Known Unknowns, Hoke, And Guys From West Virginia Comment Count

Brian April 4th, 2011 at 5:10 PM

 rodriguez-real-sportsHead coach John Beilein gives a speech prior to the Wolverine's selection at the NCAA selection ceremony held at Crisler Arena on Sunday March 15, 2009. Michigan was selected as the number 10 seed. (WILL MOELLER /Daily)

right: Will Moeller/Daily

Nine months ago Michigan fans were suspicious of both of their West Virginia coaching heists. Today one is sitting next to Billy Packer and Jason Whitlock in a suit; the other is a season away from establishing himself for the long haul. Both undertook program-changing measures after a disappointing start, but only one successfully delegated his way to success.

You know who is who. Rich Rodriguez:

  • fired Scott Shafer after one year as defensive coordinator,
  • hired retread Greg Robinson, and
  • forced him to run a 3-3-5-ish defense that incorporated the 3-4 and 4-3 with freshmen everywhere.

He got the sad firing box.

John Beilein:

  • literally fired or replaced every one of his assistants,
  • hired two up-and-comers from smaller schools, and
  • all but abandoned the 1-3-1 defense that was his trademark at West Virginia.

If he can wring the expected improvement out of his 46% freshman usage he'll have Michigan's basketball team in the Big Ten title picture for the first time since Fisher was run out of town.

Both coaches tweaked their specialty offense for different players. Rodriguez coaxed an NCAA-average performance out of true freshman Tate Forcier by relying on his scrambling ability in the pocket and using him as a decoy in the run game. (Or at least trying to—Tate had a bad habit of keeping the ball when his read said hand off.) He improved the offense further with sophomore-who-would-have-been-redshirt-freshman-if-Michigan-had-any-options Denard Robinson. Even the Robinson offense wasn't going back to the old Pat White well. Without a Slaton to put oomph in the read and with defenses far more prepared to deal with it these days, he implemented a rushing game that revolved around the quarterback instead of using him as a "gotcha" thunderbolt. He used the QB rushing staples to implement a terrifying play-action game that often saw receivers open by ten yards.

Terrible defense put Michigan in long-field situations (Michigan led the country in TD drives of more than 85 yards), there was no field goal kicking, and the inexperienced Robinson was a turnover machine. The thing was a bit rickety. It was erratic. It put too much load on Robinson's shoulders. It was also incredibly young and promised infinity when Robinson was old enough to cut out the turnovers. It finished #2 in FEI, which you know because I say it every ten seconds.

Beilein lost his only two upperclassmen from the immensely disappointing 2009 team and returned a collection of role players and youth. He had to know his best player was a point guard who couldn't shoot to save his life. He still had a perimeter four and a spread-the-court offense, but he implemented a ton of ball screens that gave defenses a choice between open threes from guys who shoot at a 38% clip or getting pick-and-rolled to death by Morris and Jordan Morgan. Morgan shot 63% as a result and Michigan vastly exceeded expectations.

This lived up to their rep. Both were regarded as innovators. "Genius" is definitely not a word you want to throw around when you're talking about coaches but their peers seemed to regard Beilein and Rodriguez as people you want to talk to. Beilein doesn't talk but gets the most votes when his peers are asked to judge solely on coaching acumen; Rodriguez does, so he pops up at Oklahoma and his coaches get snapped up two seconds after they're let go. Carr's coaching tree is Brady Hoke and Scot Loeffler, end of story. It's tough to throw a rock in college football without hitting someone inspired by or directly associated with Rodriguez.

But he's not here because he couldn't let go. Of all the numbers associated with his tenure at Michigan this is by far the most damning:


It's the 37 next to Syracuse in the FEI defense ratings. That is a schedule-adjusted, I-AA-ignoring measure of defensive competency featuring Scott Shafer and absolutely no talent a few spots off the defenses of Michigan State and Wisconsin. Last year (Shafer's first) they were 72nd, the year before that 80th when Greg Robinson was the head coach and functional DC.

Maybe that wasn't possible here what with Never Forget


…and all that. But we do know Shafer, a very good MAC coordinator who Harbaugh picked up and then made Syracuse better than anyone thought possible very quickly, is a good coach. And we know he was undermined and pushed out. Evidence suggests Greg Robinson is a terrible coach but he was undermined, too, and instead of a vaguely worse defense than two BCS teams coupled with Denard Robinson—good for 8-4 at least—we got something that was literally the worst ever in various categories.

