Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Bob WojnowskiMICHIGAN'S MAN: Rodriguez's first rule is to beat Ohio State
Rich Rodriguez is new to all this, to the winged helmets and the fight song and the required use of maize instead of yellow, so I'm sure he could use a simple piece of advice.
You better find a way to beat Ohio State. I mean, just in case you weren't fully aware.
Rodriguez is here, the first outsider in nearly 40 years to take over Michigan's football program, because he's a hot coach with an innovative offense. He's here because the pull of a traditional power, wielding traditional piles of money, still is strong. Those who feared Michigan wouldn't land a great coach fretted prematurely.
But make no mistake. Rodriguez also is here because the Wolverines have slipped behind the Buckeyes, losing six of seven, which helped provide ample motivation for athletic director Bill Martin and school president Mary Sue Coleman to ante up.Spreading the word
Some will suggest Michigan paid too much, or acted desperately, or is changing too radically. I say the Wolverines merely and finally entered the college football arms race, and they didn't have much of a choice.
Is this a curious fit, with a life-long West Virginia Man coming to Ann Arbor with his new-wave spread offense? Sure. But it's not that crazy of a notion -- many programs use pieces of the spread, and Urban Meyer took it from Utah to Florida and wins plenty in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
Michigan had fallen behind the curve, in facilities and philosophy, and the brutal reality is, it's compounded by what Jim Tressel has built at Ohio State. The Buckeyes will play in the national championship game for the second straight year, for the third time in six seasons, and the best thing about fierce rivals is, they push each other.
Rodriguez needs to know that, and understand what the rivalry means. The last outsider who didn't quite grasp it was a coach named John Cooper, and he led Ohio State to a 2-10-1 record against U-M before getting fired.
Yes, the big-game record matters big-time. If Lloyd Carr retired after beating Tressel six of seven times, you can bet U-M would be making a normal transition, hiring a solid coach from within, and there'd be nothing wrong with that. Carr did terrific things in his 13 seasons but the environment changed, and this is a bold step to change with it.
Rodriguez arrives like a flash of energy, with a tinge of West Virginia twang. The hope is U-M's recruiting prowess, combined with Rodriguez's offense, will stagger folks around the Big Ten, maybe even in Columbus.
The fear is, it might take time to adjust Michigan's personnel with more-mobile quarterbacks and lots of receivers. The certainty is, Rodriguez better develop a healthy hate for Ohio State if he really wants to fit here.
"Big one, huh?" Rodriguez said Monday, when asked about Ohio State. "The hecklers (at the West Virginia airport) let me know that as well. They were doing that OH (-IO!) thing, whatever that was. I understand it's one of the greatest rivalries in college football. Michigan is unique. I didn't know it, but you got three rivalries -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame."
If he only planned to win three games in a season, those would be the three. (Note to Rodriguez: Ha ha! We're kidding about winning only three games. Get to nine and you're doing just OK. Ten or 11 won't be mandatory for a season or two).
There's no doubt which is the big one. Nobody expected Rodriguez to pull a Tressel, who upon arriving in Columbus publicly counted the days to the Michigan game. Tressel established his behemoth there partly by beating the Wolverines quickly and often.
Rodriguez doesn't have much experience in a high-stakes rivalry, and please, don't give me West Virginia's annual backyard brawl against Pittsburgh. (Rodriguez was 4-3 against Pitt.) So an indoctrination is needed.Taking a chance
Michigan is taking some risk because it had a safe, sound, successful brand. Everyone knew how the Wolverines played, with straight-ahead runners and drop-back passers.
But others were gaining, and some were passing. Mark Dantonio has stirred it up at Michigan State. Ron Zook has lifted Illinois. Michigan hasn't slipped that much -- it was 11-0 at one point a season ago, in case everyone forgot -- but it wasn't climbing, either.
The spread offense generally has been used by less-talented teams to beat the big boys. That's why Rodriguez developed his version at tiny Glenville State (W.Va.). That's how Northwestern won Big Ten titles in the mid-'90s and how Joe Tiller put together a decent program at Purdue.
Critics will argue it failed at Michigan State with John L. Smith and hasn't grown at Purdue. Those are fair cautionary tales.
But U-M can get better players, and it needs to get more versatile players. In the last few years, the Wolverines were presented with the most compelling evidence imaginable, and you can bet Martin and others noticed.
First, Buckeyes Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith carved up the Wolverines using elements of the spread. Then this season, Appalachian State spread 'em out and laid 'em out with an all-time shocker. Hmm. Maybe running the spread will help U-M defend against it.
It'll be fascinating to see what Rodriguez can do when he gets to pick from a deeper pool of recruits. West Virginia was 32-5 the past three seasons, and according to recruiting services, Rodriguez's classes never ranked higher than 26th.
So Michigan is opening things up, in its scheme, in the personality of its coach, in many ways. The Big House is undergoing a $226 million renovation, catching up with others, a process that continued with the introduction of the new guy Monday.
Rodriguez has charm and a track record, so he'll have time. He's only 44 and says he'd like to retire here, but who knows. College football is a wild game, which is why U-M fans should cherish their four decades of stability, from Bo Schembechler to Gary Moeller to Lloyd Carr.
Plenty is changing now, but one thing hasn't. If he learns anything quickly about Michigan, Rodriguez better pick up a nasty passion for beating one team in particular. The airport hecklers know it, and he will, too.
You can reach Bob Wojnowski at firstname.lastname@example.org
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