“Everyday I get up, everyday I go to bed thinking about what I can do to make this the best program in America,” a visibly emotional Rich Rodriguez said in his Schembechler Hall office during a 30-minute interview with The Michigan Daily last week, hands striking the table for emphasis.
The coach became slightly agitated when the conversation turned to his job security. This is his third year, the critics have said, if he doesn’t win this year, he should be gone. Before he was leaning back, relaxed, free-wielding. Now he sits upright, chooses his words with a pause, hands driving his points home.
He cuts himself off here, pauses there.
“That’s all I think about,” he corrects himself, “that’s all we think about. So the rest of it is drama — I don’t need to deal with it.”
Since he arrived at Michigan more than two years ago, there’s been a lot of talk about Rodriguez: He’s not Ann Arbor enough. He doesn’t fit in here. His offense doesn’t belong in the Big Ten. The criticism has come from all angles and in all shades of displeasure.
And there’s no denying that some of that criticism has been well-founded as Rodriguez has been stuck in a swirl of troubles from an NCAA investigation into his program to winning just three Big Ten games in his first two years at Michigan.
But after two turbulent years as Michigan’s head football coach and an offseason full of speculation and “make-or-break season” dictums, Rodriguez is eager to move forward. He got his first chance to do that on Saturday, abating some of the most immediate calls for his firing with the team’s impressive 30-10 rout of Connecticut at the Big House.
As the season approached last week, Rodriguez sat down with the Daily to go on the record about the situation he now finds himself in. He bluntly discussed the past, admitting his early recognition of looming on- and off-the-field problems and also saying that the NCAA’s investigation of his program is “embarrassing.” At the same time, the coach jumped at any opportunity to discuss the future and signaled his steadfast belief that he will turn the program.
THE CRITICS AND HIS TENURE
The interview offered a glimpse of the unvarnished Rich Rodriguez, not the caricature collaged from press conference sound bites and newspaper clippings. But the Rich Rodriguez who admits his regrets from the past two years and gets emotional during talk of his tenure as Michigan’s head coach. At times light-hearted and at times sternly serious, Rodriguez was brash, off-the-cuff, a ball coach — but a ball coach who was willing to reflect, analyze, introspect.
He discussed his frustration with what he called “misinformation” and “misperceptions” about him and his program.
“It’s almost been an avalanche of things that maybe have caused a certain wave of discontent that maybe didn’t have to be there,” Rodriguez said.
While some were caught off guard by the team’s struggles on and off the field these past two years, the coach himself was not.
On the field, Rodriguez understood the challenges the team faced in getting the right talent to fit his system from early on.
Asked if he was surprised that the program isn’t further along as season three gets underway, the coach said, “in some respects I am, and in some respects after the first spring, I’m not.”
“I mean I knew after the first spring it was going to take a little longer to do what we wanted to do. So I didn’t have a particular, I didn’t come in with a particular window of say it’s going to happen by this year, or that year. I just expected it to happen — and hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Off the field, Rodriguez points to his controversial departure from West Virginia as the seed of the discontent he’s faced in Ann Arbor.
“It all started when I left West Virginia and there was a big backlash from back home about that and I didn’t talk publicly, talk to the media before I left,” he said. “I wish, looking back, I wish, I probably should’ve done that.”
Rodriguez said he opted not speak on advice from legal counsel, as he was in the midst of a lawsuit with West Virginia and several complications regarding the buyout from his contract there.
“Looking back I should’ve, I should’ve said this is the reasons why we’re leaving, this is my thoughts about that place,” he said. “And I think there was so much misinformation that got it all started in a wrong fashion.”
What surprised Rodriguez though is just how long complications from those initial problems have lingered.
“I thought that would dissipate after a few months, it didn’t. It lasted a year and a half — and it may still be going on,” he said with a chuckle.
Much of the criticism of Rodriguez from within circles in Ann Arbor is that the coach isn’t Ann Arbor enough, he’s not of the fabled Michigan Man lineage. The criticisms are part elitist condescension, part collegiate jingoism. He’s from West Virginia and he didn’t earn his stripes in the Michigan system, critics have said. The first charge is also true of Fielding Yost, the second is true of Bo Schembechler.
In the interview, Rodriguez rebuffed that talk, but said he understood it — at least in part.
“No, I think that comes with the job,” he said when asked if the criticism surprised him at all. “You know when you’re not winning, there’s skepticism and doubt. And when you are, there’s less of it.”
But Rodriguez did say that he finds some of the criticism of him so far off-base that it’s laughable — especially those claims that he doesn’t fit in here.
