the same helmets since they were here.”
As soon as I got to the middle of this post, I knew this exact comment would be in here. Please post another diary to remind us again!
You are a pretty pretty princess. Or at least you are begging for attention like one.
Its interesting that he sees 2009 Illinois as the turning point game. I kind of always assumed it was 2010 Penn State. If you think about it though, one game in 2009 means making a bowl game, which means more practice time for the young players, etc. I can definitely see his point.
I can see the argument for the 2009 Illinois game. I remember thinking for the first time that maybe this whole "losing" thing was more than a temporary blip. Plus it totally ruined my Halloween.
I agree about the Illinois game. Going into it we were 5-3, a respectable record given the context, especially given that two of our losses had been close. Illinois was a very winnable game. A win there and we had a bowl locked up with three games left. But we lost (in a bizarre ahead-then-blown-out fashion), and suddenly we had a four-game losing streak in league play with an absolute must-win game coming up against Purdue. A win there might have mitigated the damage, but when we lost, we were in trouble. We predictably lost to Wisconsin and OSU and then went into 2010 with an enormous amount of pressure.
To me, Purdue was the turning point. That was a game he HAD to win, Illinois had some legit talent and showed it the past couple of years. Purdue has sucked since Drew Brees left, and that was a must-win.
was definitely the turning point. The team went from post ND euphoria, to grim belief and hard work, to here we go again. And the point when they went to here we go again was the 4th and 1, and they never recovered for the rest of the season.
If they had made that touchdown, that game was probably won - the boot was on the throat. And the extra confidence going into Purdue probably would have won that one as well. (As it was we lost by a missed field goal.)
I totally agree with John. That was the point where the doubt entered the mind of the staunchest supporters.
The 2010 PSU game was pivotal though and still was a turning point for alot of people. There was a sense that the coaching staff just couldn't make the adjustments against upper tier teams. But, it was confusing at the same time, because alot of those kids shouldn't have even been at that situation with that pressure as freshman. You couldn't really pinpoint any one particular thing for the blame of the whole mess.
2010 PSU was certainly the turning point for me. That is when I resigned myself to the fact that the experiment had to come to an end.
2009 Illinois was honestly the first time I said, "I'm not entirely sure this is going to work out." It was the first time I had seen Michigan just roll over and die in an obviously winnable game. I went into full mouthbreather mode on the internet after that game, which is very uncharacteristic of me.
I apologize if I am an absolute idiot here, but did I miss part one? I tried to look back a number of days and did not see it.
At the top of the post, under the heading, there are tags for this post (just like every one that is made on mgoblog), which you will direct you to other posts with the same tags if you click them. Anyway, if you click the "three and out" tag you will find Part One if you scroll down a few posts.
I think it was posted about a week ago. Surprised it isn't linked in this one, maybe it'll be added in?
It really is a shame so many people inside the program were working against it.
To the credit of the RR supporters, they could have done the same thing and tried to destroy Hoke, but they didn't.
We have seen the enemy and it is us.
That's because most RR supporters, myself included, are pro-Michigan, not pro or anti some specific coach. We supported RR because he was the coach of the Wolverines, kind of sad that some people couldn't do that.
I was a pro-RR guy. I'm a pro-Hoke guy. And I'll be a pro whoever the coach is guy because first and foremost, I'm a pro-Michigan guy.
Except "Shame" isn't a strong enough word. I feel really disgusted about it.
It makes sense that it would be the Continential Divide. Get that touchdown, you likely don't have everything blow up from there, maybe you even win another game (like Purdue) and you're 7-5 (plus a solid bowl game and bowl pracrices) in year two, heck, if we're going alternate realities, you're 7-4 heading into Ohio State and maybe there isn't AS much pressure to win and maybe Tate doesn't have fumblitis and Michigan wins.
Of course, saying that, and stuck on chaos theory all week, that creates a whole other timeline, one which we cannot account for all of the variables, including what would have happened to a triumphant Tate in 2010, and would Tate have done enough to remain ahead of Denard?
