I'm back in DC this weekend for an interview with a local newspaper, which is irrelevant to this post other than to give you an update on my life. But it was on the train ride from New York to the nation's capital that it hit me how little I've been talking about Michigan sports on this blog lately.
I know most are very interested in the football team, but as many know I never covered the football team for the Daily, other than a couple stories here and there. So quickly, before I lose your attention, let me just alert you to the fact that John Beilein recently secured the best recruit of his coaching career when he signed 6-foot-3 point guard Darius Morris out of LA. Once winter hits, I'll have more on that team.
Now back to football and the beginning of the Rich Rod era. The team just began practice this week and anticipation is high with the coaches poll placing Michigan at No. 24, overlooking the fact that Michigan basically lost its entire offense. I don't want to go too much into this, but in my opinion, the team probably resides firmly in between that No. 24 ranking and SI's No. 55 designation. It just seems a lot of people are overly giddy about a squad that has to replace its starting QB, RB, and two WRs from a year ago, on top of having an extremely inexperienced offensive line in an offense that doesn't suit the team's skill set just yet anyways. If you want a true preview of what the team looks like heading into practice, I suggest reading Dan Feldman's pre-practice preview over at the Daily's blog, The Game.
One thing I think this year's version of the Wolverines has going in its favor is a lack of pressure — at least until that coach's poll came out. The expectations are lower than usual internally, and any scrutiny isn't being leveled on the players, it's more on their coach. Rich Rod has had the bright lights on him for some time now, with his departure from West Virginia and subsequent lawsuit shenanigans. I think he's dealt with it fairly well, considering he can't really defend himself until his team gets on the field. I'm willing to guess if reporters ask him after the season just how hard it was, he'll describe this offseason as the toughest of his career. I think everyone, Rich Rod included, just wants to start playing games already so the focus can return to football.
But in watching Michigan's new coach the past few months, a parallel struck me that I want to expound on. Now everyone who has attended a Rich Rod press conference will tell you the guy can make anyone laugh with some of his one-liners. And while he can be entertaining in that regard, those same one-liners also cover up a particular sleaziness about Rich Rod that almost every college coach this side of Lloyd Carr has somewhere in them. Basically, what I'm trying to say is what Rich Rod says is important, but how he says it is even more critical. While you recognize his ability to coach a football team, the way he talks about issues makes you realize he's got something underneath the exterior that may or may not be something people want to know. While it may seem troubling, it's a characteristic a lot of coaches have (and some say need to have).
Well you know who else has that same honky dory personality on the outside that hides something a little sleazier on the inside? Mr. Bill Self, head basketball coach of the National Champion Kansas Jayhawks. I remember sitting at his press conference at Ford Field following the Jayhawks' win over Davidson to get to the Final Four, and thinking about Rich Rod as Self slyly negotiated through question after question about his past inability to make it to the Final Four and about the looming matchup with his predecessor at Kansas, Roy Williams. Self aw shucked his way through it all even though everyone in the room knew damn straight he was more relieved than anyone else to get the Final Four monkey off his back. In fact when someone asked him about that monkey, his response was something along the lines of "man it sure was heavy too", trying to draw chuckles from the audience.
However, I sat courtside at that Elite 8 game against Davidson, and listening to Self scream obscenities at his players' mistakes made it hard to believe he was simply Mr. woo sah (Anger Management reference) when it comes to life. Seriously, in that game, I think Darrell Arthur was told he was fucking lazy so often that I was on the verge of getting a thesaurus out so I could tell Self to at least change his phrasing once in awhile, and call Arthur fucking sedentary so the message would get across better. And according to reports, Rich Rod shares the same affinity for cursing, and apparently it's a sight to be seen when he lambasts one of his players.
But it isn't just their manner of speaking that go me thinking Rich Rod and Bill Self are long lost brothers from another mother. Their career trajectories have followed similar patterns in their respective sports. Self started out as a head coach at Oral Roberts and promptly had the worst record in that school's history, winning six games in the 1993-94 campaign. Rich Rod started out as a head coach at rinky dink Glenville State and went 1-7-1 in 1990. Both coaches improved slightly in their second seasons, with Self winning 10 games and Rich Rod winning four. And after that, both Oral Roberts and Glenville State reached their realistic peak, with Self leading Oral Roberts to an NIT bid and Rich Rod winning Glenville State's conference four years in a row.
From Oral Roberts, Self went onto Tulsa, where he finally got his name on the map, leading the Golden Hurricanes to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. He even made a run to the Elite Eight during the 2000 season. But this is where the parallel gets a little iffy, because Rich Rod went the offensive coordinator route following his stint at Glenville. But like Self, who took Tulsa to the very peak of where a program of their capability can go (the Elite Eight), Rich Rod was a key cog on staffs at Tulane and Clemson, where those programs reached heights they haven't really seen since. See, Rich Rod was in New Orleans when Tulane, led by quarterback Shaun King, went 12-0. And he was in Death Valley as offensive coordinator of Clemson in 1999 and 2000 when the Tigers made the Peach Bowl and Gator Bowl in consecutive seasons. Now as an ACC squad, Clemson does have the resources and schedule-making capabilities to make a National title run, but let's not forget they haven't made it to a BCS bowl since 1981 when they went to the Orange Bowl. So I'd say Rich Rod played a key role in taking them right to the cusp of true greatness, just like Self did at Tulsa (although I don't think Tulsa has the resources to at least dream of a national title every year like Clemson).
Here's the part of this connection everybody is familiar with. Bill Self used his success at Tulsa and landed a job coaching Illinois, where he assembled one helluva recruiting class featuring Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. For the record, those three are the sole reason Self's eventual replacement at Illinois, Bruce Weber, still has a job in the Big Ten. In Champaign, Self won the Big Ten twice and again made it to the Elite Eight (i.e. the cusp of true greatness). Rich Rod went from offensive coordinator to head coach at his alma mater, West Virginia. After a couple shaky years where he was getting the program back on shaky footing, Rich Rod led the Mountaineers to cusp of a national title last season before losing to rival Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl.
So will Rich Rod follow the same pattern as Self, and finally win his national title now that he's at a traditional powerhouse? I think eventually he will, just like my man, Self. Remember before this past season, Self's Jayhawks flopped in a bad way in the NCAA Tournament. If you look at Self's track record, it took a lot of almost but not quite enough performances to finally break the seal and win a title. I kind of see the same thing in Rodriguez's future.
Anybody predicting better than an 8-4 record for Michigan football this season is either a gigantic homer with no regard for realistic expectations (kind of like me with the Redskins) or just doesn't know football. But l concur with most experts: give Rich Rod a couple years to recruit and implement his system, and then we'll see him break through like Self did in April. If you think like me, the connection and career path between both country-twanged men is unmistakable.