SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
12/16/2007 07:05:00 PM
Michigan Scores Home Run with Rodriguez
Rich Rodriguez is leaving his native West Virginia to succeed Lloyd Carr at Michigan.
How big is Rich Rodriguez to Michigan? In terms of the ramifications for both program and sport, it's college football's most significant hire since Florida landed Urban Meyer.
Michigan, one of the last bastions of smash-mouth football and 6-foot-5 pocket passers, just hired arguably the most renowned pioneer of the new-age, spread-option offense. For all those weeks of hand-wringing over Les Miles, Michigan wound up landing itself a better coach.
"Bottom line -- Michigan stepped up to the plate," said SuperPrep recruiting analyst Allen Wallace. "They've gone out and stolen one of the elite coaches in the game. If I were a Michigan fan, I'd be having a party tonight."
That may seem an odd statement considering the West Virginia coach was, at best, Michigan's third choice. Athletic director BillMartin's either botched or aborted courtship of LSU's Miles was well-documented, as was Rutgers coach GregSchiano's surprising decision to turn down the Wolverines' subsequent offer.
In hiring Rodriguez, however, Martin and the rest of the Michigan brass showed they weren't about to be hampered by two widely suspected sticking points -- lineage and money
Unlike Miles, Rodriguez is not a "Michigan Man." Quite the contrary, he's a "Mountain Man" (with the twang to prove it), having spent nearly all his formative and coaching years in West Virginia. He does not fit the traditional Michigan mold in the slightest; in fact, his markedly laid-back personality and humor-laced press conferences make him a diametric opposite to departing coach Lloyd Carr.
Rodriguez also comes with quite the price tag. After rejecting a lucrative offer from Alabama last winter, Rodriguez signed a new contract with West Virginia that includes a hefty $4 million buyout. Michigan has a reputation for frugality, and its offers to both Miles and Schiano were reportedly modest in comparison to the current, outrageous marketplace.
But it's no secret Michigan has deeper purse strings than West Virginia (from whom it's now stolen both its football and basketball coaches in an eight-month span), and given the opportunity to hire a guy who's gone 32-5 the past three seasons, the Wolverines' brass apparently whipped out their checkbooks.
"It's a big demonstration on the part of Michigan in terms of advancing their tradition," said Wallace. "They've been mired in this good-but-not great state for some time. They need to get over the hump against Ohio State, and bringing in a coach with a very versatile offensive mind speaks well for the Wolverines."
Publicly, Rodriguez had continually pledged allegiance to his home-state school, but privately he'd expressed frustration on numerous occasions with West Virginia's limited financial resources. It's why he entertained Alabama's offer a year ago, and it's why Michigan must have seemed so enticing.
Even after his renegotiated deal, Rodriguez's 2007 salary (about $1.8 million) remained well below his market value (consider that Arkansas just gave Bobby Petrino, who owns one less Big East title ring than Rodriguez, $3 million). From what I've been told, however, Rodriguez's frustrations had less to do with his own funding than that of his program's, which last year claimed revenues of $25.2 million -- roughly half that of Michigan's.
While Rodriguez's Mountaineers have had more success on the field the past few seasons than the Wolverines, the ceiling will always be higher in Ann Arbor. A star the caliber of Pat White does not fall into West Virginia's lap all that often; at Michigan, however, Rodriguez will have the opportunity to pick from among the nation's top athletes on an annual basis. And the thought of those athletes plugged into Rodriguez's offense had to be sending shivers through the rest of the Big Ten coaching offices Sunday.
"Rich is one of the best coaches in football," said Meyer, a friend of Rodriguez, whose own spread-option offense is based in large part on the West Virginia coach's. "Michigan's got great athletes and they're national recruiters. If everyone's healthy, they're the most talented team in the country."
How immediate was the ripple effect of Rodriguez's hire? The coach barely had time to inform the Mountaineers of his decision early Sunday afternoon before the nation's most coveted recruit, Jeanette (Pa.) native Terrelle Pryor -- a spread-option QB who'd reportedly narrowed his choices to Ohio State (the suspected favorite), West Virginia, Florida and Oregon -- told Scout.com, "Add Michigan to my list."
While that possibility must be music to the ears of Wolverines fans desperate to beat the Buckeyes at something, remember, Michigan already has a pretty good young quarterback in freshman Ryan Mallett, who, along with Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, was the most coveted signal-caller in last year's signing class. While Rodriguez's recent teams have been heavily run-dominated, his earliest spread teams at Glenville State threw the ball roughly 50 times a game. He was also the offensive coordinator for Tulane in 1998 when the Green Wave went undefeated behind NCAA passing leader Shaun King.
You have to think Rodriguez will mold his offense to fit Mallett's skills; however, Mallett is a traditional drop-back passer whose lack of mobility could make for an odd fit. It's not unlike the dilemma Meyer faced upon inheriting Chris Leak, a highly skilled passer ill-suited for running the zone-read. Meyer made it work to the tune of a national title his second season.
Rodriguez could face a similar, clunky transition period ("Right now, talent-wise, they're not suited for the kind of offense Rodriguez would like to run," said Wallace), but long term, the possibilities seem great. As Wallace pointed out, Rodriguez turned West Virginia into a national title contender despite never recruiting a class ranked higher than 26th nationally by SuperPrep; during the same, seven-year span, Michigan never finished outside the top 10.
"Rodriguez will find himself with some talent he's not used to having," said Wallace. "The spread offense has typically been run by teams competing against people that out-talented you. He's going to be able to recruit a better-caliber athlete. If he's really committed to the spread offense, I'm sure he can make it work there."
Michigan's good fortune comes at the expense of West Virginia fans, now reeling from their second crippling blow this month. (And unlikely to be comforted by rumors that native Terry Bowden -- out of coaching since 1998 -- is believed to be Rodriguez's most likely successor). The first was a gut-wrenching Dec. 1 loss to arch-rival Pittsburgh that knocked the Mountaineers out of the BCS title game.
Ironically, that same result also paved the way for Sunday's regime change. Had West Virginia won that game, Rodriguez would likely have been off the market and Miles may well have wound up in Ann Arbor; instead, Miles is the one preparing a national-title date with Ohio State while Rodriguez is taking over at Michigan.
It's hard to say which team's fan base should be more excited right now.