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IT WAS RICH RODRIGUEZ'S FIRST PRACTICE AT WEST VIRGINIA. THE YEAR WAS 1981. A FRESHMAN WALK-ON AT DEFENSIVE BACK, RODRIGUEZ SAT WITH THREE TEAMMATES IN A FOOTBALL MEETING ROOM LISTENING TO AN ASSISTANT COACH YELL OUT THEIR ASSIGNMENTS. " MIKE SCOTT, YOU GO TO THAT CORNER. ARTHUR ASHE, YOU GO TO THAT CORNER. ANTHONY DANIELS, GO TO THAT safety. And Gonzalez, go in at free safety."
Out on the field Rodriguez, not sure what to do, asked, "Coach, where do you want me at?"
"What do you mean?"
"Where should I play?"
"I said free safety!"
"Coach, my name's Rodriguez, not Gonzalez."
"Aw, hell, it's all the same anyway."
Rodriguez got into a fight with a teammate that practice and, by his recollection, just about every other one thereafter, "so they'd know my name to yell at me." And getting people to remember his name has been a driving force for Rodriguez everywhere he's gone since. He's a farm-raised son of a Grant Town, W.Va., coal miner, and he eventually earned a scholarship from West Virginia, making 54 tackles over three years and one key interception in a 1984 victory over Penn State. His parents urged him not to follow his father into mining, and the fiery and competitive Rodriguez used athletics to forge a future for himself, persevering through several false starts in the business to become, at 45, one of the brightest young head coaches in college football.
In July 1989 Rodriguez was sitting in his office at Salem College, a liberal-arts school about an hour southwest of Morgantown. Eight months earlier he had completed his first season as a head coach, the youngest in the country at 24. He had just bought a car and a house and was two weeks away from his wedding, when Salem's athletic director entered the room and told Rodriguez there was news "detrimental to the program."
That day the college announced a new educational mission that would de-emphasize athletics, and, thus, the college would no longer field a football team. His wife, Rita, a former West Virginia cheerleader, still said, "I do," but they could no longer afford a honeymoon. For richer or poorer, indeed.