In 2003, Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez was scouting Maryland for West Virginia’s annual game against the Terrapins when something else caught his eye.
One of the games he watched was Maryland’s opener, where Northern Illinois upset the No. 13 Terrapins 20-13 in overtime. He was particularly impressed with Northern Illinois’ defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.
More than four years passed. The two coaches had never worked together, but Rodriguez hired Shafer Thursday night as Michigan’s new defensive coordinator. Shafer was defensive coordinator at Stanford last year after filling the same role at Western Michigan for the two seasons before that.
Once Rodriguez started watching Shafer, he saw plenty of reasons to be impressed. Northern Illinois went 10-2 and beat Maryland in 2003. West Virginia, which won the Big East, lost to Maryland twice, allowing 75 points over the course of two games.
Shafer said he focuses on stopping the run, producing sacks and getting interceptions.
The son of a high school football coach, Shafer grew up in Ohio as his dad took different jobs around the state. He was a Big Ten fan, rooting for both Michigan and Ohio State.
Now his leanings are decidedly one sided in the storied rivalry.
“More important than any opponent, we’re going to control the controllables,” Shafer said. “And we’ll always have Ohio State on our mind when we do that. So if we have issue with a young man’s effort, we’re going to remind him that Ohio State’s coming up, every chance we get.”
All four or Rodriguez’s defensive assistants have been defensive coordinators: Tony Gibson, assistant head coach and secondary coach, at West Virginia Tech from 1999-00; linebackers coach Jay Hopson at Southern Mississippi the last three years and defensive line coach Bruce Tall at Harvard from 1998-2001 and at Northeastern from 1993-97.
Michigan’s Strength: Rodriguez brought Mike Barwis with him from West Virginia as director of strength and conditioning.
Barwis said West Virginia offered to make him the highest-paid strength and conditioning coach ever.
But he said he was committed to Rodriguez above all else.
Barwis’s program system differs from most football conditioning programs because of its holistic approach. He stresses lifting weights to become a better football player, not a better weightlifter. Weightlifting may be just 20 percent of a typical workout, which includes more than 30 other exercises. Creating the appropriate environment is also key for Barwis.
“If everybody around you is morbid and head hanging and tired and looking weak and soft, you’ll eventually become that type of person,” Barwis said. “If the people around you are energetic and explosive and have an explosive personality and demanding, then you tend to rise to that environment.”
Keeping Tradition Alive: After Rodriguez introduced his coaching staff, he opened the floor to questions. When nobody immediately asked one, he joked about ending the press conference – a gag commonly used by former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
That joke might not prove it, but Rodriguez seems to be making an effort to learn the Michigan way. He plans to hold an event for former players in February.
“It’s not something that’s a big concern of mine, because the tradition that’s been here is always going to be here,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to try to learn it, embrace it, enhance it. We’re also going to do our thing.”
Former Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was present at the media luncheon Friday.
He said it felt just as welcoming as when he came back to visit Carr and his staff.
“It’s still going to be the same,” Woodley said. “Jersey’s still going to be the same. Still the Big House. The winged helmet – that’ll never change. Coaches – that’ll always change here and there.”