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That fall the newlywed took a position as a volunteer assistant coach at West Virginia to work under his former coach, Mountaineers legend Don Nehlen. Nehlen remembered Rodriguez the player as "solid, dependable, intelligent" and saw Rodriguez the young coach as able and ambitious. "Rich was a very intense guy when he was around the building," says Nehlen. "He was always sniffing around. Those are the guys you want, the ones who are always hungry for information."
After a year Rodriguez got a second crack at being a head coach, at Glenville State, then an NAIA team in West Virginia with a past as inglorious as Salem's. "Only two other people applied [to Glenville], and neither one of them had ever coached before," he says. "I found out years later they nearly dropped that program. That would have been nice on my r�sum�. I'd have been two for two. 'Need your program dropped? Hire this guy.' "
Rodriguez inherited a team that went 1-8 and was outscored 301-38 in 1989, but he transformed Glenville State into an unlikely football power. Fans were so unaccustomed to success that in Rodriguez's first year they sometimes gave standing ovations after first downs as the Pioneers finished 1-7-1. "We wanted to win," says Rodriguez. "That was our ticket out. Win and get noticed."
With Mike Springston as his offensive coordinator the next season, the two began experimenting with the spread offense, turning Glenville State into a football petri dish. Rodriguez was starting from square one, asking himself, What was the most difficult offense to defend? He considered the two-minute drill. "That was the first concept," he explains. "When most people go into the two-minute drill, they get back in the shotgun and spread people out." Meanwhile Springston had tinkered with a version of the spread the previous year while he was offensive coordinator at West Virginia Tech. "We'd bounce things off each other and talk, then go to practice just to see if it worked," says Springston.
After going 6-4 in '91 and 10-3 in '92, the Pioneers won or shared the West Virginia Conference title from '93 through '96, leading the NAIA in offense and scoring in '93 and '94, with a national runner-up finish and a Coach of the Year award for Rodriguez in '93. "Man, did Glenville catch fire," says Springston. "We played in front of packed houses just about every week."
In the summers Rodriguez worked at the Bowden Academy football camps, run by coaching's first family—Bobby, Terry and Tommy Bowden. In '97 Tommy had just been hired as Tulane's new coach, and he was looking for an offensive coordinator with a shotgun and no-huddle background when he was impressed by a loud, 34-year-old coach with great people skills. Bowden offered the position to Rodriguez, who readily accepted.
IT WAS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR WHICH HE HAD been waiting: a I-A coaching gig. His career finally seemed to be in the fast lane. And, predictably for Rodriguez, it got off to a terrible start. He had his most talented quarterback yet in Shaun King, but the offense came together slowly. "That first spring, it was so ugly," says Rodriguez. "If there was a record for sacks in spring ball, [ King] would have set it."
Rodriguez's difficulties implementing the spread culminated in a disastrous spring game. "I don't think we got a first down," he recalls. "That was bad enough, but what pissed me off was that the defensive coach had our female student manager calling defenses, and we still couldn't get a first down." Rodriguez, disheartened, wondered if he had made the right move by accepting the job.
Bowden, however, offered a calmer perspective. He saw that the offense was missing big plays by mere inches and split seconds. "After spring ball he said, 'Tom, I don't know if we can do this here,' " recalls Bowden. "He was discouraged. But I told him, 'We're so close to being good. Let's keep going.' He had a well-greased machine at Glenville. This was going to take more patience."
It didn't take much longer. That first year the Green Wave finished 7-4, setting a league record with 375 points scored. And that only set the stage for 1998, easily the greatest season in Tulane football. King became the first player in Division I-A history to exceed 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards. Tulane went 12-0 and finished the season No. 7 in the country. After just two years Bowden was hired to lead Clemson.