BY DAN FELDMAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published September 4, 2008
Rich Rodriguez was the defensive line coach at Fairmont State (W. Va.) in the summer of 1989. Dusty Rutledge, a huge Wolverine fan, assisted Rodriguez there and wore a Michigan hat every day.
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“He called me little Bo,” Rutledge said.
Now, 19 years later, many Wolverine fans are hoping it’s Rodriguez who replicates the legendary Michigan coach.
When Bo Schembechler was hired in 1968, the Detroit News’s headline read “Bo Who?” For his first game, Michigan Stadium was less than three-quarters full. A new artificial field called Tartan Turf drew more attention than the first-year coach. And 12,000 fans held a peace rally in the Diag after the game, also taking the focus off Schembechler.
He had about as anonymous a welcome to Michigan a head football coach could get — not a bit like Rodriguez.
Rodriguez has dominated local and national headlines in the nine months since he was hired. He quickly fired all the Michigan assistants, drawing criticism from Mike Hart. His messy split from West Virginia dragged through the summer. Left guard Justin Boren transferred to Ohio State, saying Michigan’s “family values have eroded.” The new coach tried to give a non-receiver the No. 1 jersey. He changed the way captains are picked. And he lost his first game in front of a packed Big House last Saturday.
You probably already have an opinion about Rodriguez. But if it was simple and quickly determined, it’s most assuredly wrong.
Rodriguez can’t be adequately explained by singular descriptions. He’s a country boy, yet a celebrity. Competitive, yet compassionate. He’s a prodigy, yet has been passed over. Harsh, yet loose. He’s a West Virginia man, yet a Michigan Man. Put simply, he’s a contradiction.
Rodriguez was born May 24, 1963 in Grant Town, W. Va. He grew up on a farm in a coalmining community. The foreman lived in the big house on the top of a hill, the bosses lived below that, and the general workers lived at the bottom.
His grandfather died from black lung, his dad was a coalminer and so were his dad’s brothers.
Rodriguez went down to the mines once and immediately knew he belonged above ground. His dad told him an education would be the only way to stay out.
Rodriguez worked hard in school, nearly earning a 4.0. His 10th-grade algebra teacher gave him his only ‘B’ because she didn’t believe in giving ‘A’s, since nobody’s perfect.
He excelled in sports, particularly basketball and football. He led his football team to a state title in 1980 and had scholarship offers to play basketball at Davidson, Marshall and East Tennessee State.
But he passed on all those offers to walk on to the West Virginia football team. His dad was laid off at the time, so he used Pell grant money and academic scholarships to pay tuition.
“I wanted to play in the biggest arena I could be in,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know, competitive or what, but I wanted to prove that I could play.”
He earned a scholarship after his first year in Morgantown, W. Va. As a backup free safety, Rodriguez totaled 54 tackles and three interceptions in three years.
After graduating from West Virginia and spending one year as a student assistant, Rodriguez became the special teams and secondary assistant coach at Salem (W. Va.)
Salem’s defensive coordinator, Lonnie Warwick, lived about an hour and a half from Salem, but he had a cabin near town that he stayed in during football season. He let Rodriguez live in the attic for free.
Warwick cooked for him, usually pinto beans and cornbread. Rodriguez hated eating beans, probably because it reminded him of picking beans on his family’s farm growing up — by far, his least favorite chore. The pair also went hunting and ate venison together.
“He was like a son to me,” Warwick said.
Rodriguez replaced Warwick as defensive coordinator at Salem in 1987. The next year, Salem coach Corky Griffith bought a bar and boat and quit. Rodriguez became head coach and went 2-8 his first season. Salem dropped its football program the following year.
After spending a year as a volunteer assistant at West Virginia and teaching driver’s training at his old high school, Rodriguez took over as the head coach at Glenville State (W. Va.).
When he started, a dog was living in his office, and he had to have the room fumigated. Conditions didn’t get much better.
Rodriguez and his wife, Rita, often spent their own money to improve the program.