Lighting a fire
Rodriguez has Mountaineer fans abuzz in Morgantown
By Mitch Vingle, Special to CNNSI.com
Rich Rodriguez must have been given instructions when he took over the West Virginia football program: Shake well before using.
That's what he's done in his home state.
Although Rodriguez has yet to coach a game at WVU, he's turned Morgantown upside down with his shades, his demanding conditioning program and his offense that helped make Clemson coach Tommy Bowden a millionaire.
Ask Rodriguez's assistant, Herb Hand, about the upheaval in the hills.
"My wife is in sales in the area," said the tight ends coach. "And that's all she gets hit with all day -- every single day."
The excitement centers on Rodriguez's offense -- especially in contrast to that of Don Nehlen, that gosh-durn, down-home coach who surprised WVU fans last fall by resigning after 21 seasons.
While Nehlen's run-oriented, ball-control offense sparked an "up-the-middle-o-meter" at Mountaineer Field, Rodriguez's offense has fans buying season tickets, lighting up talk shows and donating to the athletic department.
The motto at WVU: "Spot the ball." Then get down the field.
Rodriguez has installed a no-huddle, one-back shotgun offense. Defensively, he's inserted an aggressive eight-man front.
"We try to spread the field on offense," said the coach. "We try to run plays as fast as we can. And we try for a balance between the run and the pass without forcing a balance. Whatever the other team gives us, that's what we try to exploit.
"We just try to go at a different tempo."
That's why he sent the Mountaineers to the weight room almost immediately after last season's Music City Bowl. Spring break? Not with this guy.
Yet the players responded -- perhaps because of Rodriguez's resume.
In 1999, during the coach's first season as offensive coordinator at Clemson, the Tigers set 26 offensive records. They followed that by setting 20 more last season and averaging 403 yards of offense per game.
The coach was Bowden's right-hand man both at Clemson and, previously, at Tulane, where the Green Wave was 19-4 in two seasons. Before that, Rodriguez was the head coach at tiny Salem and Glenville colleges in West Virginia. Crafting, always crafting that offense.
It's an offense that spreads the field. It's an offense that utilizes the pass. But it's an offense that is deceptively dependent on the run.
"I think when you predominantly go into a shotgun -- as we do -- and spread teams out -- which we do -- people think it's all passing," said Rodriguez. "The difference is we're not afraid to pass 75 times a game if that's what it takes. And we're not afraid to run it 60 times a game either."
He stopped to consider the enigma.
"Really, our schemes are ever-evolving," he finally continued. "We do a little something different every year. Maybe a tweak to our passing game. Maybe a tweak to our protection. Maybe something new to our running game.
"And our running game has really developed over the last five or six years. We used to have basically two runs. Now, we have eight or nine."
A strong running game would play into the hands of Avon Cobourne, WVU's standout tailback. But Mountaineer QB Brad Lewis also returns after torching Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl.
"The expectations and enthusiasm within our state are pretty high right now," said Rodriguez. "That really hasn't left our borders because we're perceived as a middle-of-the-road -- at best -- Big East team.
"Realistically, on paper, we should be average. But we expect more than that."
The Mountaineers do return nine starters on defense. But they must rebuild their offensive line. And recent recruiting efforts haven't landed praise.
"Things are pretty much what I expected," said Rodriguez. "I thought the program would be in solid shape, if not great shape, and it was. I thought there were certain areas we'd need to address because of the graduating seniors. And those are there."
Nehlen didn't leave Rodriguez table scraps. Yet there was something missing when the veteran coach left.
"There are a lot of firings in coaching," said WVU quarterbacks coach Bill Stewart, the only full-time assistant to remain from Nehlen's staff. "What we had here was a retirement. Don Nehlen had a Top 20 program for 21 years.
"But Rich has put some fire back into the program. He's done what Coach Nehlen did back in 1980. He's brought excitement back."
To that, Debby Hand can attest.
Mitch Vingle covers the Big East for the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette. His "This Week in the Big East" column will appear weekly during the season.