Tuesday, November 22, 2011

He's back, in Bear Down form

Rich Rodriguez is the head coach at Arizona. It's pretty weird to type that sentence and end it with "Arizona" instead of "Michigan." Watching his introductory press conference Tuesday was like watching ... umm ... man, I dunno. Something kinda awkward. The Arizona pin and red-with-blue-trim tie just seemed so weird.

I want to root* for Rich Rodriguez. I want to root for him for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I think he's a genuinely good guy who's a genuinely good coach and was just sort of in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong idea of how to handle a defense. Like I said yesterday, there's a lot to the RichRod-at-Michigan story that's not known (or not known correctly). At the bottom of every "Rodriguez hired at Arizona" story are a bunch of horrifyingly dumb comments that are causing me to have seizure-like flashbacks to every Michigan message-board discussion from 2008-10. I'd almost moved on.

Let's start with this: Arizona did pretty well for itself. Urban Meyer's not coming to Tucson to take over a program that's roughly the Pac-12 equivalent of Texas Tech or Purdue but with a tougher path to a conference title. Say what you want about the last three years, but when Nick Foles was a freshman, Rich Rodriguez had West Virginia at No. 1 in the country and within four points of the national title game the year after turning down the Alabama job that eventually went to Nick Saban. Saying his stock has dropped would be like saying (insert Enron joke here); that's a given. But he didn't get stupid the day he went to Michigan. Buying low and hoping to get the four-years-ago results instead of the Michigan results is a value** bet.

RichRod can flat-out coach a running game. I watched for three years as Michigan's ground game went from 3.91 yards a carry (about average for the previous decade) to 4.52 (the best Michigan season since before Carr) to 5.58 (basically Oregon). Some of that had to do with the quarterbacks and some of it had to do with the development of the offensive line, but a lot of it was just strategically manufactured via pulling H-backs and using the backside zone to destroy the scrape and embarrassing safeties who did anything other than hang out on the deep hashes. Everything had a purpose and played off of something else; hence my love for bubble screens and high-lowing corners who hang out in the flats. The passing game in general is somewhat rudimentary (it's pretty hard to compare that with what Al Borges is doing), but the aforementioned stuff worked because it was designed entirely to stop defenses from doing what they want to do to defend the spread 'n' shred.

One of the 47,000 soul-punching debates that went on every week in the Michigan blogosphere was whether the offense actually "worked" since most games against real teams ended with Michigan scoring nowhere close to enough points despite racking up a bunch of yards. I will argue until the day I die that the offense was never the problem. When the offense puts up 480 yards and 14 points because Tate Forcier throws three red-zone picks or Denard turns it over four times on the other side of the 50, that's not the offense; that's a first-year starting quarterback doing things first-year starting quarterbacks usually do. RichRod never had the benefit of a second-year starter or a good defense (you know there's more on that coming), which turned out to be a turnover-tastic combination.

The one concern I had/have about his offense is this: It seemed to wane in effectiveness over the course of the season. The passing game is dependent on fairly precise timing/accuracy on the short stuff (I bet Tate Forcier got told "THREE STEPS!" more times than my 4-year-old gets told to stop fighting), and the whole thing is pretty heavily dependent on the quarterback and a bunch of (typically) undersized skill-position guys. The inane "SPREAD DOESN'T WORK RABBLE RABBLE BIG TEN TOUGHNESS RABBLE" stuff came across as pretty dumb when Michigan was easily averaging more yards per carry than Wisconsin, but the passing game did seem to be a lot more closely related to the weather conditions than it should have been. Whether that was a real thing or just an experience issue is hard to say since most of his recruits at Michigan are just now juniors and are now doing entirely different things in the passing game. It also shouldn't matter at all in Tucson (which isn't exactly Madison in terms of November weather), so that's nice.

The transitions have never gone well offensively (first-year records of 2-8, 1-7-1, 3-8, 3-9), so anyone expecting to add water and get instant 2007 West Virginia is in for some serious disappointment. But I have little doubt that within three years, the UA running game will be one of the two or three best in the conference and the offense as a whole will be something of an Oregon Lite that puts up yards and points on the regular. This has never NOT happened at any of his previous stops. The offense will be good.

The defense ... ummm ... yeah. Rodriguez was a linebacker in college who stumbled into one of the brilliant offensive innovations of the past 20 years (the zone read) and apparently never thought about defense again. It's definitely not his specialty, nor should it be since he's the de facto offensive coordinator (he was also the special-teams coach at Michigan, although I have no idea if he'll continue that at Arizona). He won't spend much time on it and therefore lives and dies with the quality of his D-coordinator. At Michigan, he died.

