Tuesday, December 18, 2007Coal miner's son seen as gem for U-M football
New coach Rodriguez has folksy charm, strong work ethic
Angelique S. Chengelis / The Detroit News
ANN ARBOR -- Years ago, Vince Rodriguez took his son with him to work in a West Virginia coal mine.
It was that day Rich Rodriguez decided he would not be a coal miner like his father, or his grandfather Marion, who died of black lung disease, or pretty much everyone from his hometown of Grant Town, W.Va., population 642.
"I went to the mines one time and didn't want to go again," Rodriguez said. "I thought, 'Well, I'd better go to school and get an education and take that route.' "
That route has brought him to the University of Michigan.
Rodriguez, 44, was introduced as Michigan's football coach Monday morning. He leaves West Virginia, his alma mater, after seven seasons and an impressive 60-26 record to replace Lloyd Carr, who announced his retirement last month after 13 seasons.
"There's more people in this room than in Grant Town," Rodriguez said, laughing. "When I left, they had a sign, which they probably scratched it out, but they had a sign: 'Grant Town, Home of Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia Football Coach' and (in) back of it, 'Thanks for Coming.' That's how quick you see the town."
Rodriguez made his first visit to Ann Arbor on Monday, having accepted the job sight unseen Sunday. It was a brief courtship that began Friday during a lengthy meeting with U-M President Mary Sue Coleman and athletics director Bill Martin in Toledo.
On Monday, Rodriguez was engaging and funny as he addressed the media for the first time. He referenced "The Lion King" and the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry and poked fun at himself when it was pointed out he reportedly was Michigan's third choice for the job.
"Really? Boy, I wish you'd told me that earlier," Rodriguez said, drawing laughter. "Might have been my wife's third choice, too."Prefers not to coach in Fiesta
Often sounding folksy and relying on a quick, charming wit, Rodriguez drew the respect of Carr when he answered a question about not being a "Michigan Man" -- someone with no ties to the university.
"Do you have to be a Michigan Man to be a Michigan coach?" Rodriguez said. "Gosh, I hope not -- they hired me."
Carr, whom Rodriguez referred to as a coaching "legend," stood to the side and watched his successor look very comfortable as he took the stage and the spotlight. Carr will make his final appearance as Michigan's coach Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl.
It remains unclear whether Rodriguez will coach West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, but he said Monday he would prefer not to because his focus now is on Michigan.
"I think Rich is going to bring great passion, and I think the players are going to love him," Carr said. "He's going to do a great job here."
Rodriguez said he plans to retire at Michigan, a place he deemed special enough to uproot his wife and two children from their native West Virginia.
To emphasize just how much he wants to finish his career here, he introduced his 9-year-old son and offered a verbal commitment to the Michigan class of 2017.
"He will be the most highly recruited quarterback," Rodriguez said, laughing. "He's already committed to the University of Michigan, so proud of that."
Still, all of the warm feelings of being the new coach in town aside, Rodriguez admitted it was not an easy call.
"It was a very difficult decision to leave a place where I grew up," Rodriguez said. "It was going to take a very special opportunity and a very special place, and I think that's what this is."Contract not signed yet
Michigan's courtship with Rodriguez was brief and effective.
He met in Toledo on Friday with Martin and Coleman. At some point Saturday, his agent, Mike Brown, had a term sheet and what he called an "idea" of what Michigan wanted to offer financially, and, Sunday, Rodriguez agreed to terms.
He has not yet signed the contract -- details of which Martin would not release -- because the language must be finalized, Brown said. Martin would not say how Michigan is handling Rodriguez's $4 million buyout.
Rita Rodriguez said she gave her husband plenty of advice regarding the opportunity. She did not encourage him one way or the other, but simply said she pointed him in a direction that would help him make the decision.
"Sometimes he needs to step back from himself and understand he's a very special man and he can do what he sets his mind to," Rita Rodriguez said. "I have the confidence in him he can do it and so I encouraged him that if it's a dream and a special place, go do it. I told him, 'I think you can do it. Go for it.' "
She set her husband's mind at ease, she said, by making clear that he was leaving the West Virginia program in a better state. The Mountaineers went 60-26 under Rodriguez and reached two BCS bowl games in the last three years. His teams have won at least 10 games in each of the last three years, and before a crushing loss to unranked Pitt, 13-9, on Dec. 1, then-second-ranked West Virginia likely was headed for the national championship game.He favors spread option
Rodriguez arrives at Michigan with a new brand of offense.
Well, new to Michigan.
Rodriguez is considered an offensive innovator and one of the architects of the spread option, which will be a huge departure from the Wolverines' pro-style set that features a classic drop-back quarterback.
Don Nehlen, who briefly coached on Michigan's staff under Bo Schembechler and later led West Virginia for 21 seasons, became acquainted with Rodriguez when the admitted sports nut showed up on the Morgantown, W.Va., campus as a walk-on.
Rodriguez, who played football, basketball and baseball as a way to avoid the mines, eventually earned a scholarship.
"I think Rich is really an outstanding football coach, and I think he'd do an excellent job anywhere," Nehlen said. "He's aggressive. He works hard. He's young enough to work 80 to 85 hours a week, which is good. He's got a great concept offensively, and his defensive scheme is good.
"He coaches a little bit like Bo did -- he gets in their faces and gets them going."
It was during his sophomore year at West Virginia that Rodriguez found his calling.
"Believe it or not, I was a pretty good student," he said. "I thought I was going to be an attorney. That's kind of a scary thought. Maybe at some point, a sportswriter -- that's even scarier. I knew I wanted to be involved in athletics. In my second year in college, that's when I decided, 'Hey, I'd like to be a college coach.' "He was coach at age 24
By the time he was 24, he was coach at tiny Salem College. A year later, the school was sold and football was dropped.
"I called my wife-to-be, we were getting married in two weeks, and I said, 'I have good news and bad news,' " Rodriguez said. "She says, 'What's the bad news?' 'Bad news is, I just got fired. The good news? I'll still marry you.'
"She said yes, and we scrambled around for a few years, but I knew at that point, if I stay in this profession now, I'm a lifer and I love what we're doing. I have great passion for the game."
He got a job at Division II Glenville State and then moved up the coaching ladder, at Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia.
"I cut my teeth coaching small-college level, and most of the people on my staff did the same thing," he said. "A lot of folks said, 'Well, you can't bring that small-college stuff here, you won't have success with it,' (but) that was the thing we took pride in."
Tony Gibson has been an assistant under Rodriguez at West Virginia and is expected to remain on his staff at Michigan. He describes Rodriguez as the hardest worker he's ever been around, but he does not overload himself or his staff. He is efficient.
"His philosophy is, 'Come in and get your work done, and when it's done, go home,' " said Gibson, who played for Rodriguez at Glenville State from 1991-94. "He's the hardest worker recruiting head coach that I've been around. He'll get down and do whatever you want him to do, whether it's recruiting, academically, whatever it is, he wants to be involved with it and he's going to work as hard as anything."
Rita Rodriguez said her husband is a demanding coach, but he is far from being overzealously driven. He loves what he does because, well, it was his calling.
"He's very sensitive, and he's very caring," Rita said. "He has a big heart, and he's a very determined person."
Rodriguez was determined enough not to work in the coal mines in Grant Town and find a different life, one that involved his passion for sports.
And now, nearly 400 miles from his hometown, he's a Michigan Man.
You can reach Angelique S. Chengelis at angelique.chengelis@ detnews.com.
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