The first time Rich Rodriguez got fired was one year after he’d been hired, as a 25-year-old head coach at Salem College. He was sitting in the office, two weeks from getting married, with a new car loan and a new house loan, and the phone rang. His school had just merged with a Japanese university. Football, like many other programs, was being dropped. “I called Rita and said, ÂI got good news and bad news. The bad news is, I’m out of a job.’ “”What’s the good news?” Rita, his fiancÃ©e, asked. “I’ll still marry you,” he said. On most people, that’s a charming story. With Rodriguez, someone will focus on the fact that he got fired. That’s the new and constant scrutiny for the Michigan coach. He has gone from a budding football genius at West Virginia to a square peg in a round hole at U-M. But in person I’ve always found Rodriguez affable, reasonable, even self-deprecating, and I wonder if the man they call Rich Rod has spent an unjudged minute in the state of Michigan. I tried to give him 90 such minutes. Much of what he said surprised me. Here are excerpts: EARLY YEARS
M: So you still got married after that rocky start?
R: Yeah. We got married, and we drove to Cedar Point, the amusement park, for a night. That was our honeymoon.
M: Didn’t want to spend too much money?
R: I didn’t have it.
M: What was it like being a head coach at age 25?
R: I had two kids on the team older than me. And one of ’em I played against in high school. (laughs)
M: What happened after you were fired?
R: It was mid-summer. Too late to get another coaching job. So I got a job teaching driver’s education at a high school.
M: How were you at driver’s ed?
R: Oh, half the time I was miserable Â I’m thinking I’ve gotta get me a full-time coaching job. That’s when I got called at Glenville State College. They didn’t win a game the year before. We’d literally get a standing ovation for a first down. HIS DEPARTURE FROM W. VIRGINIA
M: It seems like from the time you arrived, you’ve been in the middle of a hurricane.
R: Yeah Â as soon as I got here the bitterness from leaving West Virginia – that was out there so much – and then being different and all that “He’s not a so-called Michigan man”Â it’s almost like every day you wake up and say, “What’s gonna be dramatized today?”
M: Was any of that your fault?
R: I probably haven’t done my job as far as getting out there. I was just like, “OK, stay focused on what you’re hired to do – building the program, recruiting, coaching.” In retrospect, I probably should have gone out there more often and given people the chance to get to know me.
M: Talk about your departure from West Virginia and the fallout.
R: Well, I never even got a chance to set the record straight. I just was told hey, take the high road and move on.
M: You were advised to say nothing?
R: Yeah, oh, yeah. Say nothing. Move on. Don’t worry about the past. No need to explain yourself. Â But when I look back on it, what did that do for me? (chuckles) You know? I mean, Rita and I have talked about it a lot. I kind of tried to take that high road – and it didn’t do much. I’m thinking I should have said something.
M: Instead people filled in their own blanks?
R: They filled in the blanks Â like, (the stuff about) “He’s shredding papers.” What are you talking about? I was throwing away game plans from Glenville State College!
M: Were you surprised at all that, since this was your alma mater?
R: Just the bitterness. I don’t blame West Virginia – I knew it was gonna happen that way, because I’m from there. Â But in retrospect, I would do things differently Â I probably should have had a press conference in West Virginia with the media and the people and explained, “Hey Â this is what’s going on. This is a great place I’m leaving, and I’m going to another great place – and it’s just a new challenge.”
M: Why didn’t you do that?
R: You know Â it was probably a mistake. But I’ve always been one (to say), “OK, what’s next?”Â Sometimes you need to sit back and explain things. HIS ARRIVAL IN MICHIGAN
M: What about the reception in Ann Arbor?
R: We felt very welcome here. There were some factions (who said), “Who is this guy? He’s not a Michigan guy.” But there’s always a faction that’s gonna say (that).
M: How much of what’s happened here was shaped by the early losses?
R: That certainly accelerated it. Â Had we gone 9-3 instead of 3-9, I think the grace period would have been extended. Â But I knew after the first spring that we were gonna have some struggles on the field, and it wasn’t going from one scheme or another Â it was the transition from guys never playing to having to play. People said, “Why don’t you run the same system that they’re used to (at first)?” I said, “Offensively, they haven’t played in any system, because they haven’t played.”
We had one starter back on the O-line Â no quarterbacks with any experience Â the running backs and the other skilled guys had very little experience. So it didn’t matter what you did. Â You might as well go ahead and put your stuff in and teach it.
M: In retrospect, what about Michigan and its tradition did you not understand when you arrived here?
R: You know, it happened so quickly that Â did I do a bunch of research before I got here? No. But I did a little bit. I had never seen the Big House until my first press conference. But I knew about Bo. I knew a lot about Michigan history because of my college coach, Don Nehlen. I knew about “The Victors.”
M: So nothing made you shake your head?