“As far as like the traditions of Michigan and all that, I studied it a little bit,” he said. “Some of it, I didn’t have to study, you already knew about it, you knew about the Ohio State game, you knew about Bo Schembechler, you knew about those things.
“So you know, this misperception that this new guy was coming in and trying to change all the traditions was silly,” he continued. “I mean it really is just kind of comical to look and think that somebody would think that.”
While he couldn’t discuss details of the NCAA’s investigation into his program for violating rules regarding offseason workouts and practice times, Rodriguez did talk about the impact the investigation has had on his program and him personally.
Asked if he was embarrassed by the investigation, the coach said yes.
“Oh yeah, I mean sure. Anytime you get 27 years of coaching and never have any issues at all and all of a sudden you have this and your program has to go through that type of thing, it’s embarrassing to deal with it,” he said.
Rodriguez did note however that, in his mind, the wrongdoing the NCAA ultimately found through its investigation was far different from the initial accusations published in the Detroit Free Press last August that prompted the investigation.
In its notice of allegations, the NCAA reported discovering five violations including that the team exceeded the number of coaches it can have working with student-athletes and that it had coaches monitoring football players in voluntary, offseason workouts and conditioning, which is against NCAA policy.
The Free Press reported in August of last year that the team “consistently has violated NCAA rules governing offseason workouts, in-season demands on players and mandatory summer activities under coach Rich Rodriguez.”
Rodriguez said in the interview that the Free Press’s allegations and the NCAA’s findings weren’t the same.
“I think we tried to explain ourselves both from an institutional standpoint and from me and the staff as well as we could, try to tell everybody what was really going on,” Rodriguez said, “…what pre-empted the investigation in that article in the Free Press and what came out later was really two different things.”
Rodriguez also expressed his frustration with what he deemed “a perfect storm of miscommunication in a whole lot of areas” that led to the investigation.
“The thing that bothered me the most was that everything that happened through the investigation or because of it, we could’ve fixed in literally hours or minutes had we just communicated better,” he said.
The only NCAA charge that Michigan is fighting is the claim that Rodriguez “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program” and didn’t sufficiently monitor the activities of his program with regard to the other allegations.
Asked if that claim in particular is tougher to swallow as it has his name on it, Rodriguez nodded.
“Sure,” he said. “I think anytime you have your name on anything like that it’s just something that you … have a hard time dealing with, so that’s one reason why we made our case, but we’ll see what happens.”
Michigan is still awaiting final word from the NCAA after completing its hearing in Seattle in late August.
Rodriguez isn’t a big fan of dwelling on the past.
Several times in the interview the coach made reference to putting these past couple years behind the program and focusing on what’s ahead.
“You know I really haven’t looked back too much to reflect because I don’t — other than to look back and learn — I don’t know how much good it would do as far as going forward,” he said at one point.
“I think you have to look back and learn, which we’ve all done,” he said. “But I think you just try to focus on doing what you’ve got to do to build the best program in America and I still believe we’ve made strides to that end.”
He said he doesn’t think the last two years were for naught, they were part of a learning curve — just one far steeper than anyone, especially Rodriguez, had hoped.
“I don’t think the last two years have been wasted in any stretch, I think there’s a lot of things that we’ve tried to do in the program that will help us set up for the future,” he said. “I just, I know everybody hopes it happens right now and so do I.”
During the interview last Monday, Rodriguez said the much-anticipated season opener against Connecticut on Saturday wasn’t even in the forefront of his mind.
“We’re always worried about what’s next,” he said, “and for us it’s not even, right now it’s not even Saturday, it’s today, it’s Monday’s practice, what we got to do today and once today’s over, what we got to do tomorrow.”
Though in the interview Rodriguez addressed off-field issues like the NCAA investigation and his reputation, he prefers to talk football — his program, his players, his coaches. The rest he’ll leave for others to talk about.
“Most coaches like to talk football, talk about their preparations for the games and their opponents and all that as opposed to, you know there’s way too much talk about other stuff — I mean that’s society today,” he said.
“It’s more exciting to talk about the other stuff I guess, I don’t know,” he said with a pause. “Not to me.”
The off-the-field problems have weighed on him, it’s clear. But he says they haven’t affected the job he’s done.
“There’s been a few more obstacles, things to overcome,” he admits, “but I don’t think it’s wavered our approach.”
Asked if there’s any doubt in his mind that he can turn the program around, Rodriguez responded quickly.
“No, none whatsoever.”
— Managing Sports Editor Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.