When Bowden left on Dec. 2, 29 days before the Liberty Bowl, Rodriguez interviewed for the head job with Tulane's athletic director and university president. The following day, the AD, Sandy Barbour, called him, said everything had gone very well and asked, "What are you doing Monday, 10 o'clock? You may want to get a babysitter for your kids." Rodriguez did just that and showed up at the football office a little after 6 a.m., wearing a Tulane green sports coat and a tie for the occasion, when an assistant coach handed him a copy of The Times-Picayune. In it was a story indicating that Barbour was set to announce Chris Scelfo, a Louisiana native, as the school's new football coach. Rodriguez was stunned. "That," he says, "was supposed to be my press conference."
It turned out that Barbour, for reasons that have not been explained, had an 11th-hour change of heart that doomed Rodriguez. "As soon as the [ Liberty Bowl] was over, I went straight to Louisiana-Lafayette, which had a job opening, and I interviewed for that job because I thought they'd play Tulane," he says. "Then I went to Middle Tennessee State and said, 'I'll take that job if you'll play Tulane.' " Neither worked out, and Rodriguez followed Bowden to Clemson, again serving as his offensive coordinator. There he exploited his first elite dual-threat quarterback in Woody Dantzler, and the offense set 69 school records in two years. Then Rodriguez's first mentor, Nehlen, retired at West Virginia. So the native son left Clemson and returned home—as a I-A head coach.
Soon after landing in Morgantown, Rodriguez began telling anyone who would listen that the Mountaineers would be competing with the national elite. These boasts were met with laughter, and a 3-8 debut season in 2001 didn't help. But just as at Glenville State, the offense began to explode in his second year, and the Mountaineers went 57-18 over the next six seasons. West Virginia won four Big East titles, logged the first consecutive top 10 finishes in program history and played in six bowl games.
In 2007 Rodriguez had the Mountaineers at No. 2 and one win away from playing in the BCS title game, but a loss to Pitt on Dec. 1 ended those hopes. Two weeks later Rodriguez, who had flirted with the Alabama opening in 2006, decided the time was right to leave, and he became the new coach at Michigan.
IN ANN ARBOR, RODRIGUEZ works in a spacious three-window office with a private balcony overlooking construction of a new—and second—indoor practice facility that cost $26.1 million. Already a BEAT OHIO STATE button sits on his desk. He has gone from a disbanded program (nearly two) to arguably college football's most tradition-rich power.
For all the history of Michigan football, Rodriguez enters the family as an outsider, the first head coach hired from beyond the Bo Schembechler tree since the man himself arrived in 1969. But no matter how novel Rodriguez's spread offense may seem compared with Schembechler's traditional power football, Rodriguez sees similarities in his approach with what Michigan fans have grown accustomed to. "Everyone likes to say, 'Let's do this the Michigan Way,' " he says. "If that means working as hard as you can, being demanding, trying to take the kids somewhere they can't take themselves, caring about the whole program, doing things the right way and not breaking the rules—if that's the Michigan Way, then I'm all for it." He adds, "I'm not trying to be like Bo. It's a compliment when people say that, but I'm not trying to be like anybody."
He's just trying to be himself and to make Rich Rodriguez a name to remember.