Beilein had already scrapped the 1-3-1 before the total program reboot and was rewarded with an uptick in his Kenpom numbers from 67th to 53rd. It's a lot harder to tell who's responsible for what, but Beilein seemingly felt everything was insufficient and blew it all to hell. He still teaches the 1-3-1 but only uses it on occasion; he's left the defense mostly to his assistants. His reward: 35th nationally this year. That's better than his previous three years at Michigan. It's better than he ever did at West Virginia, because he knew what he didn't know.

Rodriguez's problem was never his selection of defensive coordinators, it was his refusal to trust them to do their jobs. The thing about Hoke is this: he does. At SDSU he hired Rocky Long to run a 3-3-5; Rocky Long ran a 3-3-5, and it was pretty good, and now he's the head coach. He hired Al Borges to run a passing-oriented West Coast offense; Borges ran a passing-oriented West Coast offense that wasn't quite as good as Michigan's in FEI's eyes but was still top 20. If he "gets" anything it's that he's a former defensive lineman with a narrowly defined set of assets that does not include being a genius of any variety—he's never been a coordinator. So he's hired two guys with very long, very successful resumes to do that stuff for him. That's an upgrade over Rodriguez, who had one—himself. It's an upgrade over Carr, who had zero*.

When I am trying to be cheerful in the face of Hoke's indifferent record I think about the vagaries of MAC budgets and what Hoke did the instant he escaped them. Mattison is the third excellent hire Hoke's made. That's a trend, one that suggests he, too, knows what he doesn't know. Since I'm a Michigan fan I'm bracing for a fatal flaw, but at least it won't be the same one that sunk Rich Rodriguez.


*[Ron English masterminded The Horror and does not count. Before his elevation at Michigan he had never been a coordinator. After he left he led the weak unit on the last Kragthorpe Louisville team and has started the slow process of dying at EMU. The only thing he's proven is that he can yell at several future NFL stars effectively.]

Title disclaimer: hate on Donald Rumsfeld all you want—just not here—but the bit about known knowns and known unknowns and unknown unknowns is a useful bit of language. Not intended to endorse or unendorse anything about Rumsfeld. Disclaimers uber alles.



April 4th, 2011 at 5:22 PM ^

Let's not forget that while RR's offense was generally innovative, his playcalling was often not.    I think it was OSU, Wisconsin, or Miss St's players who said something to the effect of "we knew exactly what they were going to run when they lined up".

The frustration of running Carlos Brown on the goal line vs. Illinois, 3rd and 1 zone reads with Smith, starting McGuffie over Minor, keeping Roundtree on the bench while K. Grady dropped passes, continuing to kick field goals, etc.., it showed me that he wasn't putting his players in position to succeed in his own genious offense. 


April 4th, 2011 at 7:14 PM ^

It was OUR defensive players who were saying it about MSU's offense this season.  They said something to the effect of "we knew exactly what was coming, we just couldn't stop it."  If the MSU defenders knew what was coming (or Iowa for that matter), they sure didn't do very well stuffing it.


By the way, that's the job of the defensive coaches:  To prepare the defense for the offense they're about to face.  And an option offense is an offense that is designed to be effective even if the defense knows what's coming.  It isn't supposed to be all that tricky, it's supposed to have an option available to hit a defense where it doesn't defend.  Not executing properly will kill it, though, just like any other offense.


April 4th, 2011 at 9:01 PM ^

That we lost the MSU game because our playcalling was predictable. Though there were times that was the case; the fact that Miss St's remarks could have been replays of USC's after the respective bowls just show Rich wasn't all that creative, either, in game situation (if way more so in scheme).
<br>Just that the posters idea that Mich St wasn't close to stuffing us just sounds like sour grapes over losing to them. To say they didn't come close is as silly as saying they completely shut us down.
<br>We scared Iowa a little. State was never really worried.


April 4th, 2011 at 11:40 PM ^

before you get argumentative?  The poster I responded to was talking about MSU defenders knowing what was coming because of predictable playcalling   If they knew what was coming all the time, Michigan shouldn't have been able to move the ball, period.  So either the poster I responded to was misremebering and the MSU player(s) didn't say they knew what was coming, the MSU players lied and didn't really know what was coming, or they did know but sucked at stopping it.  I'm sorry, but praying for unforced red-zone errors isn't a defensive gameplan, even if that is exactly what falls into your lap.


