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December 16, 2007

Borton's Blog: Sea change at The Big House

Now it really is a "done deal," it's time to take a look at what Michigan's hiring of football coach Rich Rodriguez means to the immediate future of the sport in Ann Arbor. There are many who will be incredibly pleased and excited, while some are in shock and taking a moment to readjust their focus.

At 44, Rodriguez brings relative head coaching youth to the position. What's far more important in the minds of those who wanted to see a wide-open offense, he brings the spread look (and perhaps super-recruit Terrelle Pryor as a side benefit). Michigan will go from the pro-style drop-back passer to a more open attack with mobile quarterbacks. How that affects the Wolverines in 2008 remains to be seen - Rodriguez will face a personnel adjustment somewhat like John Beilein is presently facing - but the early response from Michigan fans is not to care. The initial reaction is one of both relief and excitement - relief that the process is over, and excitement that U-M went way outside the box on the hire.

Guaranteed, those pushing hardest for Les Miles to take the reins are somewhere between crestfallen and stunned right now. They didn't think it was over, by any means. And some were very encouraged as recently as this week that Miles to Michigan could still happen after the national championship game. They will no doubt have a tough time reconciling how it all slipped away in their hopes of seeing a Miles coronation.

Others will see their candidates as finally falling by the wayside - although few , if any, inside the action genuinely believed this would come down to an in-house hire. The powers that be asserted their independence in a big way.

So while the level of coach Michigan culled in the search isn't a surprise - despite the bumps in the road, U-M officials always fixed their gaze on bringing one of the top football coaches in America to Ann Arbor - the individual is somewhat of a stunner. Rodriguez wasn't on the "hot lists" of any plugged-in media, which threw out a lot of legitimate names -- Miles, Kirk Ferentz, Greg Schiano, etc. It's not likely anyone will buy it if Michigan contends it got the man it was looking for all along.

What it got by dipping into Morgantown for the second time in less than a year is a coach who has taken a college program not normally in the nation's spotlight and put it there in recent years. But for a crushing upset by Pittsburgh at the end of the season, West Virginia would have been playing in the national championship game.

Former Bo Schembechler assistant and long-time West Virginia head coach Don Nehlen probably said it best, to The Detroit News. He explained that if you do well as the head football coach at West Virginia, you walk on water in the eyes of West Virginia fans. If you succeed as the head coach at Michigan, you walk on water, period.

He did not add that if you stumble at Michigan, you get unceremoniously waterboarded, but that's another story for another day. Rodriguez hasn't even gotten a toe damp yet, and some will be convinced with his innovative offense, he'll keep Michigan high, dry, and in the battle for national championships for years to come.

The journey to bring a top coach to Ann Arbor wasn't smooth sailing, by any means. Nor will Rodriguez' arrival signal a full spinnaker toward a string of BCS title games. But for the portion of the fan base starved for something new and different, this appears close to the ultimate sea change.

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