I have been attending Michigan football games since I was 8 years old, starting with Michigan's 49-7 demolition of Northwestern to open the 1979 season. In what has got to be one of the most embarrassing personal reveals ever, I missed Anthony Carter's miracle catch at the end of the Indiana game that year because I was forced to go see Fantasia with my cousins from Canada. I think we can all agree that Canadians and Walt Disney are simply not conducive to football.
The purpose of the intro is to give some background into How I Became Deeply Steeped In the Coaching Philosophy of Bo Schembechler and His Progeny. Between 1979 and RichRod, I have only had three coaches to watch: Bo, Mo, and Llo. Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were both former assistants and, from my perspective, had similar coaching philosophies, as one might expect. In short, you can view 1979-2007 as a fairly monolithic period from the standpoint of Michigan coaching philosophy.
The arrival of Coach Rodriguez has thus been equal parts jarring and exciting. During the EMU game, there were a couple moments that made me reflect on the differences. I record them here.
Before we start, a couple of bona fides: I am a big RichRod fan, believe he was a great hire, and have no general complaints. I am the type of Michigan fan who thought (a) we would be 5-7 this year and (b) expected to be very happy with that so long as the directional arrow was pointed in the right direction from a quality and improvement standpoint. I am thus candidly shocked and awed that we are 3-0 and look as good as we do. And yes, I am also enough of a happy horseshit type of guy that I occasionally wonder where we will be ranked going into the Penn State game if somehow we beat both MSU and Iowa.
So, two big differences I see between Coach Rodriguez and his Schembechler ancestors.
1. Rule #1: Don't start practicing for next week until the opponent in front of you is dead.
Late in the first half against EMU, Michigan was starting to roll in the running game and was up 24-10. It was clear that you could hand off to Brown or Shaw seven times in a row and score. EMU just didn't have the horses. I think if Bo/Mo/Lo were coaching, they would have done just that -- hand off to Carlos or Mike or whomever and run left, center, right until the score was 45-10 and there were seven minutes to go in the 4th quarter. RichRod did something that is very different, in my view, than what Bo would have done: he put DRob in to get him some reps for the specific purpose of practicing his passing. I was not concerned to see DRob per se -- I understand the philosophy behind the rotation of him and Forcier. But the fact that they put him to start working on his passing when we were only up by two scores and it was still the first half troubled me. In Bo's day, my feeling is that we killed our opponents dead and THEN started working on things for next week. To me, this felt a bit premature and I was nervous about it. Obviously, the final score of the game did not bear out the concern. But I was not happy to be only up seven at half against a spirited opponent, and felt like this is an area where RichRod could adopt some additional conservatism in the Bo/Mo/Lo style. We have a lot of developing to do, especially with DRob. I get that. But we need to make sure the game is in hand before we start screwing around, and this one wasn't.
2. Offensive versus Defensive Coordinators.
It is interesting to note that Bo, Mo, and Lo were all principally defensive-minded guys. Moeller actually had the unusual distinction of serving as both an offensive and defensive coordinator, but he was a linebacker as a player and a defensive coordinator first. I think this dramatically impacted Michigan's philosophy in ways that are well known to readers of Mgoblog. Michigan was big on getting leads, and then sitting on them by running out the clock. With Rodriguez, a marked change in the offense is that if we get the ball on our 30 with 57 seconds left in the half, there is no question we will try to get points. RichRod is always looking to score. Under the Bo and Progeny years, there was no question that we would run into the line three times and go to the half.
There is a flip-side to this that I am a little worried about. It strikes me that some offensive gurus who become head coaches spend their coaching lives fascinated by the concept of offense -- and basically outsource the defense to the defensive coordinator. RichRod makes me nervous in this respect. It is odd to think about the fact that Michigan's defense this year and last are just absolutely terrible. I cannot remember worse linebacking in the last 30 years. What is really odd about all this is that it is the offense that was completely new (and had the corresponding mis-match in personnel) and was cited as the reason to be patient with RichRod. There was no real reason, other than English leaving, to think that the defense would be anything other than a Michigan defense. (I know, we had significant graduation after the 2006 season -- my point is, there wasn't any special reason to envision that we would completely fall off the map defensively.) I have moments where I worry that while he is fascinated by the spread n shread, that RichRod just doesn't get defense and relies on others to do it for him.
So -- a new era under RichRod is continuing to develop more and more. The excitement of our quick strike offense is new to Michigan fans -- for years, it has been the type of thing we feared, not one we thought we might one day employ. But the aggressiveness can overlook some of the benefits of the conservatism that was so deeply engrained in Bo -- a conservatism that in the end, I would argue, served him well in terms of reliably turning out winning seasons. (Many would argue with me and say Bo's conservatism is why he was abysmal in bowl games.) And there is a real concern on my part that the defense's problems are more institutional than one would first think -- something I never would expect to say about the Big Blue.