Thank you Bacs for the sincere answers to some tough questions.
Illinois was the game for so many reasons. The Illini were one Michigan score away from benching Juice, putting in Charest, and effectively conceding. Michigan was so close to its breakthrough ( a microcosm for RR).
The team then couldn't get one yard in four plays (this is where the 1 yard power issue probably started in the RR era, and now we're all dealing with MANBALL BS in the Michigan blogosphere).
Why couldn't it get one yard? Probably because Kevin Grady was the blocking back and not a proper fullback - at that point, Zachary Boren would have been useful (thereby opening another wound in the Rodriguez experience - the Boren situation).
And then, a young team fell apart on the road due to turnovers and horrific defensive play, led by unconscionable secondary decision-making. The team looked rudderless and without belief.
Yes - the third and fourth quarters in Champaign were a nice Cliffs Notes version of much of what happened during RR's three years in Ann Arbor.
Not really. We've been excellent on 4th downs so far this year, most from beyond inches.
and not just 3rd down conversions (you don't want too many 4th-and-inches) but mostly excellent all-around work inside the opponents' red zone. The season has been mostly good, and Saturday was a sad and troubling day. I've been there for all of them so far.
Except 2009 Illinois WASNT 4th and inches. It was FIRST and a yard
Maybe the single most important yard of the RR era and we couldnt get it in 4 tries
yup. Sucked for everyone.
Wow. This book cannot arrive fast enough. Any chance of bumping up the ship date by three days? Because I can't think of a better way to spend a bye-week Saturday than completely immersing myself into this book.
And as 03 Blue 07 already said, infinite thanks to Mr. Bacon for putting three years of work into narrating the closest thing to the truth of the matter* that we could ever hope for. May Bill Martin always be remebered as a failure, and go blue!
*Lloyd-related arguments re: not participating non-withstanding
But I just have to say something that I think John U. Bacon would agree with; that Michigan's physical athletic campus was in the dumps as a result of a disastrous Tom Goss administration, and Martin's renovations of our facilities was done brilliantly. We have a lot to thank Bill Martin for, including things that will be standing long, long after people have stopped talking about the personnel issues and little kids are asking who Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were.
We're definitely not getting this level of recruiting class under Hoke, nor are we recruiting this well in basketball, without the facilities upgrades that were started under Martin and were made possible by his turnaround of the department's finances. The coaching search was a bad and unfortunate end to what was really an important AD tenure for our school.
where BM ran the operations and oversaw capital projects (desk guy) and Bo was the face of the program and the glue of the athletic campus.
It's not fair to put all the facilities problems in the 90s and early 00s on Goss. He was a disaster is many ways, but was AD for only 3-4 years.
Blame regarding the facilities in the era prior to Martin can be placed at Joe Roberson's and Don Canham's feet.
Our beautiful football stadium, improvements to so many athletic facilities over his tenure, and good financial standing are completely worthless compared to hiring the wrong football coach?
That is my position, yes. He also scored points for hiring Beilein. However, his job, first and foremost, is to set the football team up for success. The improvements are all nice, and it's great to balance the books, certainly, but ultimately what matters to Michigan are two things (1) football and (2) integrity. Martin protected neither of those things. RR was under his watch, and from the sailboat incident onward, the man was a failure. It might be unfortunate that he did other things well, but ultimately, he botched the most important hire of his career. Neg me if you want, I stand by my position. Bill Martin's last years outweighed everything else he did, and he was a failure.
That seems extremely short-sighted to me. You would judge the tenure of someone based on one bad choice/event rather than looking at the legacy of what was left behind? 20 years from now, no one will give two hoots about what happened on the field during 2008-2010. What they will know is that they are sitting in a beautiful stadium/arena, that the facilities for all other sports are outstanding (believe it or not, football is not the only college sport) and that the AD continues to enjoy a balanced budget (which is likely Martin's greatest achievement after Goss's failures).