R: Well Â probably the overdramatization of things that I don’t view as being major. Â For instance, you named game captains instead of permanent captains. A huge reaction with that. A huge reaction on the No. 1 jersey. (Not giving it to a wide receiver.) I didn’t know (the tradition). That was poor communication on our part, me included.
M: Is it fair to say you came in and said, “I’m gonna coach a football team,” and people expected you to coach tradition?
R: (chuckles) I never thought about it that way. Â Tradition was one reason why you want to go here. You’re using tradition to help you recruit not just players but staff. So to say well, he doesn’t care about tradition – you’d be crazy not to. HIS CRITICS
M: Did you feel a need to change your style here?
R: Some of the best advice I’ve got from colleagues in the coaching profession is that whatever you do, you gotta be yourself. If not, I don’t know how else I can be.
M: How do you handle criticism?
R: I’ve got thicker skin now. I’ve got alligator skin. Â But anybody who says they don’t care what people think about ’em is probably not telling the truth.
M: You want to be liked.
R: Everybody wants to be liked. Â And Rita’s the same way as me. You just want to believe the best in people – that people generally are good. And I think they are. But sometimes they disappoint you.
M: What has disappointed you?
R: Probably the misperceptions that are out there. You meet somebody for the first time, and you spend 15, 20 minutes with them Â and they say, “Geez, Coach, you guys aren’t what we thought you were.”Â And I say, “Well, how did you think we were?”‘Cause I don’t read the papers. Â Why put myself in a bad mood by reading something that’s so far off base?
M: What is most off base?
R: I wish every one of our fans could spend a week in Schembechler Hall. If they spend a week here just hanging around with the coaches and the players – they’d know everything is OK – and they would probably be surprised it’s not what (the perception) is out there. HIS JOB SECURITY
M: Do you hear a ticking clock on your time here?
R: Oh, I know there’s the talk out there, because we get it used against us in recruiting. But do I have a heightened sense of urgency? I don’t know if it can get more heightened than it always is. Sure, we need to win and we need to have success. But I’ve always felt that way.
M: Have you been given a chance to get your feet underneath you?
R: Well, you gotta scrape the ice off the windows before you can take off. Sure. Yeah, I feel that a little bit. I mean, it’s been two years. I look at our kids now that are redshirt sophomores in our first recruiting class. They’re still just redshirt sophomores. They’re not redshirt seniors. I like our freshman class Â our staff has really done a pretty good job recruiting. And I’m as excited about the future as any place I’ve been Â
M: Do the high expectations bother you?
R: I’d rather coach where they have high expectations than where they have none. Or where they’re indifferent. They’re not indifferent here.
M: What would be a failure in your mind this season?
R: If we’re not in the conversation as far as competing for a Big Ten championship and if we’re not playing top 25 football by the end of the year.
M: Do you feel confident with your relationship with your athletic director, Dave Brandon?
R: Yeah. Dave is as intelligent and efficient a leader, I think, as you can possibly have. We spend a lot of time together. I think he knows what’s going on in the program. And he gets it. I can’t sit there and tell him, “Hey, we’re going 12-0 and we’ll win the BCS.” But I’ll be damned if we’re not trying. QUARTERBACKS
M: How much of where you’re at – or not being able to do what you want to do – is due to not having a veteran quarterback?
R: I think it certainly might have made a difference (the first two years) in two or three games Â and all of a sudden maybe you’re in a couple bowls and there’s less talk about all this other stuff.
M: What about your quarterbacks this season?
R: All three have the skill sets we need, and they’re all young kids that are gonna keep getting better.
M: Is there a disadvantage not to have one clear starter?
R: Not really. I think it’s harder when you know you only have one. If he gets hurt, you’re in a world of trouble.
M: Why is Tate Forcier not further ahead than the others, based on games he started last year?
R: It’s really been the other things with him. From a football standpoint, he always works hard. But to advance, certainly at this level, you’ve gotta do all the other things right – academically, off the field. Â And if you’re always in our doghouse, so to speak, because of (those) other issues, then it’s gonna slow your progress down.
M: Does he have a tendency to get too impressed with his good games?
R: He had some success early, and that probably spoiled him in some respects. But he’s always worked hard football-wise. I think there’s a maturity level that he had to go through, as you would expect with an 18, 19-year-old freshman. THE SPREAD OFFENSE AND THE DEFENSE
M: Is the spread offense still as integral to what you do as it was when you first arrived?
R: Oh, sure. Yeah, there’s so much made about spread offense. Â It’s kind of silly – because everybody runs some version of the spread. Can the spread offense succeed? Well, it’s won a national championship. If you look at the NFL, there’s more teams running a spread offense than a traditional one. Â So I like the spread because that’s what I know. That’s what our coaches know. And that’s what we can teach.
M: What about your defense?
