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Rich Rodriguez: The man behind the myth

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.

“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.

Country/ celebrity

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. He would often go to his parents’ house to get equipment to use for maintenance.

Rita pitched in, too. Sometimes she lined the fields, painted the ‘G’ at midfield or made encouraging signs.

One spring, the football field flooded. Rodriguez and his staff used some land a local booster, Ike Morris, owned to practice. The coaches used hand mowers to clear a field, mowing the lines of the field into the grass.

The creek near the makeshift field was flooded, too, so the bridge to get there was unusable. The players had to walk across a swinging bridge to get there. They eventually went across one at a time, their cleats clacking along.

“Some kid would be scared, and another kid who’s next, he’d be swinging the bridge,” said Rutledge, who coached with Rodriguez at Glenville State and is now an administrative assistant at Michigan.

When Rodriguez was at Salem and Glenville State, he wasn’t famous, and he still has that down-home feel. To many that know him, Rodriguez is still an average guy who doesn’t like spicy food and doesn’t have carpentry skills.

That small-time family atmosphere stuck. He makes his players learn the names of everybody in the football facility.

But Rodriguez has become quite the celebrity now.

Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr disdained attention. Rodriguez revels in it, appearing very comfortable in the spotlight.

Since becoming offensive coordinator at Tulane in 1997 and helping the Green Wave to a 7-4 record, Rodriguez has had his name linked publicly to no less than 24 head coaching jobs. Michigan receives an inordinate number of requests for interviews with him.

Rodriguez is in demand.

Competitive/ compassionate

Eastern Kentucky offensive coordinator Mike Springston and Rodriguez were driving for a recruiting trip when both worked at Glenville State. They came to a road that followed a creek. As is the custom in the area, Springston drove down the middle of the twisting road, cutting the curves the best he could.

They met with high school coaches for about an hour, and Rodriguez volunteered to drive back. When they got past the winding road, Rodriguez pulled over before getting on the interstate.

“He looks at his watch and says, ‘OK, I won,’ ” Springston said. “I said, ‘Won what?’ And he said, ‘Well, I drove back on these crooked roads faster than you drove down. And I said, ‘Rich, I didn’t even know we were competing. If I had known that, I would’ve drove faster.’

“That was the wrong statement, because everything about everything for Rich Rodriguez is a competition.”

Growing up, if Rodriguez got good grades and played sports, he was excused from his chores around the farm, like tending to the garden and animals. He wanted to be the best student and athlete so he didn’t have to pick beans.

Rodriguez would get so angry after losing sporting events as a kid that his parents would put him in the backseat on the way home and put a blanket over his head.

“(We) said when you decide to come back to normal, you can take the blanket off so we can see you again,” said Arleen, Rodriguez’s mother.

When Rodriguez was at Glenville, he played pickup basketball with his staff and players every day at noon. The games got pretty intense and Rodriguez was known to throw a few elbows.

“I always told him he didn’t guard anybody and he shot too much,” said Gary Nottingham, who was the men’s basketball coach at Glenville then and is now assistant to the head coach at Illinois. “Tell him I said the only time he shot the ball was when it was in his hands.”

In the summer, everyone would be pretty hot after playing.

“So you’d jump in the pool, just to cool off,” Rutledge said. “Next thing you know, Coach has got us split up into relay races, and we’re racing around the pool like little kids.”

To instill competition in his players, Rodriguez developed a superstars competition, which became the Mountaineer Olympics and is now the Wolverine Olympics. Over the years, events have included an egg-eating contest, tobacco-spitting contest, swimming, dodgeball and belly-flop contests.

Rodriguez also has a very strong self-drive. He pedals on a stationary bike for 45 minutes to an hour at nearly the bike’s highest speed between his players’ workout sessions.

“I could be in probably the best conditioning I ever could be in, and I still probably couldn’t do it,” said Dan Mozes, an All-American center under Rodriguez at West Virginia.

But as hard as it is for many to believe, Rodriguez can slow down.

Mike Smith, an auto dealer in West Virginia, had a distant friend whose kid was in the hospital. Smith asked Rodriguez to go visit the child. Rodriguez took over a signed ball and stayed for longer than an hour.

Smith asked how it went, expecting a brief answer. Rodriguez talked for 45 minutes about how smart the child was.

Once when he was at Tulane, Rodriguez had to take his daughter, Raquel, to the emergency room one night.

After some difficulty getting her looked at, she was examined and everything turned out OK. Rodriguez started thinking about that morning’s practice. He had gotten on Shaun King, his quarterback who would go on to have a six-year NFL career and is now an ESPN analyst, pretty hard and used some harsh language.

“He said that morning when he got to work, he went to Shaun King’s apartment and he woke him up and hugged him, told him he loved him because Shaun King was somebody else’s baby, somebody else’s child,” Davis said. “Whether we like ‘em or not, or whether they do what we want, they’re somebody’s child, and they’re more important to somebody else than they are to us.”

Prodigy/ passed over

In 2000, Northwestern upset Michigan 54-51, using a variation of the spread offense developed by Rodriguez. The Wildcats rolled up 654 yards, including 332 rushing, the most the Wolverines had ever given up on the ground. Rodriguez had a message for then-Northwestern offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson after the game.