April 5th, 2011 at 12:29 AM ^

alternating with getting taken off the field, fast. You can blame it all on us, but that's a convenient way to remember things. Remember, someone on the other team has to catch an interception for it to happen.

The problem is, when it counted at the end, we could do practically nothing. And could only put up one score (on a short field...not marching down it) after being down 31-10. Of course, not being able to get the ball back much, and giving up another FG didn't help. But when we really HAD to move the ball, do or die...we couldn't.



April 4th, 2011 at 7:17 PM ^

on playcalling.  I highly doubt he just calls plays to call plays.  They take information we don't see into account.


I'm fairly sure McGuffie started because Minor was constantly injured.  You can watch the two run for about 3 plays and see who was the better back.


And Roundtree was probably on the bench for dropping his own passes...


April 4th, 2011 at 7:53 PM ^

I remember watching the West Virginia-Pitt game that was Rodriguez's last at WVU. He stuck with the White/Slaton running game when it wasn't working. He lost a major upset at home to a traditional rival, lost a possible shot at the BCS title game, and rendered himself available for leaving WVU. I wasn't familiar with Rodriguez back then, but I remember a lot of post game criticism of him for sticking with the sputtering spread 'n' shred against an inspired defense that was selling out to stop it.

Fast forward to the Mississippi State debacle last January. At one point on the second or third series on offense, Kelvin Grady came loping onto the field. I instantly thought "here comes the reverse." So did the MSU defense, snuffing it out for a big loss. There was nothing new identifiable in the game plan for that bowl game, with more than a month of preparation. Mississippi State knew what was coming too much of the time. Rodriguez strikes me as a master strategist (scheme designer) but a middling tactician (play caller). Too bad that wasn't his worst weakness, because with a half decent defense he'd still have won a lot more games.

Eye of the Tiger

April 4th, 2011 at 11:34 PM ^


"Rodriguez strikes me as a master strategist (scheme designer) but a middling tactician (play caller). " mostly correct.  He's a system guy, who installs his system and then executes it.  He's not good at adjustments, at halftime or mid-season.  That said, he is only a master strategist on the offensive side of the ball, and does not appear to be a master strategist in terms of team building over time.  Even in what would have been RR's fourth year, we wouldn't have looked ready to become Big 10 champions...too many holes and remaining depth questions on the roster, too many lingering problems within the coaching staff.  

So I'd say he's a master offensive scheme designer, and that's really it.  He was fortunate to be paired with another one at WVU.  

Incidentally, I'd say Lloyd was also a better strategist than tactician, though in different ways.  He was not a great scheme designer at all, but had the team building over time bit down pat.  We were consistent over the years, but could have used more consistency within any given one (aside from 1997).     

With regards to Hoke, again I see more strategist than tactician, but in the Lloyd variety.  However, he's made some great hires for his staff.  Maybe--just maybe--we're looking at Lloyd 2.0, a team builder who has better playcallers.  



Mitch Cumstein

April 4th, 2011 at 5:29 PM ^

I think you hit the nail on the head about Hoke's greatest asset as a leader being his ability to find the right people to do work and trusting them to do it.  I think it takes a certain amount of humility and trust, which I'm not sure RR had (as you mention).


April 4th, 2011 at 5:30 PM ^

Ron English was DC for OSU and USC in 2006, followed by The Horror and Oregon in 2007, arguably the worst 4-game stretch in Michigan football history. Don't do that emotional damage a disservice by only mentioning his most egregious offense.


April 4th, 2011 at 5:31 PM ^

This is a great post. Rodriguez is going to be a lot smarter in his hiring decisions at his next destination, and I bet the DC he hires there will have freedom to choose the D of his liking.

The Mathlete

April 4th, 2011 at 5:42 PM ^

For all the great things he did on offense, Rodriguez could not have handled the defense any worse. Casteel spoiled him at WVU and he obviously didn't know what he didn't know. Even with all the youth and peronnel issues, a marginal handling of the DC situation probably has him still in AA.


April 4th, 2011 at 5:45 PM ^

...continues. Not quite "Happy Days are Here Again", but I'll take it.

And I agree: JB is on the verge of establishing himself at Michigan for a long, long time.