R: We’ve been disappointing the last two years defensively. Frankly, we have not had the numbers defensively to even compete at this level. We were at 23 scholarship kids. And now we’re gonna at least have the numbers there. And if we do our job developing them in the next couple of years, we’re gonna be pretty good there. LAST SEASON
M: Did you think last year when you were 5-2 that you were over a hump?
R: Not really, because I was really worried defensively. We were just hanging on early in the year Â I’ll know we’ve gotten there – or at least gotten over the hump – when we’re good enough to play poorly and still win. But we’re not there.
M: So you knew at 5-2 that you weren’t keeping that pace up.
M: But did it collapse more than you thought it would?
R: Yeah. We didn’t win another game.
M: You got blown out in some.
R: Well that Â and we helped beat ourselves, too. The turnovers were ridiculous. We didn’t give ourselves a chance. In the Ohio State game, we could’ve played well enough to win that one, but we had five interceptions. You don’t give yourself a chance.
M: Your thoughts about moving the Ohio State game?
R: I like it at the end of the season. From a tradition standpoint, the environment. But as long as we’re playing ’em, it’s not the end of the world. I don’t think it’ll be the first game of the year. It’ll probably be toward the end somewhere.
M: Did you think the conference needed to expand?
R: Well, the old saying – pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered? I don’t wanna get slaughtered. There’s people in our league who are very, very smart. They’re not gonna make moves without the long-term future in mind. So we’re in great shape now, and we’ll be in great shape for the next 20 years. NCAA VIOLATIONS
M: Talk about the incidents, the violations and the investigation.
R: The thing probably Â and I don’t know if I can even talk about it right now Â but that’s what bothered people Â hey, it’s over practice. They said we were over 65 hours in two years Â 58 of the 65 hours were not practice hours Â they were stretching and warm-up during the off-season. Â So when they said we over-practiced Â well, did you see our record?
M: Do you feel in retrospect it was sloppiness? Trying to get a competitive edge?
R: There was no attempt to get a competitive edge Â not when you’re stretching guys. Â The thing that probably bothered me the most when it came out in the Free Press was (the) connotation that we were running some kind of sweatshop. I said we’ve been coaching 20-some years – that’s the furthest thing (from what we’re doing). And the investigation showed that.
M: So what went wrong?
R: A lack of communication Â the old saying – what we have here is a failure to communicate? And there was a huge failure to communicate on a lot of levels, but it was almost like a perfect storm. Â It wasn’t any malicious attempt Â somebody keeping something from somebody. Â What bothered me the most and what was so regrettable is that it could easily have been avoidable. Just pick up a phone – or go see each other – or talk about it, and the problem would have been fixed in literally minutes, not hours. So there is a lot to learn from that. I’ve never been an e-mail guy Â I never e-mailed until a couple of years ago. Â I’ve learned now you’d better be on the paper trail, too.
M: What part of it then do you kick yourself most over?
R: Uh Â that’s a tough one there. Probably Â don’t ever keep anything from me that I’ll be ultimately responsible for. I probably should have stressed that more often. And then I probably should have followed through on things to make sure they were being done. Â The worst thing you can do sometimes is assume things.
M: Did you do that?
R: Yeah Â and not only in the NCAA stuff, but I made assumptions before I took this job. Hey, this is Michigan. We just roll ’em out there we’re gonna win eight, nine games Â you just assume you go in there, even with a new system, and you’re gonna have enough talent Â
M: Was that an assumption you now regret?
R: Well, I think, the class that graduated Â Chad Henne and Mike Hart and Shawn Crable Â that class Â that’s a special group. Those kind don’t come along very often. And so for me to assume that the guys behind them would have been at that level Â that was a mistake. THE SHADOW OVER THE PROGRAM, AND THE FUTURE
M: With the NCAA thing still hanging over you, does it feel like you’ve been asked to coach with one hand tied behind your back?
R: Yeah. I think there has been that Â but I try to compartmentalize those things and not let it affect our players and our staff. I always tell the guys – let me handle that stuff. But I think what it’s done – the extra drama, so to speak – has made it not as enjoyable. I should be able to enjoy this a whole lot more – coaching at Michigan – than I have.
M: Have you talked with Rita about that?
R: Yeah. No question. And the people that know us know we like having fun. Â I love coaching and I love being around college athletes. I love being in a college town. And people still say, “Why are you laughing?” They look at me and say, “Gosh, you got a smile on your face!”
Well, yeah. I’m healthy. My family’s healthy. We got a great job. We’re in a great place. I’m as happy as I can be. Rita and I talk about how much happier we’re gonna be when all this other stuff is gone and we’re winning and we’re having success. Â Boy, it’s just gonna be terrific, you know?
“Some of the best advice I’ve got from colleagues in the coaching profession is that whatever you do, you gotta be yourself.”Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez
“I’d rather coach where they have high expectations than where they have none. Or where they’re indifferent. They’re not indifferent here.”Rodriguez, on the high expectations at Michigan
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).