"I said, 'Kevin, at least you could have used your own signals and terminology,' " Rodriguez told the Charleston Daily Mail.

Rodriguez developed the offense in his second year at Glenville State with Springston, his offensive coordinator. Springston ran a four-receiver set with a single back the year before at West Virginia Tech. Together, they added the shotgun, and the offense that crushed Wolverine fans eight years ago in Evanston took off.

“If it wasn’t for what we did, I’d probably be selling insurance today,” Springston said.

Although many of the principles remained constant, Rodriguez’s offense looked much different than the run-heavy attack he used at West Virginia. At Glenville, it was an aerial assault.

“I lived like probably a block from the field,” Nottingham said. “I used to go home at halftime and eat dinner because we were going to be there so long. I’d just walk home and eat dinner because I knew if it started at one o’clock, we’d be there till like 5:00, 5:30. … The game took forever.”

With the nation’s top offense, Glenville State reached the 1993 NAIA national championship game. The Pioneers played East Central (Okla.), the nation’s top defense. East Central won 49-35, but then-East Central defensive coordinator Todd Graham was so impressed with Rodriguez’s offense, he copied it when he became a head coach.

“I thought it was one of the most innovate, aggressive, explosive things I’ve ever seen,” Graham said.

Graham coached under Rodriguez at West Virginia. Last year, he led Tulsa to the nation’s best total offense.

The roots of Rodriguez’s trek to the top of college coaching developed early. In about sixth grade, Rodriguez wrote a paper about what he wanted to be when grew up. His first choice was to play professional football, but that dream vanished when he didn’t become a starter at West Virginia.

His second choice was to be a Division-I football coach. When Rodriguez’s offense was taking off, he appeared well on his way to reaching that goal when Bowden left Tulane for Clemson at the end of the 1998 regular season. Sports Illustrated had just named him one of the nation’s top-10 assistants in waiting.

The race for Tulane’s top spot was initially between Rodriguez and then-Louisiana Tech coach Gary Crowton. Chris Scelfo, who was the offensive line coach at Georgia, eventually emerged as a distant third candidate. Crowton dropped out of the race, all but leaving the job to Rodriguez.

“I told Chris, I said, ‘You don’t want this job,’ ” said Frank Scelfo, who was Chris’s brother and already on the Tulane staff. “And he said, ‘Why not?’ And I said ‘Because Rich is the guy for this job. Rich has earned this job. He’s going to do a great job here.’ ”

Tulane’s president was supposed to call Rodriguez at 3 p.m. the day before the hiring to discuss the job but didn’t until 7 p.m. Rita had a bad feeling, but everyone was sure Rodriguez would get the job.

Rodriguez brought a green coat and tie to work that day in preparation for the press conference. Although the athletic director, Sandy Barbour, and others implied he would get the job, Chris Scelfo was hired.

When King walked into Rodriguez’s office after the announcement, he saw a look of “disbelief” on Rodriguez’s face.

“He was almost in tears, and I was like ‘uh-oh,’ ” King said. “I felt so bad. I didn’t even know what to say. I was filled with anger. It was a bad time.”

Rodriguez was bitter, and he considered taking the Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) job that he had previously turned down.

“He was so mad and so upset, disappointed with the way this situation at Tulane was handled that he just wanted to go to any school, put them on the schedule, and beat them,” Rita said.

Rita reminded him that Tulane beat Southwestern Louisiana 72-20 that year, and Rodriguez decided to follow Bowden to Clemson to be his offensive coordinator.

The next offseason Rodriguez almost went to Texas Tech. After both sides agreed to terms, they had to wait a week to finalize the contract because of a state law regarding public jobs. Rodriguez backed out but said he probably would have taken the job had he been able to immediately. Some suspect Rodriguez found out he would take over at West Virginia after the next season.

Harsh/ loose

When King first met Rodriguez, the quarterback thought his new offensive coordinator seemed cool.

“He basically said, ‘I’m going to coach you hard,’ ” King said. “But you know what? All coaches say that.”

It wasn’t long until King realized Rodriguez was serious.

“He was just a jerk the first time we got on the field,” King said. “I hated Rich’s guts at first.”

Lance Frazier, who played at West Virginia when Rodriguez took over there and is now in the Canadian Football League, considered transferring because Rodriguez’s practices were so intense. He said many of his teammates also thought about leaving.

“I guarantee you that if you asked me if they’re happy about the decision that they made, I’d tell you that they’re 110 percent happy that they did stay,” Frazier said.

Rodriguez knows when he wants to be tough on his players and when he wants them relaxed, and he’s masterful at doing both.

Rutledge remembers the first week of spring practice in Glenville in 1994, right after he began working there. The Pioneers had a Saturday scrimmage, and Rutledge kept thinking Glenville was pretty good. After all, they played in the national title game the year before.

Halfway through the scrimmage, a guy showed up with a trailer full of watermelons and started slicing them. Nobody thought much of it.

After the scrimmage, Rodriguez laid into his team, telling them how terrible they had played.

