June 25, 2010

Michigan Man: Thoughts on Rich Rodriguez, Michigan's future, Les Miles and the LSU Tigers, and why Jim Harbaugh might be next line in Ann Arbor.

Mojo is a weird thing in sports. One minute, you might be on top of the world, and the next minute you can't do anything right. Look at Rick Pitino. Two years ago, he was on top of the basketball world with maybe the #1 ranked team in America going into an Elite Eight game against Michigan State in Indianapolis. The man literally walked into the stadium to the sounds of “The Godfather” from the Louisville pep band. Since that date, the following has happened:

Got spanked by Michigan State
Major adultery scandal
Kentucky rises back to the top of the basketball world under John Calipari
Mediocre 20-13 season with a first round BET loss and first round NCAA Tournament exit
Loses highly-touted Brandon Teague to Kentucky

In the span of 16 months, Louisville basketball has become an afterthought. Unranked with no buzz and a coach who is licking his wounds after his personal business came out. Kentucky has blown past them as the king of the state once again, and there are even some whispers that folks in The ‘Ville want to make a change at the head coaching spot (if so, Swarbrick should be on the next flight to Louisville).

Add it up, and it’s just bad mojo. Once you start getting that bad mojo, it’s really hard to turn it around. Even if Pitino rights the ship to some degree with a good recruiting class in 2011, it’s hard not to feel like the aura of Rick Pitino might be over.

Anyway, that’s how I feel about Rich Rodriguez right now. I think Rich Rodriguez is a good football coach. I watched his teams at West Virginia, and always was extremely impressed with how they played. He had a reputation as an innovator, and people whose opinion I trust about football have always raved about him as a coach going all the way back to his days as an offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson.

If I had to put a number on it, I would have said I was about 80% confident that Rich Rodriguez would be a big star at Michigan when he was hired. I bought into all the stuff about him bringing the spread to the Big Ten and how he would bring the Michigan program into the modern world of college football with innovative offensive schemes and weight training and all that. If he could win at West Virginia, wouldn’t he inevitably produce top 10 teams at Michigan??

For whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out. It’s undeniable that he has been a complete disaster at Michigan, and I’m starting to buy into the idea that 2010 might be his last year in Ann Arbor.

Quick tangent here. If you think Rich Rodriguez hasn’t been a complete disaster thus far, I don’t know what to tell you. He took over a fairly solid and stable Michigan program and immediately ran them into the ground. 8-16 (3-13 in Big Ten play and 1-6 in November) in two years at a place that has cranked out 8-10 wins a year for about 100 years. Look at some of the losses they’ve had in the last two seasons:

Outscored by Illinois 83-33 in back to back losses
Outscored by Penn State 81-27 in back to back losses
Home loss to Toledo 13-10
Back to back losses to Purdue
Back to back losses to Michigan State
Outscored 63-17 by Ohio State in back to back losses

I mean, not only have they been losing games, they’ve generally been destroyed by teams. Losing to Illinois by 25 points in back to back years?? Seriously?? That’s not a complete disaster?? Ron Zook is hanging onto his job by a thread (and really should have been fired this past season when his team completely quit on him), and he looked like Bear Bryant against Rich Rodriguez. How does happen?? It’s Michigan! I don’t care if Desmond Howard was coaching them. You figure Michigan could be competitive during a transition period on pride and tradition and talent alone.

Michigan has been hands down the worst team in the Big Ten the last two seasons, and I don’t really see it getting any better for Michigan this season. From what I’ve read about their spring game, it sounds like their defense looked awful again. What is their identity now?? Try to outscore teams 45-42?? That’s not going to work in the Big Ten. You can’t win if you play zero defense.

Just looking at their schedule in 2010:

September 4, 2010 Connecticut
September 11, 2010 at Notre Dame
September 18, 2010 Massachusetts
September 25, 2010 Bowling Green
October 2, 2010 at Indiana
October 9, 2010 Michigan State
October 16, 2010 Iowa
October 30, 2010 at Penn State
November 6, 2010 Illinois
November 13, 2010 at Purdue
November 20, 2010 Wisconsin
November 27, 2010 at Ohio State

Do you see 7-8 wins on that schedule?? I’m not sure I do. Games against Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois really don’t look like lock wins based on what they have done the last couple years.

