[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.