Among the commentariat, there is fairly widespread agreement that Rich Rodriguez is sitting on the hottest of hotseats among college football coaches. The only disagreement among them, is just how well he needs to do, to be assured of returning in 2011. The consensus is that he needs to win 8 or 9 games.
Dave Brandon has said that there is no absolute litmus test. I think we can assume that Rodriguez is almost surely fired if the team wins five games or less, and he almost surely returns if it wins eight games or more—that is, assuming no more NCAA violations. The gray area is six or seven regular-season wins.
In setting the bar at eight games, we are aiming rather low, by historical standards. In the thirty-nine seasons that Michigan was coached by Bo Schembechler and his assistants, the team won fewer than eight regular-season games in just five seasons (84, 87, 93, 94, 05). And it should be noted that Bo, Moeller and Carr had fewer games in which to do it, as their teams played only ten regular-season games in the first two years of Bo's tenure, and then eleven through 2005.
Still, there is only so much improvement that one can reasonably expect from one year to the next. Rodriguez's first two seasons are sunk costs, and if he can show a gain of +3 from 2009 to 2010, it is hard to argue that that is not good enough.
Another benchmark is that, in thirty-nine seasons, Bo and his former assistants never posted a losing record within the conference. The closest they came was in 1984, when Bo went 5-4 (they played a full round-robin in those days), on the way to a 6-5 regular-season finish, folllowed by a loss in the Holiday Bowl to the national champions, Brigham Young. That, by the way, was the closest Michigan ever came to a losing season in the Bo/Mo/Lloyd era.
One crucial point is that it is impossible to go 8-4 without at least playing .500 ball within the conference. With Michigan's talent advantage, the Wolverines should beat Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, and Purdue, practically every time. I do realize even the best teams sometimes lose when they shouldn't, but the Wolverines are staring in the face of two-game losing streaks to three of those schools, and they very nearly lost to Indiana last year. If Michigan loses this year to more than one of these opponents, you would have to conclude that Rodriguez is getting consistently out-coached. It is also worth noting that Rodriguez has just one road victory in two years (Minnesota in 2008), and it is hard to see him surviving past 2010 if he does not start winning outside of Ann Arbor.
With a 6-6 or 7-5 regular-season record, Dave Brandon would have a tough decision. Objectively, there is no sugar-coating a 7-5 season that could very easily include losses to the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, and Notre Dame (those being the toughest games on the schedule). No one will say Michigan is back when it is losing to these teams, or to most of them.
Yet, firing Rodriguez would almost certainly usher in another year or two of transition, a sub-par 2011 recruiting class, and yet another coach who arrives to find a roster not built for the system he wants to run. (The probability of Brandon hiring another spread offense guy is slim to none.) In addition, it would also mean missing a bowl for the third consecutive year, since fired coaches seldom stay on to coach a bowl. For these reasons, as disappointing as a 7-5 campaign would be, Brandon will swallow hard and give Rodriguez one more shot in 2011.
It is too soon now to set the bar for 2011, but I would note that after next season Rodriguez must either be fired or given a contract extension. He is under contract through the end of 2013, but he would need to be extended well before then, as otherwise it would be tough to recruit (kids want to know they're coming to a stable program).
That leaves us with the question of what to do if Rodriguez goes 6-6. Many of the arguments for retaining Rodriguez after 7-5 apply with equal force. But in all honesty, I do not think you can accept 3-9 and 5-7, followed by 6-6, as adequate progress. It is practically impossible to write a 6-6 script that you could find acceptable, unless it involves beating Ohio State.
(I suppose I should note explicitly that the bowl outcome, if Michigan goes to one, is irrelevant to Rich Rodriguez's job security. Coaches are hardly ever fired after losing a bowl, because there is too little time to hire a replacement before national signing day.)
Two games loom large on the schedule: UConn and Michigan State. UConn is another one of those teams that "Michigan should beat" almost every time. Their roster is composed almost entirely of kids that were rated two stars or less when they were recruited. Star ratings don't win games, but when the talent disparity is as wide as it is here, there simply is no good excuse for losing to these guys. I am not saying it cannot happen, only that it is not excusable. What is more, with a trip to South Bend looming in Week Two, UConn is a win Rodriguez has to have.
The Michigan State game is important for two reasons. One is that it's a major rivalry in which Michigan has lost two straight. But even more important, it is hard to imagine how Michigan wins at least four Big Ten games, if MSU isn't one of them, particularly as the game is in Ann Arbor.
Obviously, there are ten other games to worry about, but in the likeliest scenarios that involve Rich Rodriguez keeping his job, wins over UConn and MSU are part of the picture.
In short, I think Rodriguez is: 1) surely retained for 2011 if he goes 8-4 or better; 2) surely fired if he goes 5-7 or worse; 3) likely retained if he goes 7-5; 4) likely fired if he goes 6-6. If Brandon is on the fence, the factors I think he will look at include:
- Beating the guys he's supposed to beat, particularly MSU
- Going at least .500 in conference play
- Getting at least one signature win in the conference