Besides, is 7-5/8-4 really considered progress for a Michigan coach?? Really??? I keep hearing that Michigan fans would be satisfied with 7-5, but I must have missed the memo that Michigan is now Minnesota. A good Michigan team would go minimum 9-3 against that schedule and probably be disappointed about losing 3 games. And even with those tough road games at Ohio State, Penn State, and Notre Dame, the goal before the season would have been to win the Big Ten title and play in the Rose Bowl. Instead, it seems like Michigan fans would be thrilled with an Alamo Bowl appearance this year. Strange stuff. What happened to the expectations at Michigan?? Games like Indiana and Purdue should not be intimidating for a Michigan fan.

It’s also starting to look like things are drying up a little bit on the recruiting trail for Rich Rodriguez. Coming off a year when he had all kinds of early playing time to sell to recruits (especially on defense), Michigan had the #20 recruiting class in 2010. Right now, they only have 5 commits in their 2011 class. Compare that to some of the other big name schools out there:

Notre Dame – 10
Alabama – 14
Texas – 21 (absurd!!!!!!!!!!)
USC – 8 (every guy but one is a 4 or 5 star and they always close late)
LSU – 11
Oklahoma – 16
Ohio State – 15

In other words, the big boys out there are sealing the deal early and often with the top talent. Doesn’t seem like Michigan is a player for the same caliber of guys right now.

Why has Rodriguez been such a bust at Michigan thus far?? I think it comes back to the mojo thing. For whatever reason, the fans and media and ex-players and current players haven’t seemed to buy in. It seems like every week there is some former player taking a shot at Rich Rodriguez. I don’t know what it is, but he doesn’t seem to be embraced with that whole “Michigan Man” aura that Carr and Schembechler had.

Doesn’t that eventually carry down to the current players?? If they don’t respect the coach, maybe they won’t put in that extra rep at the squat rack in the offseason. Or sell out to make that open field tackle. Or they maybe they aren’t concentrating on their assignments and make a mental error. All in all, it adds up to losing football, which has been very rare at Michigan in the last 100 years.

It reminds me a lot of the Billy Gillespie saga down in Lexington. By all accounts, Billy Gillespie is a good basketball coach who took over two programs that had been down in the dumps (UTEP and A&M) and won almost immediately. He was even recruiting well in the earlygoing at Kentucky (landing Daniel Orton). But as soon as they got blown out in that game at home by Gardner-Webb, I don’t think he ever recovered. Just bad mojo right from the start that snowballed over the next couple years. Even though he was still a good coach, he lost the fans and the players and couldn’t get rid of the cloud hanging over the program. I don't know if his personality was a bad fit or if it was some other reason, but Gillespie and Kentucky never clicked.

Rich Rodriguez needs to change the mojo this year to become more of a “Michigan Man”, or I think he’s done. Forget the wins and losses for a second. He needs to put teams out on the field that look like Michigan teams. Hard-nosed, tough, solid backbone on defense, good line play. I don’t see how getting blown out 3-4 times and going 7-5 with a lousy defense is progress, and I would imagine that new AD David Brandon feels the same way behind the scenes. If they don't pass the look test, I think he'll be gone.

Is Les Miles the answer at Michigan??

The interesting thing about the Michigan coaching situation is how things would proceed if Rich Rodriguez did get fired. The obvious name that will come up is Leslie Edwin Miles. You don’t get more “Michigan Man” than “Have a GREAT day.”

But here’s my question. Is Les Miles even going to be employed when Michigan tries to contact him??

Check out LSU’s schedule this year:

September 4 – North Carolina (Georgia Dome)
September 11 – at Vanderbilt
September 18 – Mississippi State
September 25 – West Virginia
October 2 – Tennessee
October 9 – at Florida
October 16 – McNeese State
October 23 – at Auburn
November 6 – Alabama
November 13 – Louisiana-Monroe
November 20 – Mississippi
November 27 – at Arkansas

(Pretty solid nonconference scheduling by the way – UNC and West Virginia. Impressive considering what they also have in conference play. Get on the horn, Swarbrick. We know LSU will play people).

Anyway, barring some sort of substantial improvement, I see a MINIMUM of 4 losses on that schedule (Florida, Auburn, Bama, Arkansas) with maybe a random Tennessee or West Virginia or someone else sprinkled in. I’d guess 7-5 or 8-4.

Keep in mind that LSU has gone 8-5 and 9-4 in back to back years. Not bad in the grand scheme of things, but LSU fans expect to compete for SEC titles not Capital One bowls. With the talent they have on the roster every year, there’s no reason LSU isn’t right there neck and neck with Bama in the SEC West and looking dominant for most of the year. Instead, they looked downright lackluster in 2009 and really played poorly down the stretch. They came within an eyelash of going 0-5 down the stretch, including a near loss at home to Louisiana-Monroe.