In fact, rightly or wrongly, I could argue that Martin's failure at hiring Rodriguez was actually beneficial to Michigan football as a whole. Sure, it was a very, very sh-tty 3 years, but some of the lurking evils that Bacon discusses needed to be exposed. It was unintended, but maybe the hiring lead to the book and Michigan fans will go in with eyes wide open.
And as everyone in the story, they're people, neither good nor bad, but complex. But in addition to all the balancing of the budget (done on the back of the football ticket buyer...it didn't take a financial genius to raise the prices drastically on everything), and kick starting some really classy facility upgrades, it goes beyond hiring and/or not supporting Rich in the failure category. There's Amaker, some other coaching hire failures, trying to turn the Michigan Ohio State game into "presented by AT&T" (Brandon wasn't the first), and was actually in charge when RAWK started (for those that care). And that's not even getting into the he said-she said incidents of him with other employees that sounds like is brought up in the book.
Because truth be told, in 20 years a lot of the facilities will be looking to be upgraded by that point too. That's just how it works nowadays, not through anyone's fault. So I don't think we'll be sitting here saying "man, aren't these outdated Stadiums still nice" if no one else has fixed them in the future; we're a lot more likely to be going "our bowl streak could be over 50 If Martin had handled that better". Though really, all of it will just be a blip in the long history.
The 20-year term was probably too long. Heck, we might even see additional bleachers in the endzone stands in the next few years. I guess what I meant was exactly what you said - there are lots of gray areas and its a very dynamic situation with very few people truly guilty of fault, I think. That was my point - to hold one person "guilty" of one failure during their tenure is silly.
P.S. I am very interested in you M-Wolverine. I think you're a great contributor and I have a lot of respect for you, despite our past differences.
To each his own, but conversely, I would argue that to judge an AD at Michigan by anything other than the success of football, hockey, and basketball is silly. Yes, Michigan has other sports. But they don't matter. There, I said it. And similarly, any AD can paste their name up on a building and congrat himself on the back. And yes, it took some arguable skill to balance the budget- but as it was pointed out, this was on the backs of the football fans. Just because Martin's precedecessor was equally terrible doesn't improve his performace.
But when you're the AD of the University of Michigan, and Michigan is hiring its first coach from outside its football family tree in more than 40 years, you don't go on sailing trips [forgiving the fact that the old man couldn't figure out to work his own cellphone]. Anyone can say "let's improve the facilities," and "we need to increase revenue." Big whoop. Being an AD comes down to who you hire, and BIll Martin failed at that. He was not only part of the leadership structure that needed exposing, he was also the principal failing character in a cast that could've avoided this whole debacle.
I agree, to each his/her own. And I definitely do not begrudge you your opinion. My point was only that it is a bit short-sighted to judge a "career" on one poor decision. Was it a completely unforgivable decision? I'm not sure - I think Rodriguez could have been a very good coach at Michigan. And hiring is based greatly on a candidate's experience, history of success, and potential. So, for me, the hire was justified and not necessarily a bad decision. It just didn't work out. Anyone in human resources can tell you that this happens on a regular basis. If those HR people got fired for bad hires, they'd never be able to hire for fear of failing!
Given the results of past surveys, I'd guess it's pretty safe to say "his" on the Board.
And I should confess, profitgoblue: I still vividly remember the anger I held when the whole sailboat incident went down, and then we were turned down by Greg Schiano. I was an undergrad, who not long prior had begun my current hobby of obsessing over all things Michigan football (and, naturally, started reading MgoBlog). And although this book sounds like it highlights a lot of the things I would rant to anyone who would listen, I felt that Martin hadn't been held accountable for what I saw as completely abdicating his most important responsibility.
I suppose this is my Section 1 "I told you so" moment. Naturally, I expect a "0: Overrated." That's okay. I said my piece, and feel right.
But regardless, I'm with the rest of you- Go Hoke, Go Team, and Go Blue.
Martin didn't abdicate his responsibility in hiring RichRod. It was a great hire at the time (and Martin may have lucked into it, but whatever). RichRod was the hottest coach in the nation at the time. He had turned Alabama down the previous year and had taken WVU, which has almost no advantages other than its poor conference, to the verge of the national championship game.
