December 17, 2007

Borton's Blog: No looking back for Wolverines

Rich Rodriguez figuratively slammed a lion on the head Monday morning at the Junge Family Champions Center, in his first-ever look at Ann Arbor. Michigan fans, coaches and administrators appear ready to do the same, seeing nothing but blue skies in the days to come.

A full cast of characters turned out for Rodriguez' introduction on a snowy, slushy Monday morning. Lloyd Carr was there, in classy support. John Beilein showed up, noting what Rodriguez meant to the folks back in Morgantown.

Bill Martin watched it all unfold - perhaps a little wounded by some of the arrows he absorbed over the past few weeks, but ready to move forward. Rodriguez himself gave them all an operating manual for media discussions.

First off, it's an adjustment going from hearing Roosevelt and Churchill quoted to the gleaning from the sagacity of "The Lion King." But Rodriguez pulled it off, when asked about his hiring process.

"There is a scene in the movie where a monkey hits a lion over the head," Rodriguez noted. "The lion says, 'What'd you do that for?' He says, 'It doesn't matter. It's in the past.'"

The bumps in the hiring process don't matter - they're in the past. The funny thing is, before the Internet and the intensive media crush surrounding sports in general and college football in particular, the bumps might have drawn whispers but not gotten widespread attention. They wouldn't have incited the type of furor that overturns Audis in Columbus and endangers perfectly good ottomans in East Lansing.

Folks would have known that Michigan needed a football coach, looked at solid to sizzling choices such as Kirk Ferentz, Greg Schiano, Les Miles and Rodriguez, and picked the latter. The result - rejoicing all around, which is what those embracing the Lion Lumps Dictum are enjoying.

Martin refused to talk about the process past but did say: "It's tough to find the right guy … there were lots of people we simply rejected. I did not believe they were of the caliber of individual that would be suitable for Michigan."

He also left no doubt about how those outside view Rodriguez' opportunity.

"When you get to Division I in football, for a lot of coaches - particularly if it's a BCS school - you've arrived," Martin said. "Then how many programs are there in the country where you can win multiple national championships, that have the resources, that have the reputation, etc.?

"I had one representative of a coach say to me, 'We've looked at all the programs in the country who have a chance over the next decade or so to win multiple national championships. There are only about a dozen. So you look at, how often are those coaching positions going to come up?'

"It was a very interesting analysis. He started on the west coast and went to the east coach - Southern Cal, Texas. They looked at where there are jobs in that dozen that are going to open up. If you go through that exercise, there are not many of them opening up very often.

"Then when you look at Michigan, which was clearly in that dozen for everyone, it was the greatest job available in college football today. The number of coaches who directly or indirectly contacted me throughout the process didn't go down - it went up. It went up significantly.

"Many NFL head coaches had their representatives contact me. It was very interesting."

Martin's more than willing to let leveled lions lie, though he insists the process wasn't always represented fairly. He's got the legacy capper to infuse into a facilities kingdom that will still be hailed when Rodriguez is telling his great-grandchildren about his heady days in Ann Arbor.

Lloyd Carr's presence at the presser proved heartening. All the insistence that he was looking to hand the job off to someone already inside Schembechler Hall ignored one thing. Beyond anything else, he wants Michigan to win and be well represented.

He reached out on Monday to show that he'd do just that, giving Rodriguez complete access to U-M's football team in the coming days.

"I'm going to give him any access he wants," Carr said. "I want this transition to be as good for him as it can be. Obviously, there are a lot of things particularly in recruiting and a lot of things in terms of some issues with some of our players where he's going to want to talk to them. As far as practice, he's welcome anywhere he wants to be."

As for the new era, Carr publicly embraced it.

"I've prepared myself for change," he said. "But if you look at what Rich has done, his teams are going to run the football as well as anybody in the country. From that standpoint, if you go back to Bo's philosophy of running the football … I just think he's an outstanding football coach.

"As far as the way he's going to coach, every guy is going to bring his own personality, his own beliefs and philosophies. For me, I'm excited. I'm excited to see the things he's going to bring here and I'm excited to watch what he brings and the kind of teams he puts on the field."

Beilein, part of the "Almost Heaven" combo for Michigan over the past eight months, heard Rodriguez refer to him as "one of the best coaches in America." For his part, Michigan's basketball boss pledged nothing but support in Rodriguez' transition and praised what he'd accomplished in his last stop.

"The West Virginia graduate who came back, took over for an incredible coach in Don Nehlen, and then led the team to the Sugar Bowl," Beilein said in describing Rodriguez. "That win was incredible - not only for West Virginia, but for the Big East. That was incredible. The Big East was very suspect at that time, and he brought credibility to that entire football conference, and I don't think it will ever lose it now."

Rodriguez himself knows everything he's done to this point is in the past. And he's as pumped up about the future as the Michigan fans who have watched his offensive wizardry unfold into a 32-5 record over the past three seasons at West Virginia.

The man coaches such as Jim Tressel came to Morgantown to study, the one who pals around with football minds such as Florida's Urban Meyer and Cal's Jeff Tedford without a touch of awe, didn't want to whack the past in terms of slighting West Virginia. But he knows what he's getting into.

Namely, the biggest stadium in the country, with a quarter-billion in touch-ups on the way, a $26 million practice facility, and the sort of winning tradition that can outfit a savvy system with more than enough weaponry.

He's doing nothing but looking forward.

"It's The Big House," he said. "It's a national program. It's not a regional program - it's a national program. Great success - Bo Schembechler, Lloyd Carr, the Heisman Trophy winners. The passion - 110,000 fans.

"When you walk in - and I think that's why some of my coaches are excited - to a young recruit's home, when you've got the block 'M' on, they're going to sit up and listen to you. That's pretty exciting."

Monkey bumps aside, Michigan fans are strapping in to grab the lion's share of attention in the Big Ten -- and beyond.

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