At the end of the year football banquet last week, beleaguered head coach Rich Rodriguez nearly wept as he said: “I truly want to be a Michigan Man.” But does he even know what that is?
When Bo Schembechler died more than four years ago, editors from all sections of the Daily united to produce a special edition of this newspaper. In that special edition and on the pages of the regular editions of the Daily that week, thousands of words were spoken to celebrate that great Michigan Man.
My own contribution to that discussion was a column on this page (The last Michigan Man, 11/20/2006). After discussing Schembechler’s unparalleled significance to the University, I concluded that college football and campus dynamics had changed so much over the years that there never would be another great football coach who was also a University leader and icon the way that Bo had been. He was, I wrote at the time, the last Michigan Man.
Four years later, I see one flaw in that conclusion. Yes, long gone are the days when the football coach ruled campus, when he was a role model even to students he didn’t coach and when, regardless of who the president was, the coach would be the de facto face of the University. That much is true, but I forgot something then that I realize now: Just because the world has moved on from that idyllic time does not mean Michigan football has moved on.
However naïve an ideal it may be, here at the University, we still want that iconic Michigan Man to lead the troops on Saturday and to lead us all every other day. It doesn’t matter where the world may have moved on to — Michigan football answers to only its own gravity.
University President Mary Sue Coleman and former Athletic Director Bill Martin also forgot that crucial little truth when they sought a replacement for the retiring Lloyd Carr three years ago. They chose Rodriguez because he has a brilliant football mind and even his biggest critics have to admit that very few people can build an offense from the ground up like he can. But excellence with X’s and O’s is secondary here at Michigan.
Yes, Rodriguez has lost far more games than is moral in Ann Arbor. But more wins would not cure his seminal flaw: He has never wanted to be — and never could be — the consummate, all-around campus leader that this University needs its football coach to be. He’s simply not of that breed. He’s not the type to push academics as Joe Paterno did at Penn State, to push for social progress like Bear Bryant did at Alabama or to engage and involve students from all walks of campus life as Schembechler did.
Regardless of what he says, Rodriguez came here to coach football, not to be a Michigan Man. That will never be good enough, and that’s why Rodriguez will never be left alone to coach in peace.
The image and destiny of the University has always been tied to the state that gave it its name. For the state of Michigan, the University has always been a crown jewel — an indelible part of the very identity of this state — along with things like the assembly line, labor unions and the Great Lakes.
As Michigan has suffered in recent decades, it has lost the cornerstones of its once enviable “middle class for everyone” economy. The assembly lines lie in ruins while thousands of unemployed auto workers can find nothing else to do. Labor unions now take the brunt of the national criticism of the American auto industry’s recent failures. The Great Lakes have dropped, dried, been polluted and now stand at the brink of an invasion by some Asian killer fish. Yeah, it’s gotten pretty bad.
Until three years ago, all was well with the state’s great University and its football team. But the more you lose, the more you begin to realize the significance of what you have. This University, this state and its people, regardless of which team they cheer for, can’t afford the loss of yet another Michigan brand.
We need Michigan football to rise again to be the silver bullet for this state’s national reputation that it has always been. Four years after the last one died, we need to find the next Michigan Man to pull us up again — and I don’t just mean getting nine wins and a trip to Pasadena.
Knowing all that it entails, does Rodriguez still want to be a Michigan Man? Probably not. But there’s a man in Palo Alto who does. And he is perhaps the only one who could.
Imran Syed can be reached at email@example.com