MI Expat NY

April 4th, 2011 at 7:34 PM ^

I don't want an irrational "happy days are here again," Brian.  Happy days will be here again, when they're here, and I don't expect a writer who tries to stay grounded in reality (not always succesfully) to acknowledge that until it happens. 



April 4th, 2011 at 9:24 PM ^ RichRod hire and everything was coming up roses. How'd that turn out?

Rational/irrational is in the eye of the beholder. One can find evidence for optimism in many locations. One can choose not to look for evidence for optimism as well.  That's an editorial choice.


April 4th, 2011 at 5:52 PM ^

The comparison of RR vs. Belein is useful not just b/c they both came to Michigan from the same school prior. RR was a proven offensive coach who was not a proven leader, let alone of a program like ours. This may not have been readily visible to Bill Martin (although it should have been if he done his homework) but of course it became visible immediately when RR took the job and started blowing up bridges on his out of Morgantown and coming across like an idiot when talking about how he might incorporate Michigan traditions into his coaching tenure here. As has been talked about endlessly the fact that he had no prior Michigan ties wasn't the problem; the lack of elite leadership skills clearly was.

Belein on the other hand is smart enough to know what he doesn't know and humble enough to admit it and address it, as the post points out. Basketball is in good and trustworthy hands.


April 4th, 2011 at 5:58 PM ^

I think you got it right this time. RR meddling with the D as his ultimatel downdall. PSU this year, Purdue the year before are great examples. If he let his DC actually do their job he would still be the coach. Hell, even if he did the same thing all over again but just didn't muck it up by throwing a monkey wrench into things for the PSU game this year and Purdue game the year before UM wins an extra game each season and he;s still here.

RR had plenty of chances. He blew them. Not its time to move on. As you mentioned it appears Hoke won't make the same mistakes. Who cares if he's not a genius as long as he knows how to run a TEAM. Offense and Defense.


April 4th, 2011 at 6:01 PM ^

While I like the moves, it doesn't really make sense to praise Hoke and criticize Carr because the athletic department is now willing to actually pay for assistant coaches.  Carr's coaching tree sucks because he was never able to pay for quality coordinators and instead had to promote guys off his staff (the only people willing to take the job for that kind of cash).  If he had been able to outbid NFL teams for their coordinators, I think things could've/would've gone a lot differently.

Carr put together a ridiculously talented team in 2006, but was at an X's and O's disadvantage against OSU and USC because he had to put together a staff on the cheap (English and DeBord).  Hoke has the institutional support (and it looks like the hiring wisdom) to put together a championship staff, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can build a program as strong as Carr's, and that is what you hire a head coach to do. 


April 5th, 2011 at 2:05 AM ^

Carr's coaching tree sucks because he was never able to pay for quality coordinators and instead had to promote guys off his staff 

This is just not true.  Lloyd always had the staff he wanted.  He got pay raises for his assistants a few times, and even talked Martin into giving them all 2-year contracts in 2007, to make sure they'd be taken care of financially in case they weren't retained.  

You can argue that in basketball, Martin didn't open the purse strings (and I agree), but football coaches have generally gotten whatever they've asked for. 


April 4th, 2011 at 6:11 PM ^

While I generally agree with this post, it does glide over the injuries ("Never Forget" quilt not excepted) a bit much.

Imagine how well Beilein would have done this year with a significant injury to Morris, Hardaway or Morgan.  It didn't get much discussion, but we were amazingly healthy all year in basketball - even Jordan Morgan, who I worried might become an injury concern after his freshman year, played every game.

Good coaching and good hiring decisions are important, but luck is a big part as well - JB had it this year, and RR didn't.



Magnum P.I.

April 4th, 2011 at 6:41 PM ^

Disagree completely. The proper corollary would be if Manny came back this year and was promptly injured and out for the season. RR had to play with unproven youth on defense. That's exactly what Beilein did, too.


April 4th, 2011 at 6:19 PM ^

I agree with everything in here, with one exception: was the money there for Carr or Rodriguez to go and get a "genius" coordinator in the way it's been there for Hoke?

Doesn't really matter because Rodrgiuez still undermined the hell out of his DCs in a way that still inspires rage in my heart, but I don't know if Hoke should get too much credit for the Mattison hire. Maybe it really did take a lot to get him to leave his job, I don't know. I mean more someone of the caliber of Mattison.