College football coaching is a fitness test. The coach has to fit the program, or things won't work.
The last three years at the University of Michigan have underscored this fact.
Rich Rodriguez never truly fit with Michigan. His background didn't fit. His personality didn't fit. His style of play didn't fit. His style of players didn't fit. Even his accent didn't fit.
The hope heading into this odd marriage was that Rodriguez's track record of winning would make the fit factor go away. Michigan fans could learn to love an outsider -- not talking about an Ohio State guy, a real outsider -- if he won Big Ten championships and BCS bowl games.
But Rodriguez didn't win. At least not fast enough. He lost a lot of games his first two seasons and lost games by wide margins this fall. Saturday's 52-14 disaster against Mississippi State in the Progressive Gator Bowl -- the worst bowl defeat in Michigan history -- brought more shame to a shaken program.
It was the final straw for Rodriguez and Michigan fired the coach on Wednesday, ending his turbulent three-year tenure at the school.
Athletic director Dave Brandon let the process drag on way too long and put Rodriguez and his players in a bad spot, even in the end. But it seemed pretty clear Michigan would reach this point after Brandon didn't announce Rodriguez was staying immediately after the regular season.
Rodriguez often talked about the drama that seemed to envelop the Michigan program since he became coach in December 2007. His ugly departure from West Virginia didn't help matters. Neither did the lawsuit WVU filed against him. Or the NCAA investigation into Michigan's program that ended with the program being hit with major violations for the first time in its history. Or the Demar Dorsey controversy. Or the Josh Groban "You raise me up" fiasco at the team banquet in December.
The list goes on ...
Anyone else feel like Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan lasted a lot longer than three seasons?
There's the counterargument, of course, that Michigan didn't give Rodriguez enough time to get things on track.
He installed a dramatically different system and recruited different types of players. He also didn't inherit a wealth of talent, especially on defense, after Michigan's so-so recruiting classes in 2006 and 2007. And Rodriguez endured an incredible series of player departures and injuries, particularly this season on defense. He often cited youth and depth as problems, and while he was right on many levels, the excuses got old and drove Michigan fans crazy.
Although the team improved its record in each of the past two seasons, Rodriguez set the bar historically low in 2008 and his squads didn't make critical strides as seasons progressed. Michigan swept its nonconference slate in each of the past two seasons, but Rodriguez went just 6-18 in Big Ten play and 15-22 overall.
It seemed likely that seven wins would keep Rodriguez in Ann Arbor for another season. But when the competition improved in Michigan's final three games -- Wisconsin, Ohio State and Mississippi State -- the Wolverines fell apart, losing all three contests by a combined score of 137-49. Michigan simply didn't get better, especially on defense, leaving the program at a crossroads.
I was really interested to see if a guy who didn't fit the Michigan mold still could win there. Rodriguez enjoyed tremendous success at West Virginia and coached some of the nation's most dynamic and exciting offenses. While his offense caught on this season behind star quarterback Denard Robinson, the defense never got on track under coordinators Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson.
You never got the sense Rodriguez's overall style clicked at Michigan.
One question I often asked myself is whether Rodriguez would ever get enough of his prototypical players into Michigan. He talked a few times about wanting to add junior college players, which was unlikely at U-M. Michigan's academic standards certainly provided a challenge for the coach. Think of Rodriguez's best players from the past and then ask yourself: Could they have been admitted to Michigan? That's not a knock against Rodriguez, but it underscores the fit factor.
Two things for Michigan fans to note going forward:
1. Be prepared for Rich Rodriguez to win again. Rodriguez didn't become a bad coach overnight, and if he's in the right spot -- like Clemson, South Carolina, perhaps even Pitt -- he'll do some major damage.
2. A coaching change isn't a panacea, and Michigan likely will take several steps back before moving forward. Rodriguez recruited to his system for the last few years, and Michigan's wait to make this move could prove disastrous for the 2011 recruiting class. The new coach likely will run a different system, and it's tough to see how the Wolverines won't backslide.
I felt all along that Michigan should only fire Rodriguez if it could land Jim Harbaugh as his replacement. Harbaugh reportedly is unlikely to return to his alma mater, which leaves Michigan in a bit of a bind. We'll get to the search later.
But whomever Michigan hires needs to fit the program and its culture.
Rodriguez never passed the fitness test.