Coach rich Rodriguez had it all at WVU. And then he wanted more. After two disastrous years at Michigan, can Richrod make a comeback?
Author Josh Dean Illustration Andy Friedman
BEING THE HEAD COACH of a major college football team is the best job in sports—until it’s the worst. Just ask Rich Rodriguez.
Three years ago, things couldn’t have looked brighter for Rodriguez. The then- 44-year-old head football coach had just led his West Virginia University team to within one game of its first-ever national championship appearance, coasting to 10 wins on the back of the country’s most exciting offense. In his seven years of wearing the headset at WVU – his alma mater and a program of near-religious significance for the people of the Mountain State – Rodriguez (aka RichRod) had piled up the accolades: four Big East titles, three straight seasons of at least 10 wins, two Big East Coach of the Year awards and the first back-to-back Top 10 finishes in school history. He’d also turned down an overture from Alabama the previous off-season, passing on one of the best jobs in the country and convincing Mountaineer fans that this local boy might just stay true to his roots.
Cut to one frigid December night late in the 2007 season. WVU is playing its archrival, the University of Pittsburgh—an unranked team with a losing record. If they win, the Mountaineers advance to the Bowl Championship Series title game, sealing the young coach’s legacy as one of the most beloved West Virginians of all time. If he wins this game, RichRod can run for governor. Statues will be raised in his image.
You see where I’m going here. The Mountaineers did not beat Pitt. In fact, Rodriguez coached one of the worst games of his career. During his last game in the stadium that could one day have borne his name, Rodriguez was booed off the field.
What we all learned later was that RichRod already had one foot out the door—he was being wooed by the University of Michigan to succeed the outgoing coach, Lloyd Carr, in one of the biggest jobs in football.
I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories that still echo in the hollers of West Virginia, that Rodriguez lost the Pitt game on purpose. The logic, if I understand it correctly, is had they won the game, the Mountaineers would have played for the national title in January. No coach would quit a job with a chance to play for the greatest title in his sport. Meanwhile, Michigan, unable to woo him, would have moved on to another coaching candidate. Thus, many a West Virginian will forever believe, Rodriguez had to lose in order to take the better job. As conspiracy theories go, it’s not completely bonkers.
Shortly after the Pitt game, Rodriguez announced his resignation, effective immediately, and he left for Ann Arbor in a hurry. Then the Mountaineers, under the guidance of an interim coach, went to their runner-up bowl game and, playing like a team scorned, laid a whupping on an Oklahoma team widely held to be among the best in the country. Nevertheless, for RichRod, the future as head coach of Michigan must have seemed bright indeed.
COACHES OF THE COUNTRY’S major college programs live by one simple rule: Win. Win and you are deified—sane humans with respectable jobs will lay prostrate at your feet and name children in your honor (seriously). Win and you can coach forever, like Joe Paterno at Penn State. Win and you can even mess with people’s heads, retiring and then sort of unretiring and then fully unretiring, all in a few months’ time, as Florida’s Urban Meyer did this off-season.
Just don’t lose. Ever.
In Rodriguez’s case, it didn’t take long for plans to go pear-shaped. He unpacked his bags, signed an excellent class of recruits, installed his famed spread offense—in the process tossing out a system that had been in place for decades—and then went 3-9 for the season, ending Michigan’s 33-year streak of playing in bowls (one of the longest such streaks in college football, by the way). Fans howled with rage, but many gridiron sages counseled patience.
And the next season things did look up—briefly. The Wolverines started the season 4-0. Then they collapsed, finishing 5-7. For the second straight year, they failed to qualify for a bowl.
And that’s only part of it. The NCAA launched an investigation into allegations that the team had violated practice rules. One player transferred to hated rival Ohio State, citing “a lack of family values.” A website called Fire Rich Rodriguez emerged and began agitating for his dismissal.
This off-season Michigan released the results of its internal investigation. The school admitted to several violations and announced that seven staff members had been reprimanded, including RichRod. The school’s athletic director, David Brandon, was sanguine. “I don’t think this is a black eye,” Brandon said. “This is a bruise.”
The problem is that the bruise is on college football’s most hallowed program. Michigan is the winningest program of all time and plays in the biggest stadium in the land.
Talk about a fumble.
HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS for RichRod: College football fans have short memories. If Michigan goes 10-2 and beats Ohio State and plays on New Year’s Day—heck, if it just qualifies for a bowl and beats Ohio State—most of this will be forgotten. The truth is that it takes time to overhaul a system.
Then again, this is Michigan, where fans have never had to be patient. One more bad season and, well, Rodriguez might be leaving Ann Arbor with a maize-and-blue bootprint on his polyester coaching shorts.
New York Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, who is Michigan’s all-time leading receiver, certainly isn’t willing to give Rodriguez much more leeway. “We don’t accept failure,” he recently told a reporter. “There will be no excuses this year. He has to win games, and if he doesn’t then he’s in trouble. And that’s not me. That is just how the alumni feel. He has to win games and especially the you-know-what game.”
In press conferences last year, RichRod had begun to take on the beleaguered visage of a haunted man. “Is there a sense of urgency? Sure,” he said. “But there was a sense of urgency last year, the year before and twenty years ago at Glenville State College” (where, at age 27, Rodriguez first coached).
If RichRod ever wonders if the grass is still greener back home in Appalachia, he need only gaze over at Bob Huggins (aka Huggy Bear), the coach shamed out of Cincinnati who now oversees the basketball team at WVU. Much as the football team did under RichRod, the Mountaineer basketball team has blossomed into a perennial contender for the Big East title. This past season, Huggy Bear took the Mountaineers to the Final Four for the first time in 51 years. Afterward, he joked that if he took a tour of the state, he’d be hailed as a hero at every stop.
Coaching a major college team really is the best job around. Until it isn’t.
JOSH DEAN maintains his objectivity on this issue despite his near-pathological love of WVU athletics.
Other ill-fated coaching career moves
Left a championship University of Kentucky team to become a resoundingly loathed coach of the Boston Celtics.
O’Leary coached Georgia Tech before going to Notre Dame in 2001, where he was quickly sacked for faking his résumé.
Departed a top University of Florida team in 2002 to coach the Washington Redskins for two dismal seasons.