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August 29, 2008

Michigan begins new era under Rodriguez

» RELATED: West Virginia happy to have Stewart | Photo gallery: Top 10 coaching debuts

Michigan football is grounded in roots that wrap around iconic figures.

Yost.

Crisler.

Oosterbaan.

Schembechler.

It always gets back to Bo, doesn't it? Schembechler is the template for the "Michigan Man." He made this a hands-on-hips, puffed-out-chest-proud program – and a national power, too. Bo passed the torch to a Michigan Man (Gary Moeller), who handed it to another Michigan Man (Lloyd Carr). Now, this eternal family flame has been given to the ultimate non-Michigan Man: Rich Rodriguez.

Will the program ever be the same?

"I think this 'Michigan Man' label has been tossed around too much," says Bill Dufek, an offensive tackle under Schembechler from 1974-78. "To me, a 'Michigan Man' is from my father's era – guys who went to school, served in World War II and came back to school. A 'Michigan Man' is humble, has class, is a good student, served his country and is successful in life.

"I like Rich Rodriguez and am 100 percent behind him. And all of the former Michigan players I talk to are behind him, too. I think we're going to be successful and win."

But at what cost? The arrival of Rodriguez – whose first game is Saturday against Utah – signals a new era in Ann Arbor. The pursuit of a big-name, big-buck outsider coach who is changing the offensive culture of the school is proof positive that Michigan now swims in the same sometimes-murky water of other major-college powers.

ABOVE IT ALL?

There always has been an "air" about Michigan, a notion that the university was above the fray, never breaking rules and fielding a program filled with true "student-athletes." This is an institution of higher learning, not a football factory, they say. And do any alumni clutch their diploma tighter than Michigan grads? Ask most, and they'll quickly tout the school's reputation as a "public Ivy League" institution.

A slave to football? Hardly. Michigan prided itself on the fact it didn't pay its football coach like a CEO.

Is it all true? It's debatable. But there's no doubt that has been the perception from afar. And, as the saying goes, perception matters more than reality. And Rodriguez's arrival is proof positive Michigan has jumped in with both feet into the pool of "win big every year" football.

HISTORY LESSON
How will Rich Rodriguez fare in his first season? Here is a look at the debut seasons of the past 10 Michigan coaches:
1995: Lloyd Carr, 9-4 overall, 5-3 Big Ten/T3rd
1990: Gary Moeller, 9-3, 6-2/T1st
1969: Bo Schembechler, 8-3, 6-1/T1st
1959: Bump Elliott, 4-5, 3-4/7th
1948: Bennie Oosterbaan, 9-0, 6-0/1st
1938: Fritz Crisler, 6-1-1, 3-1-1/T2nd
1929: Harry Kipke, 5-3-1, 1-3-1, T7th
1927: Elton Wieman, 6-2, 3-2/3rd
1924: George Little, 6-2, 4-2/4th
1901: Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost, 11-0, 4-0/T1st
"Is there an arrogance at Michigan?" asks Greg Terwilliger, the president of the Michigan Alumni Association of Chicago. "Sure, I guess. But it's just that the school wants to be the best at what it does, academically or athletically. Michigan State fans used to always call Ann Arbor 'Arrogant Asses.' But Michigan is an outstanding school that ranks up there with Ivy League schools."

Rodriguez's hiring changes that perception a bit. It means this no longer is a "family business." It also means "Michigan Men" weren't getting the job done, because the program had slipped in recent seasons. Witness the Wolverines' 1-6 record vs. Jim Tressel's Ohio State Buckeyes. There have been three Big Ten titles this decade, but only one serious run at the national title (2006).

"What has been sacrificed?" asks a Big Ten assistant who wishes to remain anonymous. "Did they push the panic button? It just seems like a strange fit. To me, a guy like (Michigan State coach) Mark Dantonio is a better fit. He's a tough, no-nonsense coach who is from the Midwest."

But that assistant also said this: "I do think you better beat these guys now while they are learning his system because they only will get better and win."

And make no mistake about it: That's why Rodriguez is here – to win. A lot.

He's being paid $2.5 million per year, $1 million more than Carr. No one doubts Rodriguez can coach. And he's committed to drag Michigan's offense into the 21st century with his power-spread option offense. That offense helped him go 60-26 in seven seasons at West Virginia, where he won four Big East titles and took five teams to New Year's Day bowls.

"With an outsider coming in, we feel like Michigan is now a player in the real world," Terwilliger says. "We were a traditional, old program that was insulated and always promoted from within. Now, we are high-dollar, high-stakes program."