Where he abdicated his responsibility was in integrating RichRod and the Michigan football community. Martin clearly didn't sit down and tell RichRod what was expected of a Michigan football coach in terms of public relations stuff on and off campus, how area high school coaches expected to be approached, advising him about things like the #1 jersey and the merits of Ft. Schembechler. He also didn't communicate with the stakeholders within the program (former players and the associated hangers on that seem to be legion) about why he had hired RichRod, why this transition in offensive styles would take place, emphasize that RichRod upheld Michigan values, etc. Such an effort by Martin would have gone a long way toward smoothing the transition.
Now, who knows whether this would have made any difference. 2008 was always going to be a shitshow and that might have poisoned many people against him. Clearly cleaning out the previous coaching staff embittered a lot of people, even if it was eminently understandable. But the place where Martin really fell down in my mind was not during the hiring search, regardless of the twists and turns, he hired a highly respected coach. It was in figuring out how to put that coach into a fairly rigid institutional structure.
My problem is less about RichRod himself, but the way we ended up with him. (Although I disagree about the hottest coach at the time: I'm pretty sure that was Les Miles, who was about to win LSU another National Championship. RichRod, by comparison, was the guy who'd won a few big bowl upsets and dominated the Big East [aka the MAC+] to rise to a #2 raking before completely dropping the ball against a meh Pitt team.) It was the fact that he was completely screwing things up with Miles and the sailboat incident, who of course wanted the job*, and then offering it to Schiano, that he bungled in the hire. If RichRod had worked out, it would've been by luck, not because Martin was doing his job. The fact that he offered Schiano the job after a few hours' interview, and nothing else, is evidence of that. Link
Regarding his later failures (getting RichRod settled with the Michigan traditions/way of life, as well as getting the Blue Bloods/alumni properly behind him, etc.), I absoultely agree with you. My only disagreement is WHEN he started failing to do his job.
*We still don't know what his [edit: meaning Miles'] major transgressions were to make Lloyd and, allegedly, Bo hate him; so other than the whole grey-shirting/SEC practice, which I loathe, I'm giving the man the benefit of the doubt that he'd do right by his alma mater as HC.
But never values. I'm argumentative (with a heavy dab of snark), and get a rep for attacking all thing Rich, but I liked Rich, and wanted him to succeed. Even before the bowl game, I felt uneasy about letting him go; and after it certainly wasn't a happy affair. I just can't stand people who look to blame anyone and everyone else for what happened on the field, which is at least mostly the head coach's fault (which you've never done; you're nuanced). But I'm getting over it. Not only for my mental health (which, what is there really to lose, amiright?), but because as we get past it, it becomes more and more clear that while I may dig a good argument, it's tiresome for more and more people I respect (who are sadly turning into late Cretaceous Era dinosaurs around here as they all move on...) just find it annoying. So I'll acknowledge their existence if I must, but I'm not going to play these repetitive circular argument games. It's contributing to a not so fun board, and I can't stop that, but I can try not to make it worse. (And really, complaining about old stuff, book timing aside, is tiresome, especially when while there are regrets, I'm very happy with where the program is right now, and how it's building, even if we're not close to the end results yet).
P.S. I am very interested in you M-Wolverine.
This makes me feel all kinds of weird feelings.
M-Wolverine, would you have hired DeBord? English? Miles? And what of Bacon's assertion that there was a deliberate attempt behind the scenes to see Michigan fail. Is Bacon dishonest here? What do you see as the truth?
And what of Carr's attitude toward RR, and failure to publicly support RR, in the same way that Bo was supported when he came from the outside? Is Bacon shading the truth? From your perspective, is Carr's action (or really, inaction) defensible?
I want to be clear: this isn't about Hoke. I'm happy with Hoke and with our current direction. But being happy with what is happening now doesn't mean that I am happy with either the University or the athletic department administrations. I get the feeling that you could have an interesting perspective on this.