"You said 'Gonzalez.' My name's Rodriguez."
"Aw, hell—y'all the same anyway."
"After that," says Rodriguez, grinning at the memory, "I decided to get in a fight every day, so he'd have to learn my name to yell at me." By the end of that season, the staff knew his name and he'd earned a full scholarship.
Who is he? He's tough, stubborn, ambitious and, notwithstanding several of the decisions he's made of late, very smart. At 24 he became the youngest head coach in the country, at Salem College in West Virginia. At 27, as coach at Glenville State, he had the bright idea to run a two-minute offense for the entire game. After fine-tuning this crude, prehistoric version of the spread, Rodriguez's aptly named Pioneers won four straight conference championships. He—and the spread offense—were on their way. From assistant positions at Tulane and Clemson to the head job at West Virginia, the pattern went like this: In his first season his offense tends to grind its gears. In the second, as he plugs in players who fit the system and those athletes get the hang of it, school records start falling.
Until very recently Michigan was looking like the exception to that rule. Three days before the opener against Western Michigan, Rodriguez still hadn't named a starter at quarterback. Neither Forcier nor fellow freshman Denard Robinson nor junior Nick Sheridan had done enough to distance himself from the others. Rodriguez announced that all three would play against the Broncos.
That ominous uncertainty was overshadowed by the Free Press story. It resulted in a firestorm of criticism ... directed at the newspaper. Fans correctly pointed out that there's a sizable gray area between work that's voluntary and mandatory. And besides, they proclaimed, everyone does it—a defense that, while largely true, forces the Wolverines off their accustomed moral high ground. This, after all, is the winningest program in college football, a program that has never been found guilty of major NCAA violations. As a result, Wolverine Nation rallied behind Rodriguez as never before. The coach's first public response, interrupted several times as he fought back tears, won him still more support, but not so much as the team's 31--7 whipping of Western Michigan, during which the Wolverines' faithful broke into the chant Rich Rod-ri-guez.
Stepping to the podium after his latest win, Rodriguez smiled and said, "Well, that was fun." He was right. The game featured 920 yards of offense, four lead changes, a 96-yard kickoff return, three fourth-down conversions and a 50-yard quick kick by Forcier that was downed on the Irish four-yard line.
That's not how Bo and Lloyd rolled. They wore foes down with the power running game. If a ground-based ethos is a prerequisite for being a Michigan Man, Rodriguez will never pass muster. His no-huddle, hurry-up offense is simply too entertaining.
Make no mistake, this team has problems. The guy wearing the wizard hat on Saturday was defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, whose rope-a-dope tactics only disguised the shocking lack of depth in the Wolverines' secondary. Clausen finished with 336 yards and three TDs. But the Michigan defense got him off the field when it absolutely had to.
Then the clock ran out on the Irish, and the din in the old bowl served as a signal to the college football cosmos that after their season in purgatory, the Wolverines are back. And for the first time it was possible to see the future of this program, a new and improved version of a trusted old brand, led by a man making a good-faith effort to eliminate ain't from his vocabulary; a man trying as hard as he can to be more respectful toward all the old traditions, no matter how silly he finds them.