MEET A WHOLE NEW MR. BLUE

There’s a new accent in town. It echoes out of the coal mines of West Virginia, where young men go from high school to a hole in the ground, where fathers come home dirty, grab something to eat, and, in one man’s case, “stay outside until dark, just to be out in the open.” Rich Rodriguez watched his dad do that for years and realized, early on, this was not the life he wanted. He kept the accent, kept the dirty fingernail values, and left his small town to seek something else.

On Monday, he got something else. And Michigan got something else, too. Rodriguez, U-M’s new football coach, had never set foot in Ann Arbor. He had never been to the Big House. Never walked across the Diag or eaten a Zingerman’s sandwich. “I’ve seen snow,” he joked. But the flakes of West Virginia do not fall on the Midwest, and, let’s be honest, after the media winds die down, everyone in this deal will have to get used to one another.

“Do you have to be a Michigan man to be a Michigan coach?” Rodriguez asked rhetorically. “Gosh, I hope not. They hired me.”

The room chuckled. Even Lloyd Carr smiled. Michigan is now officially out of the “We make the best coaches” business and into the “We hire the best coaches” business. And no question, of the available prospects, Rodriguez is a prime pluck: only 44, with six straight winning seasons, only five losses in the last three years, with the ingenuity to create the spread offense that has so frustrated Michigan teams in recent years.

But Rodriguez and Bill Martin, U-M’s athletic director, are relative strangers. They met in earnest only a few days ago. Millions of dollars were offered – and accepted – for a man who had never seen the campus or the stadium. So while there were plenty of good vibrations on Monday, this is not like the hiring of Carr or Gary Moeller, who were in the program for years. We knew what kind of men they were; we just didn’t know what kind of head coaches they’d make.

With Rodriguez, it’s reversed. They’re mad in Morgantown

So meet the New Mr. Blue. Here is what we learned about Rodriguez, The Man, in an hour or so out near Crisler Arena:

He can be funny. He can tell a good story. He has a young family, which he plans to keep around the football building a lot, and he has designs on his 9-year-old son being a star quarterback. (“He’s committed to Michigan,” Rodriguez quipped, which might annoy folks in Morgantown, W.Va., since he no doubt make that joke back there not long ago.)

He was the youngest college football coach hired in America (at 24) and the youngest fired (the program folded one year later). He told his fiancée – now his wife – he had good news and bad news. The bad news was he was out of work. The good news was: “I’ll still marry you.”

He is not intimidated by following Carr (“I’m excited about following a legend”) and doesn’t want to talk about the financials of his deal (“We’ll leave that to the lawyers”). He said he planned on being here a long time (“Take a job as if it’s the last job you’ll ever take”) and, when asked if this would be the last job he’d ever take, he said, “I hope.”

As for leaving West Virginia with five years left on a new deal, and with saddened players who had been practicing with him for a BCS bowl?

“This time yesterday”- when he told his team he was leaving Sunday -“was the toughest day of my coaching career. … When is a right time or an easy time to leave a program?”

Apparently, for Rodriguez, who turned down a similar offer from Alabama last December, the time is now. The folks back in Morgantown seem none too pleased, and some there are calling him a traitor for reportedly notifying his athletic director of his resignation through a note handed off by a graduate assistant. Others are doing a sour grapes emphasis on his inability to win the biggest games late in the season.

But for all intents and purposes, in one weekend, Rodriguez closed shop there and is setting up shop here. He even said Monday morning that he might look for a new house before flying back later in the day.

“I decided to change jobs” was the way he summed it up, matter-of-factly, as if leaving one brokerage firm for another, and pretty soon, right or wrong, that’s all this will be. No one will be pointing to a sudden disloyal departure from West Virginia – because everyone in this business does it now.

Rodriguez, in fact, likened it to an animated movie, “The Lion King”: “There’s a scene where the monkey hits the lion over the head and the lion says, ‘What did you do that for?’ And the monkey says, ‘Doesn’t matter, it’s in the past.’ “

Everyone laughed. He repeated the last line.

“Doesn’t matter, it’s in the past.”

And he smiled. New words for changing times

Here is what you didn’t see Monday. You didn’t see a man banging his fist and talking about character. You didn’t hear a reference to “the Michigan way.” You didn’t witness an insistence on academics, on earning your place on the team, on no-promises-to-any-recruits, or on running the cleanest, most upstanding program. You didn’t hear any hosannas to the tradition of “Yost” and “Schembechler.”

This does not mean Rodriguez won’t adhere to such principles. But he did not choose to pound them home, as three head coaches before him had done. It had become almost an expected moment at these Ann Arbor press gatherings.

But then, as Rodriguez noted, he can only be who he is. The rest is history. The speculation over whether Carr would leave? The speculation over Les Miles’ candidacy? The debate over whether Michigan should hire another school’s coach while his season was still active? The debate over coughing up a $4-million buyout?

All gone now, because sports doesn’t dally, not when it’s in a hurry to win. Rodriguez said his celebrated offense was adaptable to talent (a polite way of saying he will work with what he’s got). He also said many members of his staff would be joining him in Ann Arbor, and some of Carr’s staff would be retained. It may be odd for former players, who are accustomed to decades of wandering back to the football building, and being welcomed by familiar faces, to suddenly see office after office of new faces and accents.

But nothing stays the same.

In general, it was an upbeat, positive and relieved mood in the crowded room, the same place, 28 days earlier, where Carr had made a tearful good-bye. And after it was over, Carr stood in a brown suit, not far from a glass door, as if he were just another man in the room. He seemed pleased and at peace with the whole thing.

“I’ve prepared myself for change,” he said, and added, “I think Rich is gonna do a great job. I think he brings a lot of passion.”

We hope he will, because the deal is done. The moving vans are coming. There’s a new accent in town, the same West Virginia drawl with which a guy named Chuck Yeager once inspired a whole generation of airline captains to imitate, an accent that, as Tom Wolfe wrote in “The Right Stuff,” keeps “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ” until you can’t help but go along for the ride. We’ll find out soon enough how much is monkey and how much is lion. For now, the fans are happy. The new coach is happy. He’s got a perfect record.

And, nine years from now, he’s got a can’t-miss quarterback.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign his books for the holidays at 7:30 tonight at Borders in Canton, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Allen Park, noon Thursday at Borders Express in the Renaissance Center in Detroit, 7:30 p.m. Friday at Costco in Brighton and 1 p.m. Saturday at Sam’s Club in Roseville. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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