LSU fans also see what Nick Saban is doing at Alabama, and it’s quickly becoming clear that Les Miles does not even sniff Saban in terms of running a program. Miles took over a loaded situation at LSU, won a title, and has steadily declined ever since. Meanwhile, Saban shows up at a downtrodden Alabama, and already has won 2 SEC West titles and a national championship. It doesn’t make things any easier for Les Miles that Nick Saban is dominating the same division of the same conference that LSU is in.

Miles is still getting it done on the recruiting trail, but isn’t that job sort of on autopilot in terms of recruiting?? He has insane talent right in his backyard every year and can get a top 5-10 class with Louisiana and east Texas talent alone. Couldn’t just about any coach pull in a top 10 class at LSU??

I’m not privy to any insider info on LSU football, but I gotta think the locals are getting a little tense about the current state of LSU football. They have national championship type talent, but seem to have underachieved the last couple years. Maybe Les Miles bounces back with a vengeance in 2010 and wins the SEC West title (or at least wins double digit games and comes within an eyelash of beating Alabama), but I really don’t see it happening.

If LSU goes 7-5 this year, would they fire Les Miles?? Would it even remotely shock anyone?? I know he won a national title, but the trend downward would be pretty apparent by that point. I could definitely see it happening, especially if there was an obvious candidate for the job out there (Will Muschamp, etc) who wanted the job.

How funny would it be if LSU fired Les Miles and then Michigan hired him as their “Michigan Man” savior?? Would there be any better example of how much Michigan’s stature has diminished in the college football world?? They’d be taking the scraps of a guy who couldn’t hack it in the SEC.

I think there’s like a 40-50% chance that this scenario plays out. Maybe higher. Either LSU fires Miles, or he gets so uncomfortable that he bolts for Ann Arbor. I think that would be a disastrous hire for Michigan. Sure he’d get them back to playing “Michigan football” with more of a hard-nosed approach, but would he win Big Ten titles?? Probably not. I’d guess you could pencil him in for a series of 8-4/9-3 type years at Michigan with top 20ish recruiting. Sure, it would be “improvement,” but is that all Michigan fans want?? Outback Bowls???

Will Jim Harbaugh work his way into the Michigan mix??

There’s another name that will inevitably come up, and this name scares me as an ND fan:

James Joseph Harbaugh

Heck, I wrote like a 5,000 word post on this site wanting Harbaugh hired at Notre Dame.

I don’t care if he’s the biggest jerk on the planet. The guy can coach, and he prefers a style of ball that is made for a Big Ten type job. Smashmouth, physical football with good line play and a good running game. When I watch Stanford play, it is how Michigan used to play in the old days. We're running the ball down your throat, and there's nothing you can do about it. And if you want to cheat up in the box, we'll kill you with play action from our big armed QB. No matter how old school that formula is, it can still work if you have a coach who knows how to implement it. Control the lines and grind out wins. That’s Michigan football circa 1968-2007. Harbaugh is doing it with Stanford talent. If you gave him Michigan’s resources, I would be shocked if he wasn’t successful.

Plus, he has the larger than life type personality that you need on the recruiting trail, and I would guess that his “mojo score” would be off the charts. He’d show up and call out Ohio State at his first press conference and probably predict a win. Maybe that stuff is a little brash, but it works.

Look at what Harbaugh is doing in recruiting this year. He’s already brought in 18 guys with 7 four stars. It’s your classic Michigan style recruiting class too with big linemen, front 7 guys, multiple running backs, and a big pro style QB. He’s blowing Rich Rodriguez out of the water at a school that has substantially more rigid academic standards and far less commitment to football excellence than Michigan.

The other thing is that Harbaugh really hits it hard nationally in recruiting with guys from Texas and New Jersey and Indiana and Georgia. At a place like Michigan that needs to get out to California and other places nationally to recruit, they are going to need a coach who can come in right away and hit the ground running all over the country for talent.

Rich Rodriguez seems to want to lower expectations every time he opens his mouth. Harbaugh would be talking about winning a Big Ten title in his first year. Is he a loose cannon?? Yes, no question. But would he win at Michigan?? Ummm, yes.