“Right in the middle of the speech, he stops,” Rutledge said. “And he goes, ‘And don’t forget this. The watermelon is a donation from the Baptist church. Be sure to thank ‘em.’ So it went from probably some words used that the guy at the Baptist church was probably stunned by to, ‘Hey, make sure you thank the Baptist church.’ ”

Whether Rodriguez decides to be hard on his players or lay off usually depends on how well they’re playing.

“Everything I did was wrong at first, everything,” King said. “If I went left, I was supposed to go right. If I went right, I was supposed to go left. And he lets you know it.”

But Rodriguez eventually gained confidence in his quarterback. Rodriguez gave King permission to make checks at the line of scrimmage midway through his junior year. King remembers one game against East Carolina.

“I was ballin',” King said. “I mean, I was ballin’. I was having one of those games. And he called a play, and I said ‘No, it’s not going to work.’ And he was like ‘Run the play.’ So I went out there, and I checked to something else. And the ball got intercepted. And I came to the sideline.

“He came up to me, and said, ‘You know what? I pat you on the back, and you shit right in my hand.’ That’s when I think I knew we had graduated to being on a different level because before, if I would’ve done that, he would’ve cussed me out from the time the DB caught the ball ‘till I went back on the field the next time we got the ball.”

West Virginia man

Page 20 of Rodriguez’s 2005 offensive playbook contains the lyrics to John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Rodriguez forced his players to continue the West Virginia tradition of singing the song after wins, even when many of them didn’t seem too enthused about the old country song. But one look at the chorus makes Rodriguez’s connection to the song clear.

“Country roads, take me home/ To the place I belong/ West Virginia, mountain momma/ Take me home, country roads.”

After spending four years coaching outside of his home state, the state where he played college football, the state where he met his wife, Rodriguez returned in 2001 as the head coach of the Mountaineers.

The whole state was excited. At his introductory press conference, Rodriguez joked it was the first press conference he ever saw people tailgating for.

But by 2006, Rodriguez’s warm feelings toward his alma mater begun to deteriorate. He was offered, but turned down the Alabama job. Rodriguez’s stay in Morgantown was largely because Mountaineer boosters facilitated discussion between Rodriguez and the West Virginia administration.

Rodriguez’s strained relationship with the administration culminated with a meeting at West Virginia President Mike Garrison’s house last Dec. 16.

Ken Kendrick, a West Virginia booster and managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, talked on the phone with Rodriguez as he drove up to Garrison’s house. Rodriguez sounded hopeful, and he had reason to. Rutledge, who was driving Rodriguez to Garrison’s house at the request of someone on West Virginia’s side, said Rodriguez had been told all of his requests for the Mountaineer football program would be met. But that wasn’t the case.

“It was no to everything … I wanted to know the answer to — at least a maybe,” Rodriguez testified in his deposition for the lawsuit West Virginia filed. “I didn’t even get a maybe. I got a no.”

After leaving Garrison’s house, Rodriguez called Kendrick.

“This is basically what he said,” Kendrick said. “ ‘Ken, I have three bosses. I have an athletic director who I cannot trust. I have a president of the university who I do not trust. And I have the governor of the state who I also do not trust.’ ”

Kendrick tried to persuade Rodriguez to give Garrison another chance because the president was new and maybe couldn’t act immediately because of that.

“He said, ‘I just don’t trust these guys,” Kendrick said. “ ‘I’ve got to be here every day, and you don’t. And I don’t want to work for people I can’t trust, and as a result, I’m going to leave.’

“It’s hard to communicate this to someone who didn’t grow up in this small state, but I did. And while most of us who have gone out and had some achievements in life have had to leave the state to go and have the opportunities that really don’t, for the most part, exist in West Virginia. We all love the state, and we all share a common bond.

“I said, ‘Rich, you have an opportunity, because you are a local guy and have had such great success in West Virginia. You have a chance to do something in life that very few people ever have the chance to do — and that’s become a legend in your lifetime. And by leaving, that opportunity is gone forever.”

The next day, Rodriguez accepted Michigan’s offer.

Michigan Man

Rodriguez met Schembechler once briefly at the annual College Football Hall of Fame banquet but heard Schembechler had mentioned him to people in Ann Arbor.

“For a guy that I didn’t even know or didn’t know me, I thought that was probably one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten in my profession,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has spent some time since taking the Michigan job to learn about the Wolverines’ history. Stories from the 1969 team, Schembechler’s first, have been particularly interesting to Rodriguez — how unsure they were, but how they rallied to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten. Does he see some of that same doubt in this year’s team?

“A little bit,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez invited some players from 1969 to talk to his current team. He has taken over plenty of teams that had a lot of rebuilding to do his first season, and he knew the words of those players would be invaluable.

Arleen and Rita were talking recently about how Rodriguez has never taken a job that didn’t require substantial rebuilding. Why couldn’t he take over at a place that was already rolling, like Bill Stewart just did at West Virginia? Rita asked when there’d be a time when that would happen.

“I said, ‘Well, the time will be when he doesn’t have to leave Michigan because there’s nowhere to go,” Arleen said.


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