Jeff Casteel could have changed that. A large part of West Virginia's awesomeness under RichRod was a kinda-unique 3-3-5 stack D that didn't get much recognition but was actually pretty good; they've now finished in the top 15 in total defense three times in the past six years and have been in the top 40 every year but one since Casteel became the full-time D-coordinator in '05. The guy knows what he's doing. He also had a deal in place with Michigan (just like every other member of that West Virginia staff other than totally illogical replacement Bill Stewart) before bailing at the last minute when Stewart offered him a significant raise and a three-year guarantee, something Michigan wouldn't match because Michigan is just so awesome that everybody should coach there for free (duh). If Jeff Casteel ends up at Arizona next year, there's a good chance I'll throw something at the wall and start questioning my existence. There's also a good chance Arizona will be really good in the near future.

Casteel aside, a lot of RichRod's defensive problems at Michigan were his own doing. His first outside hire was Stanford D-coordinator Scott Shafer, a.k.a. the blitz-happiest dude this side of Rex Ryan. He runs a 4-3 and brings pressure like a mofo. That's what he does; he does it well. That's also what Michigan did for the first half of '08, when the defense was OK and held a couple teams to less than a billion points. The week leading up to the Purdue game that year was kinda the turning point: Rodriguez somewhat infamously mandated a switch to a 3-3-5 (whether that was truly his decision or a caving to the defensive guys from West Virginia has never been made totally clear) that turned out to be a complete disaster. Proof: Purdue 48, Michigan 42. Shafer was rightfully pissed and demanded a switch back to the 4-3 for the next game, which not coincidentally was a 29-6 road pasting of a decent Minnesota team (this was before Minnesota fell off a cliff). Shafer "resigned" after the season. There's a widely circulated rumor that he agreed to take the blame for everything if Rodriguez would privately acknowledge that defensive backs coach Tony Gibson was "the worst coach in the country." True or not, this is the stupid stuff that happens when you hire a coordinator to do one thing and have a bunch of assistants who do something else.

Also, a picture says 1,000 words:

Y U SO AWFUL??? Hiring a guy who'd taken Syracuse from "bad" to "black hole" turned out to be not such a good idea. Also not a good idea: Forcing another 4-3 guy to run a 3-3-5 that he had no idea how to run (this is what the insider-y people were saying, anyway). The complete lack of competence in every area makes me skeptical that GERG could have produced a decent defense under any circumstances, so it's kinda hard to know exactly what role the force-fed system played. Everything about Michigan's defense the last two years was a complete and total disaster. This can't be understated.

I saw a thread pop up on MGoBlog the other day that was titled something like, "If RichRod learned at anything at Michigan, it's ____." To me, the answer's easy: Find a good defensive coordinator and get out of his way. He hired a pretty good coordinator in Shafer and screwed it up; he hired a bad one in GERG and never got another chance. He's got a fresh start now and a chance to prove that he knows what he doesn't know, if that makes sense. He knows offense and will have success there regardless of just about any/all variables. He doesn't know defense and needs to be find somebody who does. IMO, his ability to do so is what'll determine his degree of success at Arizona. Nobody wins big without a defense. That's the one significant difference between last year's Michigan that lost by five touchdowns to Mississippi State and this year's Michigan that's a win away from a BCS game.

And then there's the other stuff. I could write 3,000 words here just refuting all the garbage that's been printed in the last three years and rehashed in the last 24 hours. Following a team at a micro level obviously provides some perspective; when you see/read/hear everything, you have the context that most people don't have. I don't even know where to start, but I guess the logical place would be the NCAA stuff since that's what everybody seems to be throwing around as "baggage" or whatever.

Without getting into the "everybody does it blah blah" argument, anyone who thinks RichRod runs a rogue program or participates in Tressel-style rules avoidance is a moron and a MORAN:

Since you don't care as much about Michigan football as I do and therefore didn't follow all the small print regarding the NCAA investigation, here's what it boiled down to: 15 minutes of practice-time overage per day (this was due to Michigan compliance director Ann Vollano incorrectly informing the staff that pre-practice stretching was not countable time) and several graduate assistants improperly observing some gray-area 7-on-7 offseason stuff. The latter violation led to this legendary exchange:


Rodriguez reportedly submitted descriptions of the quality-control staffers' job duties to director of football ops Brad Labadie, but they were never actually turned in to the compliance office. If they had been, the compliance people likely would have recognized the problem with QC dudes being involved in voluntary workouts and nipped things in the bud.