A NEW LOOK

The Wolverines' résumé is as impressive as any in college football. Michigan is college football's winningest program, with 869 victories. There also have been 42 Big Ten crowns and 11 national championships. No school can match Michigan's current run of 33 bowls in a row. And the Wolverines haven't had a losing season since going 4-6 in 1967. Bottom line: There has been much for the 100,000-plus denizens who shoehorn into Michigan Stadium to brag about for generations. But Rodriguez blew hard into Ann Arbor with sweeping changes in style and substance.

"I have been to practices, and I think too much has been made of the salty language Rodriguez and his staff supposedly use," Dufek says. "I heard a lot worse when I played for Bo. And as for the kid (guard Justin Boren) leaving for Ohio State, I don't think he wanted to play in this offense and was turned off by the conditioning. I think he got some bad advice and left.

"It's no secret that it had become a country-club atmosphere the last few years under Carr. I thought the linemen were out of shape, which led to some injuries. And not being ready and in shape was a big reason why we lost to Appalachian State."

Before Rodriguez, 45, was lured to Michigan, the program already had begun making over itself. The school is in the midst of a renovation project, scheduled to be finished in 2010, that will overhaul Michigan Stadium. Among the improvements are suites and club seating, luxury items long pooh-poohed by traditionalists who preferred the understated grandeur of the stadium. In a way, Rodriguez's hiring is just another part of the makeover.

Interestingly, the last outsider to storm into Ann Arbor was Schembechler, who took over for Bump Elliott in 1969. But Bo was a Midwesterner. He was a native of Ohio and part of Woody Hayes' coaching tree – which rankled some – and understood the culture of the area and of Big Ten football.

Rodriguez? He's from Grant Town, W.Va., a blip of a burg with less than 1,000 people about 18 miles southwest of Morgantown – and about one million figurative miles from Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor-ites only read about places like Grant Town in books. The arts and culture scene in Grant Town? Well, Tom Wilson, the guy who created the comic strip "Ziggy," is a Grant Town native. Does that count? And legend has it that an area south of town is home to a Bigfoot creature referred to in those parts as the "Grant Town Goon."

But while WVU and his hometown no longer want Rodriguez – Grant Town mayor Robert Riggs had two signs that said "Home of WVU Head Football Coach Rich Rodriguez" taken down – Michigan has its man. Rodriguez says things couldn't be better.

"The players' attitude has been tremendous as far as working hard and buying into it, and also I think from the standpoint of all the questions about a so-called outside guy come in, I've not heard that at all from my fans," Rodriguez says. "Maybe they've said it behind closed doors …"

NOT EXACTLY SMOOTH SAILING

One thing that hasn't been said behind closed doors is there is no denying Michigan looked like any win-hungry and title-starved program during what only can be described as a ham-handed search for Carr's successor.

THE REAL BIG GAME
No doubt, Michigan's season-opening game vs. Utah will be a good litmus test vs. one of the nation's top non-BCS teams. But keep an eye on the Wolverines' trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 13. That game will be the bellwether for the season.

While Michigan is in transition and learning a new offense under Rich Rodriguez, Notre Dame also is in tumult as it looks to rebound from a disastrous 3-9 season. A win could catapult either to a season that's better than expected.

"You have to remember that Michigan still has the second-best talent in the Big Ten," says Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo says. "The X-factor will be the transition to a new coaching staff and scheme. How long that takes to implement will be the key to how well Michigan does this fall. Don't underestimate Michigan."
First, there was the disastrous courtship of LSU coach Les Miles, who played for Schembechler. Wolverines A.D. Bill Martin had obtained permission to talk to Miles after LSU's SEC title game last December. But Martin never got in touch with Miles or agent George Bass to set up a meeting. Bass reached out to inquire about Martin's interest in Miles. But Martin never returned Bass' phone calls. In the meantime, LSU quickly put together a mega-deal to keep Miles in Baton Rouge.

"It was a cumbersome process," Terwilliger says.

That's a colossal understatement. And if that wasn't bad enough, Michigan also looked inept in trying to tidy up Rodriguez's $4 million buyout that was due West Virginia. In the end, WVU will get its money. Rodriguez will play $1.5 million, in three annual payments of $500,000, starting in January 2010. Michigan paid the other $2.5 million in July. The school also covered Rodriguez's legal fees.

When Michigan changed basketball coaches recently, hiring John Beilein from – coincidentally enough – West Virginia, it didn't create the interest or uproar that the switch from Carr to Rodriguez caused.

"Michigan is a football school," says former Michigan basketball player and current Big Ten Network basketball analyst Tim McCormick. "It always will be a football school."

While not a football guy, McCormick is a "Michigan Man," and he says the plan for Rodriguez is simple.

"Look, winning will cure a lot of problems," he says. "But if he doesn't win, people will find stuff to complain about."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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