Bo Schembechler said, “Those who stay will be champions.”
With seven victories, the Wolverines are headed to the Gator Bowl, played on New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Florida. In a conference known for tough-nosed defense, Michigan has racked up 6,011 yards, the fourth best in the nation. After a season plagued by injuries and defections — in which the defense was so depleted that an unheard-of eight freshmen played in the two-deep — the future looks bright. A young defense will be stronger next year for having faced this year’s baptism by fire. A young offense will only get better as the players continue to learn a complicated offensive system. To a neutral third party, Michigan is a young team on the rise.
To many fans, however, this is a team in shambles. Without flinching, they’ll blurt out, “Fire the coach. He’s an idiot.”
But firing head football coach Rich Rodriguez a move would be a disastrous move. Not only is it short-sighted, emotion-driven and impractical, it goes against the very ideals this program was built on.
Rodriguez came to the University of Michigan with a track record of starting slowly but taking team after team to the top. At Glenville State, he started 1-7. Three years later, he would win four consecutive conference titles. As an offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden, Rodriguez’s innovative spread led Tulane to a 12-0 record and Clemson to two bowl games in two years. As head coach at West Virginia, Rodriguez started 3-8. Within two years, the Mountaineers won the first of four conference titles. In each of his final three years at West Virginia, Rodriguez’s teams finished in the top 10 of the NCAA Coaches’ Poll.
A less ambitious, more cautious man would double down at West Virginia. It would be the safe thing to do. Rodriguez? He moved on to the next challenge, his biggest one yet at the biggest venue: taking the helm of college football’s winningest program.
Initiating a sea-change in offensive philosophy, with no quarterbacks who were able to run the demanding zone read spread, RichRod started 3-8. With the gutsy, yet erratic Tate Forcier as the signal caller, the Wolverines improved to 5-7 the following year. In 2010, Denard Robinson assumed control at QB, and the offense flourished. “Shoelace” broke several national and team records with RichRod’s offense, one perfectly suited to his unique talents. The team finished 7-5.
Many Wolverine watchers complain that Rodriguez hasn’t recruited well on defense. They point out that he has tarnished the image of Michigan football by allowing his players to practice too much, drawing the wrath of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. These are valid concerns that can and will be fixed.
Are they reason enough to fire a brilliant, tough, ambitious coach with a long track record of success? No. And here’s why.
Every team has cycles of success — as freshmen mature and new schemes get implemented, there comes a point when the team peaks. Why fire a coach who is on the upward slope of that cycle? Why waste another two years transitioning to the system of a new coach when the pieces are already in place for sustained success?
Moving backwards to another standard-issue Big Ten offense is unfair to Denard Robinson and others recruited for the zone-read attack that Rodriguez uses in his offense. It’s also unfair to Rodriguez, who has only implemented two full recruiting classes of his own. The University placed a hefty investment in a new coach and his innovative offensive style. This isn’t the time to cut and run.
The University is an extremely difficult environment for any coach to succeed in. The expectations are so high that even 9-3 seasons get called failures. Fans want results so quickly they often miss the potential for long-term growth. College football evolves and Rodriguez has been ahead of the curve in the movement to spreads and dual-threat quarterbacks. If the University is patient and gives its coach a chance to win more games (as he has done each year in Ann Arbor and throughout his career), Wolverine fans will be rewarded.
Rodriguez gave up a lot to come here, enduring death threats from people he grew up with in West Virginia. Now, disgruntled Michigan fans are bringing out the pitchforks and calling for his head, even as he has engineered the most electrifying offense the school has ever seen. Patience is a virtue lost in college sports.
Perhaps Bo put it best: “When your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.”
Jerin Philip is a University alum.