The practice-time thing still makes my blood boil because (a) it was an unintentional rules misinterpretation that never should have approached "major violation" status and (b) it only became known because somebody in the athletic department leaked an internal report to the Free Press regarding missing practice forms. There's no good reason to do this other than (insert conspiracy theory here). Long story short: Labadie stopped turning in CARA forms (a Michigan-specific form that serves as a practice log) to the compliance office back in 2007, when Lloyd Carr was still coaching. The coach is not supposed to be involved in these, which seems obvious since he's the one person who might have some motivation to fudge the details. Anyway, this continued for about a year, at which point an internal review turned up a complete lack of football reports and something like 200 emails were exchanged between compliance, Labadie and assistant AD for football Scott Draper. My favorite:
Draper replies that Brad is acquiring the "last remaining signature[s]" from the seniors.
The forms weren't turned in until five months later. There were no player signatures on them. AAAAAARRRRGHGHGHGHGHGH. There's a reason Labadie was gone like a month after the NCAA penalties came down. There's also a reason Michigan successfully argued to have RichRod's "failure to monitor" charge dropped: The whole thing came about because the people in football ops (all of whom were holdovers from at least the Carr era) did absolutely nothing while raking in about $80K a year. West Virginia and Maryland ended up getting secondary violations for the exact same misinterpretations of stretching; the West Virginia thing makes sense since Rodriguez said he'd been using the same practice schedule all along and had never been informed of any issues.

Greg Byrne said this on Tuesday:
"He was very transparent with it, so much so that he said ‘We thought it was OK.’ We looked at it at West Virginia, and they were doing the same things there. Once they knew about it, they addressed it.”
It was painful to watch a guy who seemed to legitimately try to do things the right way get thrown under the bus by everybody with a working internet connection. Like I said earlier: wrong place, wrong time.

I should also go back a little to the unrelated West Virginia stuff. You probably don't care about all the stupid behind-the-scenes stuff that resulted in him bailing for Michigan less than a year after turning down a ridiculous offer from Alabama, but what you might be interested in is the lawsuit that added to the whole "DICKROD IS THE DEVIL" meme that might now be the West Virginia state motto.

Rodriguez had a buyout of $4 million. That's kind of a lot. Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman agreed to pay $2.5 million of it if necessary but wanted it negotiated down, and RichRod figured he could do so. He was wrong; West Virginia never backed down and eventually filed suit for the full amount, at which point Michigan said "oh poop" because Coleman had never told the regents that she'd agreed to pay a big chunk of it. RichRod was told to settle for the full $4 million (he had to pay $1.5 million) and not say anything. That was it.

It probably wouldn't have been an issue in the big picture if not for the other stuff, all of which sort of piled up to make things look a lot worse than they really were. Again, this is why I want to root for RichRod: He got buried in negative PR for a lot of stuff that either wasn't his fault or wasn't controllable. At the end of the day, he deserved/needed to be fired, but that's almost entirely because of the complete lack of progress on defense and the directly related inability to beat anybody decent.

A lot of people say he "never fit." That's true in a sense that the Michigan body rejected him like a mismatched organ from the beginning and made things excessively difficult. Whether he'd have won more games without all that stuff is just as unknowable as the question of whether he'd have kept his job with the same on-field performance but less off-the-field crap (my guess is he was getting fired regardless). I don't think Arizona will have that problem. The status of the program and the general expectations are a little different.

My expectations are what I mentioned before: a great running game (Mike Stoops says "what") and an Oregon Lite offense within about three years. The unknown variables are the defense and his ability to recruit the West Coast (a large majority of his recruiting connections are in the Southeast). That's why I'm so interested to see his staff; with the right people in place, he will win. Without them, he might be a run-oriented Mike Stoops.

*The only reason I'm saying "I want to root for Rich Rodriguez" and not "I'm rooting for Rich Rodriguez" is my mostly nominal allegiance to Arizona State. Dennis Erickson should have been gone a year ago and almost definitely will be gone at some point in the next 12 days; RichRod would've been a hell of a replacement. Alas. It's worth wondering if the Erickson situation gave Greg Byrne a little motivation to get RichRod locked up ASAP. If it works out, he deserves some serious props.

**I read once that every coaching hire is basically a gamble. If you hire Nick Saban, you're going in with pocket aces; that's as close to guaranteed success as you can get. If you hire Brady Hoke, you're going in with 10-9 suited; it's basically a coin flip because of the complete lack of a meaningful track record. I'd say RichRod is about a king-six; his offense alone puts him halfway to success, but halfway isn't all the way.


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