U-M GOT THE NEW GUY – IN THE NEW FASHION

Today, for the first time in nearly 40 years, a football coach will be introduced at the University of Michigan who is not homegrown, who has not already bled his maize and blue. Instead, the man taking over will carry the scent of another school and the recent sweat of another team’s practice, a university that was his alma mater, an institution he once gave the impression he would not be leaving.

Rich Rodriguez might prove to be a wonderful, winning leader for Michigan – and we hope he does. But that is the unknown future. Here is the well-known present: Rodriguez left a program with five years left on a new contract. He left a group of upset players preparing for a major bowl who, a few weeks back, was one victory from playing for the national title.

He left his players – and alma mater – for greener pastures. More money. A bigger program. And U-M dangled those greener pastures in front of him. A plane was arranged. A quick interview held. A job was offered. He accepted.

Some around here might remember when the same thing happened, in reverse, with a Michigan basketball coach named Bill Frieder. He took a fast flight and a faster job offer from Arizona State, then came back and wanted to coach the postseason before leaving.

He was tossed out, indignantly, by Bo Schembechler, who famously declared: “A Michigan man will coach Michigan.”

A West Virginia man will coach Michigan now.

The way of doing business

And understand, there is nothing wrong with that. But U-M can claim no purity anymore. It cannot act surprised if Rodriguez bolts a few years from now for something shiny and new (perhaps the NFL?). It cannot pose as if above the brutish shopping of this business. Michigan went out and plucked someone else’s coach the way Frieder once was plucked from it.

Oh, and Rodriguez had a $4-million buyout clause. So, presumably, Michigan is paying dearly for the privilege.

Such is the nature of college football coaching these days. It is a cutthroat, ugly business, and things have been ugly the past month in Ann Arbor, largely because the Wolverines haven’t had to deal with this junk since 1968.

But the Les Miles fiasco (he’s in/he’s out/he’s a maybe) and the quick flop dance with Rutgers’ Greg Schiano were part of a December that revealed, in bright school colors, the hypocrisy of college sports.

Let’s face it. This is a business that penalizes free hamburgers for recruits, yet condones coaches jumping midcontract, abandoning kids they recruited. It’s a business that entices Bobby Petrino to leave an NFL team midseason – in his first year – and ignores the awful message that sends to Arkansas students. It’s a business in which Nick Saban bald-faced lies to the public and press, then is celebrated upon arrival at an institute of “higher learning.”

Bill Martin, Michigan’s athletic director, saw all this and apparently learned that being nice gets you nothing. He may have tiptoed with Miles and LSU. But by this weekend, he found his guy and hired him fast – possibly at 60% more than he was paying Lloyd Carr.

It’s a game. He played it.

The tough task ahead

So we will meet Rodriguez today. From all reports, he is a charming, young, forward-thinking guy, and everyone knows his offensive flair, so Michigan’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust days officially died Sunday.

On paper, it’s a smart hire. An up-and-comer who has been in the national championship hunt. But it’s worth remembering that Rodriguez built his impressive records mostly against the Louisvilles, Connecticuts and Pittsburghs of the world, which is fine, but not like running the table against LSU, Alabama and Florida.

The Big Ten will present its own challenge for Rodriguez. And we hope he handles it well and with dignity. According to a West Virginia newspaper, Rodriguez had a tradition that if players earned a 3.0 grade-point average or higher, they got their pictures on a special wall in the football offices. That’s encouraging.

Rodriguez will get a photo on a wall at Michigan, too. And U-M football folks should never forget how it got there. The ugliest month of their past 40 years is nearly done. Michigan played the game, same as everyone else, and got its man, who used to be somebody else’s.

And the Bo-Mo-Lloyd era is gone for good.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign books for the holidays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Borders in Canton.

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