New Coaching Philosophies

Submitted by shackney on September 22nd, 2009 at 4:54 PM
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.



September 22nd, 2009 at 5:08 PM ^

Issues with your viewpoint:

The later Carr years were terrible for developing depth. Starters need to be rotated out regularly, including when games are on the line with reserves to provide rest and develop depth. This was completely lost during the later Carr years. Once Brady graduated, there was never any depth at QB. When Thomas became the lead RB, there was never any depth at RB. Secondary WRs were only brought in on running plays. This is in part what lead to the depleted roster that created 3-9.

The defense of 2008 was a product of a) terrible secondary coaching during the later Carr years, b) no player development at LB or S during the later Carr years, c) two DC's in two years, d) poor fundamentals, most noticeably tackling, and e) being hung out to dry by a very bad offense. The lack of returning depth following Carr's retirement can be seen in the number of freshmen and sophomore starting. Its scary. The 2009 defense is still making up for points a and b. Fortunately e has been corrected and d is vastly improved from last year.

It's going to take time for the new recruits to develop and fill the two deep and for the players to fully understand the approach of the new DC (third in three years).


September 22nd, 2009 at 5:38 PM ^

What concerns me, (and everyone else, it seems) is the DL and LB play. It can't simply be that they're just too damned small, (as compared to opposing O-lines) could it? Or, is it game planning? GERG seems to do a great job with half-time adjustments, but what about the first 30 minutes?

The 3rd Qtr of both the ND and EMU games provided some hope for things to come. But we can't expect to go into the Iowa, Wisconsin, MSU, PSU and OSU games and play like that in the first half. They'll dig a deep hole that the offense will have to find its way out of.

Enjoy Life

September 22nd, 2009 at 5:10 PM ^

Methinks you have a poor memory about the BO/MO/LO era. I distinctly remember M playing DOWN to the competition. Way too many games were close that should have been blowouts.

You believe RR put in DRob too early? DRob played in the ND game. If you wait until garbage time, the experience is diluted.

Wow, you want a head coach to call all the O and D plays? Really? Sorry, no human being is that good or has that much time. Many head coaches don't even call the O plays!


September 22nd, 2009 at 7:18 PM ^

I think that Rich Rod knows this offense can literally score on every play. They also know the defense is young and has some athletes that just need some experience to play awesome. The approach they're taking may be tough to swallow,(I know it was for me) is the mentally of not giving up the big touchdown play. In saying this I mean not blitzing every play to blow up the run like the days of old but rather play a little more conservative and not get burned by the PA bomb. They almost play the way where they will give up a few first downs, or even a couple of long touchdown drives for the opposition but then they will just score on there next possession so who cares. They did this against Notre Dame. Stay with the team in the first half ie. Notre Dame halftime score was ND 20 Michigan 17 so they were easily in the game. Then make defensive adjustments for when to take chances near the end of the game. It's a really smart way to play, we prolly wont see a ton of really amazing plays this year from this defense but we will see enough stops to keep us in every game this year and yeah that includes Penn State and Ohio State.


September 22nd, 2009 at 5:16 PM ^

0) Goofy would disagree with you about Walt Disney and Football. Canada... eh, I'm with you there.

1) I have to completely disagree here -- firstly, I don't think you can classify putting Shoelace in as "practicing for next week"; secondly, not two years ago we had a coach who still preached a low-variance philosophy, and even today we've got front-page articles that attempt to explain why that might not be such a wise move. The short version is that rarely in recent years did "run left/right/center" result in "the score [being] 45-10 with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter". More often, the score was 15-10 with three minutes left and the opponent with the ball at their own 35.

2) The defense is demonstrably weaker this year, and I understand your desire to look for a reason, but I don't see the same "institutional" problems you do. Heck, we went out and got ourselves a former DC-turned-HC-failure to be our DC. If that doesn't slot nicely into your "head coaches prefer offense" paradigm, I don't know what would. I don't think it's time to hit the panic button yet -- and for the record, I wouldn't say your diary sounds like you're panicking -- but if we don't see continual improvement this year (which is all any of us were hoping for, after last year), I might be willing to hop on your bandwagon.