Stanford doesn't have an easy schedule this year, but with Andrew Luck back, you have to figure they'll be an 8-9ish win team and probably a contender in the Pac 10. If they do that, Harbaugh is going to be an extremely hot commodity in the 2011 offseason. I don’t think there’s any question that an NFL team is going to come hard after him considering what his brother has done with the Ravens. If the 49ers go into the tank this year with Mike Singletary (and keep in mind that their QB is Alex Smith), why wouldn’t they want to talk to Jim Harbaugh??

If Michigan wants to get him on board and keep him from going to the NFL, they'll probably have to pull the trigger on him in 2011. Heck, I'd be talking to his agent right now to gauge his interest.

Is Michigan football capable of bouncing back??

Michigan didn’t have a broken formula when Lloyd Carr left. They were cranking out top 10 recruiting classes every year, and here were Lloyd Carr’s last five seasons:

2003 – 10-3 (Rose Bowl – lost to USC)
2004 – 9-3 (Rose Bowl – lost to Texas in the VY coming out party game)
2005 – 7-5 (lost to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl)
2006 – 11-2 (Rose Bowl – lost to USC)
2007 – 9-4 (Capital One Bowl – beat Florida)

I mean, that’s not stellar or anything, but that’s like .750 football or something along those lines. 46-17 with 3 Rose Bowl appearances. And that was with an older Lloyd Carr who probably wasn’t as hungry as he was early in his head coaching career.

The point is that the Michigan brand was strong when Lloyd Carr left. They always recruited some big armed QB, good linemen, good skill guys, a stable of running backs, and quality front seven guys. They’d build their classes around Michigan and Ohio guys but also dipped into California and other places for skill players and high end guys.

In retrospect, they didn’t need to change the way they did things. They just needed to find a younger, hungrier Lloyd Carr who could continue the legacy of doing things “The Michigan Way,” but also bring some new energy and attitude to the program.

If I was David Brandon, that guy would be Jim Harbaugh.

Should be a fascinating season in Ann Arbor. As a Notre Dame fan, I can't help but pay attention to what is going on up there. Even though I have enjoyed watching Michigan go into the tank the last couple years, college football is not the same when schools like Michigan and ND are down. ND-Michigan should be a monster game every year instead of an afterthought game on the college football schedule. If we are going to play them every year as one of our "big games," beating them is more significant when Michigan is ranked and a contender in the Big Ten.

Can’t wait to see how it all plays out.


Anonymous said...

RR is a sleaze ball. He just has that look to him that says he's a prick, he's not trustworthy and he thinks too highly of himself.

There's no way he lasts into 2011. I'm looking at their schedule and I have a hard time believing they'll win more than 4 games. I thought that most UM fans would be readying themselves for 9 wins, but even most of them are conceding 7 will be tough. Which means they'll need to beat UConn, ND and Purdue, all three of which they most likely will not be favored in.

Where are the studs on this team? They've been horrible defensively and it doesn't look to be any better in 2010. I think their offense has potential to be really strong, but I don't trust that system. Personally, I think RR benefitted from coaching Pat White and Slaton...two of the best players in recent college history. There's no one on UM's roster with that kind of talent. They have a few nice weapons on offense now, but having to run the ball so much w/o the help of the White/Slaton's of the world is difficult.

I thought last year's ND-UM was the most unlucky contest in recent Irish history. I'm preparing myself for a complete blowout in the fall and I really mean that. We crushed them in 08, should have won easily last year, and this year I bet we win something like 48-20.

Don't think Miles is the answer. The only reason I'd hire him if I was UM would be to improve the defense, but he's not going to be getting LSU-type players in Ann Arbor. And their offense will never be better than average, which as Miles has shown at LSU, won't make you an elite team.

Harbaugh is interesting. I think Stanford stumbles this year though, probably a 7-6 season. I think it'll probably make Harbaugh more likely to bolt then. You would think he'll have UM back in contention in year two.

Anonymous said...

I really wonder how Stanford does without Toby. The guy had 27 touchdowns just last year. Who can replace him?

My guess is they go 5-7, maybe even 4-8. Not a chance they have a winning season (imho).

Anonymous said...

Both Michigan and LSU have done better than you thought, dumb-a**.

F said...

Are you kidding me?? I was reading this blog after hoping to find out who might lead Michigan out of the darkness (and prevent us from a Lost Decade of competitive relevance like your ND) and was shocked to see it was written 7 months ago. Nostradamus couldn't have described the situation any better. Please sir, will my Bears win the Super Bowl.

Blue in Chicago