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Rich Rodriguez: The man behind the myth

Daily Sports Editor
Published September 4, 2008

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.