Rich Rodriguez's defenders generally point to Kirk Ferentz and Barry Alvarez as examples of coaches who were given bad situations, struggled enormously at first, but then were able to right their ships and become highly successful. If we only give Rich Rod enough time, the argument goes, he will surely do the same thing. CRex's recent diary includes a helpful chart comparing the initial records for the first three seasons of various Big Ten coaches. Once again, Alvarez and Ferentz are the only ultimately successful coaches on the list who did about as badly as Rich Rod in their first three years.
If you look more closely at their performances, the comparisons break down. Both Ferentz and Alvarez struggled greatly through their first three seasons, but they took huge leaps forward in year four, something that it doesn't look like Michigan will be capable of under Rodriguez.
Wisconsin under Alvarez
I was a kid in the late 1980s. I remember Wisconsin at the time as an absolutely atrocious team, one of the two worst in the Big Ten (along with Northwestern). They hired Alvarez in 1990, as indicated in bold on the chart below.
In short, Wisconsin struggled for three years, with gradual improvement, then won Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships in year four. They did slide back a bit, with a losing season in 1995, then ramped up in the Ron Dayne years and have been a very good, occasionally great Big Ten program ever since.
Iowa Under Ferentz
Ferentz inherited the Iowa program in a very similar situation to what Rich Rod had at Michigan. He replaced a beloved coach (Hayden Fry) who had done very well but slipped a bit toward the end of his career. If anything, Fry had fallen further than Lloyd Carr did, posting a very bad final season before Ferentz took over in 1999.
The pattern is strikingly similar. Rock bottom start, gradual improvement, then Big Ten champs in year four. In Ferentz's case, Iowa was 8-0 in the Big Ten in 2002. They didn't play OSU, and their only losses were to Iowa State and to USC's first juggernaut team in the Orange Bowl.
So what does it mean?
I confess that I don't know the details about the circumstances at either Iowa or Wisconsin leading up to the hiring of these coaches. If anyone did follow these programs very closely, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on what their situations were like at the time. But I think it's safe to assume that neither Alvarez nor Ferentz inherited much talent. Iowa was in decline prior to hiring Ferentz, and Wisconsin was terrible prior to hiring Alvarez. Yet these coaches, working with much more difficult recruiting situations than at Michigan, were able to turn their teams into Big Ten champs by year four. Does anyone think Michigan will be close to winning the Big Ten next year?
Can you name any highly successful coach who was unable to build his team into a winner by year four? That's not a rhetorical question. I haven't heard any names mentioned. The usual story is huge success in year two. That's what we see in virtually all the most successful coaches from the last decade: Tressell, Stoops, Carroll, Meyer, Brown, Saban. Am I missing anyone?
It's true, none of those coaches began in as bad a situation as Rich Rod did at Michigan. But Barry Alvarez and Kirk Ferentz did. Highly successful coaches seem to have a very swift upward trajectory when taking over a program. Even if you put them in the absolute worst situation possible, they manage to turn things around amazingly fast. Maybe Rich Rodriguez is an exception to that rule. If he is, he is a rare exception indeed.