September 22nd, 2009 at 5:32 PM ^

As much as I enjoyed M football my entire life during the Bo/Mo/Carr days, there were so many games I felt that we lost due to conservatism on the part of the coaching staff. Now yes, I believe hanging on the defense was a huge part of our team in that day, but against the better teams, a 3-4 point lead (sometimes more) was not enough and they were going to score. The defense can only do so much, especially down the stretch.

That said, I do not believe we have given away any games yet from being over aggressive. Until we actually do, I don't think we can criticize the aggressive approach. I do think that RR makes calculated aggressive moves rather than pulling a Weis and going for the long bomb on second down at the end of the game.

I really like the analogy to poker. Aggressive players that know how to take calculated risks win (even with worse starting cards many times). Tight passive players win some of the time but usually break even (and can lose with pocket aces).


September 22nd, 2009 at 5:42 PM ^

Carr's later teams looked past lesser teams almost every time. Even the monster 2006 team played down to Ball State. It was a 1 possession game in the second half!

This type of aggressive play calling is better than the grind it out version. Brian has gone over the theory of increased variance with a lower sample size, and it's true.

In the EMU game we tried to score on every possession save 1 or 2. That is what it takes to win games these days. Look at the current story on the front page for more info.


September 22nd, 2009 at 5:48 PM ^

1) I think DRob has a scheduled rotation, regardless of score. Remember that RR wanted to play both QBs going into the game (and still wants to). DR needs some reps in real games and that series was scheduled. Without this (and even with this) we have no viable backup.

2) Even if RR "outsources" the D, big deal? GRob is a very capable DC and should have a lot of autonomy over that side of the ball. It's no different than hiring the big name guys like Monte Kiffin, Tenuta, Bo Pelini... that other schools do.


September 22nd, 2009 at 6:11 PM ^

A couple quick observations in response to the comments, which were interesting and fast:

First, what I am saying about DRob is not that I had a problem with him playing. I don't. The limited rotation is smart and I get it. I also don't have a problem with him passing -- I think he's going to be a total weapon once he improves his accuracy. You could tell from the playcalling with him in the first half, though, that the staff was like "We need to put DRob in and have him pass 3 out of 4 downs because all he does is run and that won't work forever." That's what I mean by "practicing for next week."

Second, I don't care or expect RichRod to actually call the defense. My point is that I am concerned he isn't interested in it and that it could be an institutional issue for Michigan, rather than a situational one, which is how it is being perceived currently. I don't recall WVU having good defenses even at its zenith.


September 22nd, 2009 at 6:47 PM ^

I don't think RR is disinterested in or underestimates the importance of defense. I think he knows that to compete in the Big 10 you need a good, tough defense irregardless of how good your offense is. In the Monday press conference he emphasized the need of the defense to force three and outs. He thinks about the complete game as a head coach should.

What makes you think hes less interested in defense than say special teams? (which has improved vastly this year) Just give it some time, let the talent fill back in and you will see us have an aggressive, fast and good tackling defense that you had come accustomed to during the previous era (and most likely much better in the secondary).


September 22nd, 2009 at 7:08 PM ^

Moeller and Carr's philosophies differed more than you think. Moeller introduced the no-huddle to Ann Arbor and opened up the passing game significantly. Elvis Grbac led the nation in passing efficiency - twice! - under Moeller, something no Carr QB ever came close to doing. We had some fantastic offenses under Moeller.

Carr considerably put the wraps on the offense when he arrived. Our offensive production went way down in 1995 and only returned to Moeller levels a couple of times under Carr (2000 and 2003). Carr eventually did develop an effective downfield passing attack, but tended to reserve it for when we were behind (e.g., 2000 Orange Bowl, 2003 Minnesota, 2004 MSU).


