What I'm about to say will please Rich Rodriguez's fans and frustrate his critics. Barring an off-the-field scandal or significant
NCAA violations, Rich Rodriguez will be the Michigan head coach at least
through the end of the 2011 season.
Rodriguez was brought in because the administration believed the football program needed to be rebuilt, and not just tweaked. I realize that there are some fans who never agreed that this was necessary, but in hiring Rodriguez, the administration decided to go in a new direction. He made this clear from the day he arrived.
As of today, Rodriguez has exactly one full recruiting class to his name. (The 2008 class was still mostly Lloyd Carr's.) Most of the offense are underclassmen, or upperclassmen who came in to play for Lloyd Carr. It will be 2011 before Rodriguez can field a team of veteran players who were brought in to play his system.
The story on defense is much the same, with the added complication that Lloyd Carr's last few recruiting campaigns were exceptionally poor. No coach could field a great defense with the players Rodriguez currently has to work with. Once again, it will be 2011 before you can expect to see a defense not comprised of walk-ons, true freshmen, or kids forced to change positions.
Now, that doesn't mean the team is going to be awful between now and then. This year's team has already improved on last year's 3-9 debacle, even if it fails to win another game. Next year's team will be better than this one, but it will still play at least a few deeply frustrating games. Not until 2011 can you expect Michigan realistically to contend for a conference championship. Not until 2012 will Rodriguez's first two full recruiting classes be juniors and seniors.
There are a few reasons why Rodriguez is not realistically likely to be fired before the end of 2011 — again, assuming no off-the-field issues or significant NCAA violations. The first is that if you hire a guy on the premise of rebuilding, you cannot expect the job to yield results until a few recruiting classes are in the door and playing with normal depth behind them.
The second is that, as we've seen, transitions are painful. Let's suppose Michigan loses its next three games, and Rodriguez is fired the day after the Ohio State game. Most of the decent athletes in the 2010 recruiting class, if they have any realistic options, would decommit and go elsewhere. The new coach would arrive facing a horrible 2010 class, a 2009 class chosen for someone else's system, and the dregs of Lloyd Carr's last few classes. If you think that new coach could turn this bunch into instant winners, you're kidding yourself.
Since Michigan has already improved on the 2008 season, Rodriguez is a lock to be back in 2010, and unless the team collapses totally, he'll be back in 2011 as well.
By the end of 2011, the administration will have a decision to make. Rodriguez has a six-year contract, which would last until the end of the 2013 season. But it is rare for anyone to coach in the last two years of a contract, because it impairs recruiting. Kids who have a choice don't want to come play for a guy when they're not sure if he'll be around. Because recruiting these days begins in the junior year of high school, it would be very tough for Rodriguez to be the Michigan coach in 2012 without a contract for 2014 and beyond.
So Rodriguez gets four years. Before the end of 2011 (but probably not before), management will have to decide whether to cut their losses or extend his contract.