That the West Virginia Mountaineers might be closer to a national championship in football than the Michigan Wolverines is perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay new Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez.
His first task in Ann Arbor is to change that fact and turn college football’s winningest program into a contender once again.
Michigan’s fall from grace in 2007 was precipitous — after its home opener loss to Appalachian State, the men with the winged helmets were playing the role of “the other team” in ESPN’s highlight packages. After a blowout home loss to Oregon, the season never recovered.
It’s something of a joke at Michigan that the team could go 2-9, so long as those two wins are against Michigan State and Ohio State (add a third victory if Michigan plays Notre Dame that season).
But Lloyd Carr had lost 6 of his 7 games against OSU coach Jim Tressel, including the last four. Until the 41-38 defeat of defending-champion Florida in the Capital One Bowl — Carr’s last game at Michigan — Michigan had endured a similar skid in bowl games.
PERHAPS PRESAGING THAT 2008 was a year of “Change,” Athletic Director Bill Martin took the football program in a new direction by hiring Rodriguez, and his spread-option offense, to replace Carr and the Big Ten traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” attack.
But Change campaigns necessarily require leaps of faith. The first is that Rodriguez will find someone to spell Pat White in his niche system.
The position was all but set-aside for all-world recruit Terrelle Pryor, before Pryor settled for Ohio State. This leaves Rodriguez to choose between a freshman transfer from Georgia Tech (Steve Threet) and a walk-on sophomore (Nick Sheridan), neither of whom has run the option.
Then there’s Justin Boren, who’d be more of a Judas among the Michigan faithful if anyone actually knew who he was. Boren, Michigan’s most experienced offensive guard, transferred to blood rival Ohio State, citing a supposed “decline in family values” under Rodriguez.
But experience might have proven a detriment. Michigan’s new Strength & Conditioning coach Mike Barwis told reporters that safety Ryan Mundy, who transferred from Michigan to West Virginia under a now-closed loophole, had some initial difficulties with the new S & C system and adjusting to his new coaches.
As Mundy explained to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of the difference between Carr and Rodriguez: “There’s a lot of yelling down here. Every coach yells, and every coach has his own way of getting his message across. When you’re older, it’s easier to hear the message, and not all the yelling.”
WHATEVER THE REAL reason for Boren’s departure — perhaps he couldn’t handle “all the yelling” — uncertainty abounds. So much so that it’s not unfair to ask whether Michigan is closer to West Virginia 2007 (11-2, 20-point win in a BCS game) or Notre Dame 2007 (3-9 and plenty of time to study for finals).
It’s tough to know that answer. Closing the annual Spring Game to the public didn’t help. As if it weren’t bad enough to hold the game at a high school (the Big House was under construction), only select media was permitted to attend. Everyone else must wait and see.
The Michigan faithful are also waiting-to-see whether Rodriguez can get on board with traditions held dear in Ann Arbor. “Change” might make the program nationally competitive once again, but tradition is half the fun in college football.
The Michigan Daily reports that Rodriguez didn’t know the words to the Michigan’s fight song at his inaugural press conference. “The Victors” is literally the first thing one learns at the University; even a freshman who will never attend a single football game knows it, or at least how to play along and when to pump his fists and scream “Hail!”
But Rodriguez appeared to be clueless about that.
The Detroit News, meanwhile, reports that Rodriguez has assigned the fabled #1 jersey — reserved, since 1979, for the team’s top upperclassman receiver and many years worn by no one at all — to an incoming freshman defensive back (#2, ever since Heisman winner Charles Woodson, is typically worn by the best defensive player, most recently by Shawn Crable, the newest New England Patriots linebacker).
Since there is a $500,000 scholarship associated with the jersey — which requires a check-in with former #1’s Braylon Edwards (Cleveland Browns) and Anthony Carter (the originator of the tradition) to ensure the candidate is suitable — Mr. J.T. Floyd’s reign as #1 will be short-lived. But Rodriguez’ ignorance of or disdain for the tradition isn’t an encouraging sign.
But winning is the most important tradition in Ann Arbor, and if Rodriguez can beat Ohio State — and save Michigan from its first-ever five game skid in the blood feud — all will be forgiven.
James David Dickson is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Spectator.
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