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Reclamation project

Exclusive access as Rodriguez starts over at Michigan

Posted: Thursday April 3, 2008 12:25PM; Updated: Friday April 4, 2008 5:41PM
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Stephen Threet
As expected, it's taking some time for quarterback Stephen Threet to adapt to Rich Rodriguez's spread-option offense.
West Virginia aftermath
Resentment toward Rich Rodriguez still lingers in his home state nearly four months after he left his alma mater, West Virginia, for Michigan.

"[Rodriguez's wife] Rita was back a few weeks ago and went to the grocery store," Rich Rodriguez said. "The guy helping her take the groceries out didn't know who she was, asked her where she's from. She said, 'Well, I'm from here but I live in Michigan now,' and he goes, 'If you see that Rich Rodriguez, tell him' this and that. It wasn't real positive.

"She said, 'Well, I'll probably see him because he's my husband.'"

An initial hearing in the lawsuit West Virginia filed against Rodriguez regarding his $4 million contract buyout was scheduled for Thursday. The coach declined to discuss specifics of the case, other than to say, "Eventually the truth will come out," but it was clear the public backlash in that state has affected him. In fact, it was the first thing he brought up in our interview.

"People make you feel like a common criminal, like I'm an axe murderer or something," he said. "It's a 'thanks for nothing' kind of deal."

Rodriguez took particular exception to critical comments made by Governor Joe Manchin, a longtime acquaintance, shortly after he accepted the Michigan job.

"I saw it as, they're starting a political campaign," said Rodriguez. "[Manchin] said agents changed who I am. C'mon now. I'm the same person. But people have different agendas when they speak to the public. There's a purpose behind it."

Rodriguez said he will still root for his former team, many of whose players still call and text either him or their former position coaches now in Ann Arbor.

"The guys I was concerned with most were the players, and they seemed to accept it better than anybody," he said. "It's an emotional thing, I understand that, but we change jobs. We did everything we could in seven years to try to raise the program up another level. I know it's hard feelings now, but hopefully people will look back eventually and realize how much it's risen."

-- S.M.
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The view from Rich Rodriguez's office window in Schembechler Hall is a bit unsightly right now. Two football fields' worth of dirt currently sit where Michigan's new indoor practice facility, expanded weight room and expanded locker room will eventually be. Michigan Stadium is under renovation as well.

Over the past three months, an even bigger facelift has taken place inside the halls of the Wolverines' football complex: New head coach, eight new assistants, new strength and conditioning team, new support staff and nearly $1 million worth of new equipment in the weight room. About the only recognizable facet of Michigan football these days is the winged helmets.

"It's weird," joked senior cornerback Morgan Trent. "It's like we all transferred to West Virginia."

At least one thing hasn't changed inside the Schembechler complex, however: An inscription above the door to the practice fields that's been there since the day the building opened in 1990 that reads, "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions." It's a mantra the building's legendary namesake, Bo Schembechler, first invoked in 1969 when his arrival from Miami of Ohio prompted a mass exodus of players.

Wolverines fans must be hoping history is about to repeat itself.

Ever since Rodriguez -- the first head coach since Schemechler hired from outside the Michigan family -- succeeded the retired Lloyd Carr last January, Wolverines players have been dropping like flies. Quarterback-of-the-future Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas over concerns he wouldn't fit Rodriguez's spread-option offense. Receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington bolted for the NFL. More mysteriously, three returning starting offensive linemen -- Alex Mitchell, Jeremy Ciulla and Justin Boren -- have left the program.

The most recent departure, that of Boren last week, was particularly stunning to Michigan followers both because he's the son of a former Wolverines player, Mike Boren, and because of his cryptic statement to the media that the program's "family values have eroded in just a few months." (Rough translation: The new coaches yell a lot and sometimes use profane language.)

Coming on the heels of the much-documented backlash toward Rodriguez over the way he handled his West Virginia departure, Boren's comments have triggered a new wave of criticism toward the coach in the Detroit/Ann Arbor media.

"It seems like everything that happens now is a negative [in the press]," said the 44-year-old Rodriguez. "If somebody leaves the team, it's because of that 'bad guy.' I wish they would talk to everybody else and get the whole story."

One of the bonuses of Michigan's new regime is that, for the first time in nearly 40 years, you can get the whole story.

For decades, the program operated under a shroud of secrecy that led to extremely limited media access. Last week, however, this reporter was able to walk right into the Schembechler complex, speak with not only the head coach but also the assistants and -- drum roll, please -- watch an entire Michigan practice.

It was fast-paced. (Just like his offense, Rodriguez goes "no huddle" during every practice drill). It looked exhausting. And yes, there were instances where a frustrated Rodriguez or one of the other coaches expressed their displeasure quite "colorfully."

It was similar to practices I've attended at USC, Florida State and numerous other football powers. Yet according to offensive lineman Steven Schilling, "The first couple weeks were a shock to the system. It's a different culture. It's a lot higher paced, it stresses sprinting everywhere. I can't really say which is better."

All of which makes you wonder: If this new approach is really as shocking as Boren, Schilling and others have expressed, what kind of country club was Carr running all those years? And is that why Michigan, for all its considerable talent, has largely underachieved in the decade since its 1997 national championship, including six losses in seven years against Ohio State?

"We're not going to apologize for being demanding," said Rodriguez, who went 60-26 in seven seasons at West Virginia. "I said this when I first talked to [athletic director] Bill Martin back in December: I've got to be myself. I thought we had a pretty good thing going on at West Virginia. I've tried to embrace the things they've done here in the past yet still do my own thing.

"I've got to be who I am, run the program the way I want to run it. That's why they hired me."

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