September 22nd, 2009 at 9:45 PM ^


That's an interesting observation, because I noticed that Moeller was only one of the three to serve as OC as well as DC, which suggests an innovative mind.

I think I should say that Bo's three yards and a cloud of dust style was not fundamentally continued by Mo and Lo -- you are definitely correct. Pro sets and other evolutions were embraced as we became QB University. But the underlying conservatism was still there in the play calling and game management. As a fan who sat there and grumbled when they did a lot of it, I can say that I welcome the breath of fresh air that is RichRod. Still -- there was a part of me that was feeling pretty green when DRob threw the pick to EMU in our territory and allowed them to get within one score. The principal point of my post was to offer the contrast with RichRod and then observe it going forward to see which is better. Say what you will about the Bo and Co., they were successful by almost any measure for a long period of time.


September 22nd, 2009 at 9:29 PM ^

I could have this wrong, but are you saying Bo/Mo/Carr treated every game more significantly than Richrod? Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I strongly disagree with this. It wasn't two years ago that we saw an offense be brutally predictable against everyone except Notre Dame, Ohio State and the bowl team we would play.
Lloyd Carr did everything in his power to hide the playbook for Ohio State and it flat out cost him numerous games, including not helping him against Ohio State.
Richrod emphasizes the next game and nothing beyond, and that's why he got criticized at first for not treating rivalry games with "extra attention." (Whatever that means.)
IMO, if you don't treat every game with the same creativity and aggression it's hard to get the team up when you do open up the playbook, and technically every game is equal. With that said I think Coach Rod will have the team more than ready for the big games this year. I'd rather lose throwing everything at an opponent and playing aggressive than calling predictable plays and being constipated to the point of playing not to lose unless we get down by two touchdowns.
I love Lloyd for what he did for the players and the university and for upholding the tradition, but in his later years his approach prevented Michigan from being an upper echelon team. It's still too early to tell, but I don't think Richrod will make the same mistakes.


September 22nd, 2009 at 9:47 PM ^


No, I am arguing that none of Bo/Mo/Lo would have engaged in "risky" behavior as early as the first half, even against a weak sister like EMU. There is just no question they were less innovative than RichRod. And your point about hiding the playbook for OSU is a good one I hadn't thought of. I just felt like their risk-aversion made them play the opponent on the field until they were up 4 touchdowns, not two. And I am also suggesting that that may not be entirely a bad thing.


September 23rd, 2009 at 11:45 AM ^

I think you have the right ideas and the wrong conclusion. Carr would have sent in the backup RBs and had them run into the line over and over for the entire second half, and the final score probably would have been 31-17 or 34-17. He always shut down the offense as soon as we had a second-half lead against a bad team.

RR also brought in the backups, but he kept the offense open. Odoms' reverse*? QB keepers in the fourth quarter? It was pretty obvious that we didn't need to pass to win the game by that point, but I think Carr's and RR's philosophies on how to use the offense late in the game are quite different.

*Was this a reverse or an end-around? I'm sure Brian will mention it in UFR, but since the QB was already moving to the right when he gave it to Odoms I'm not sure what to call this one. The announcers were inconsistent as well.


September 22nd, 2009 at 10:05 PM ^

I disagree with your comments about D-Rob - the guy needs to get in there and play meaningful minutes, not just mop up duty when the game is out of hand. Simply put, that's the only way he's going to progress.

I have some defensive concerns with this team. My primary concern is with how our D-Line is going to handle the running game of the pound-it-out running teams like Iowa and Wisky. Bear in mind though that we lost a few guys on defense and they're young. If R-Rod keeps getting recruits like Roh I think the defensive concerns will be be shored up in a couple years.


September 23rd, 2009 at 1:28 PM ^

I don't think I'd categorize Bo as "principly a defensive-minded" guy per se. While he was not "risky" on offense, he was - at heat - an offensive linemen (which he played in college). His teams were largely about offensive line play and schemes.