Commentary

The pressure is on

Weis, Rodriguez could use some positive momentum

Originally Published: September 9, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

All things being equal -- like money, health, affinity for logoed polo shirts and proclivity for the spread offense -- who would you rather be right now: Michigan's Rich Rodriguez or Notre Dame's Charlie Weis? It's a bit like saying, would you rather have your head in an oven or your feet in the frying pan?

I'm no fan of the heat, so I'd say neither, none of the above, and what time does USC trounce Ohio State?

To be either coach is to be suffocated by unreachable goals, unimaginable pressure and your own unbridled ego. All you hear about is what have you done for me lately, clean up your own mess, and make us more money. I bet these two didn't think they'd get married again without getting divorced.

To be a fan of Michigan or Notre Dame is to know that your team can't compete annually with the SEC or the top-tier Pac-10 or Big 12 programs when it comes to money games after Jan. 1, especially the big one.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Brian SpurlockCharlie Weis is trying to portray Saturday's showdown with Michigan as just another game.

There was a time when every kid from New York to Des Moines who wasn't an Ohio State fan would have given his G.I. Joe collection to be a Fighting Irish or Michigan man. Not anymore.

College football is all about speed, explosion plays, and shootouts under the lights in Florida or Texas or Southern California. The Big Ten is an annual joke among fans of the heavy hitters. Like, "Who is Ohio State going to lose to this year?" And Notre Dame? They're your grandpa's team, as relevant as a rerun of M*A*S*H. But there's something to be said for history, and these two schools have it, ad infinitum.

Notre Dame and Michigan. For a Midwestern kid, these were two schools you could count on for stability, as in, you knew they'd be on TV every Saturday, running a pretty basic offense with a recognizable defense. This was the football you grew up with. Now they're working relics trying to be "saved" by so-called offensive geniuses who could lose their respective minds trying to perfect their philosophies. Michigan used to be a place that produced pros; Notre Dame was, too. It wasn't so bad, was it? Each program, throttled with ambition, broke its own mold in hiring these coaches, and now they're dealing with the mixed results.

You have to wonder how long these two coaches will last at programs that have yet to prove ready to be counted in the BCS endgame. Just two years ago, both of these proud football schools looked like New Year's roadkill.

Losses to Appalachian State (Michigan) and Navy and Air Force (Notre Dame) in 2007 didn't inspire the masses to hum "Hail to the Victors" or the "Notre Dame Victory March."

Michigan won that year's matchup with the Irish, 38-0, and turned around its season, Lloyd Carr's last as head coach, after an 0-2 start. Notre Dame wound up going 3-9, which brought out the wolves in South Bend and in the national media. Charlie Weis didn't look much like a genius when Ty Willingham's star players left.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIs Rich Rodriguez a "Michigan Man?" Off-field indications are not encouraging.

The Irish, who went a disappointing 7-6 last season, won the last game, as expected, while Michigan sputtered to its own 3-9 season as players recruited under former coach Carr tried to adjust to Rodriguez's system, which was meant to erase Carr's oft-boring yet often victorious style.

Weis said he hopes his team isn't looking for revenge in Ann Arbor, even though this program needs every big-time win it can get, and two in a row over Rodriguez would be nice.

"We're only talking about this year. We're not worrying about anything from any other time except this week," Weis said Tuesday at his news conference. "We're not going to spend any time talking about last week, let alone the last time we were there. We're just moving forward."

Of course, that's just coach talk. If Weis doesn't remind his team of the whipping it took in Michigan last year, then I'm not the biggest Ohio University fan (typing this column). If Rich Rod isn't scheming to blow the doors off Notre Dame's defense, then Chicago's myriad bars won't be packed with thousands of alums, both real and subway, to watch this game Saturday afternoon.

Both of these coaches desperately need this game, to satisfy their donors, to quiet the media, to fortify recruiting and to keep their bosses happy, whether they want to admit it or not. This rivalry doesn't have the meaning of Michigan-Ohio State or the glitz of Notre Dame-USC, but as Weis said, this game is important for today.

Right now, Michigan and Notre Dame are at existential crossroads.

In one corner, you have Rich Rodriguez, aka "Rich Rod," the offensive guru who is trying to jam the spread offense into the square-peg program that advocated the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust ethos that defined the Big Ten for decades. Michigan may have revolutionized helmet design, but Rodriguez has his hands full instituting his offense, which requires a dual-threat quarterback, like WVU legend Pat White, to succeed. The traditional Michigan quarterback has more lead in his feet than a NASCAR driver.

After an expected, but still embarrassing, start, Rodriguez's honeymoon period was already gone.

In the past few weeks, he has to deal with player insurrections over possible NCAA violations, and an awkward $3.9 million loan he's accused of defaulting on in a real estate deal gone awry in Blacksburg, Va. Not to mention the player who transferred last year to Ohio State because of alleged practice misconduct by Rodriguez, and the $1.5 million Rodriguez had to pay his old employer, West Virginia University, after prolonged litigation. (Michigan paid an additional $2.5 million to help settle the deal.) The Detroit Free Press, which broke the story of players' anonymously decrying extra work, continues to hammer Rodriguez. Alumni are upset over the slow start and the extra heat he's brought the school.

Other than that, the move to Michigan has been fantastic.

Needless to say, a win over Western Michigan never felt so good.

"It was a nice win for Michigan," Rodriguez told reporters after last week's game. "Maybe I'll sleep two hours tonight."

If a football program had a collective conscience, Michigan's would abhor the Rich Rod experience thus far and be genuinely frightful of what's to come. Is Rodriguez really the mythical "Michigan Man"? Does such a man still exist, or is that ideal as antiquated as the Marlboro Man and the two-receiver formation in college?

While Rodriguez plays the role of rebel outsider, Charlie Weis is the long-lost son made good who has had to deal with the nightmare of failing at his dream job.

Weis made the impossible journey, going from just another Notre Dame student to the school's head coach in less than 30 years.

Weis came back to South Bend, fresh from winning Super Bowls with Bill Belichick, as blustery as Lou Holtz on a root beer bender. Remember his promise of "a decided schematic advantage" when he was hired before the 2005 season? Now it's his version of "Mission Accomplished."

He had two good seasons, with Willingham's players, but since then, he's become so hated by a plurality of the school's rabid fan base, that a group of football alumni paid for a billboard decrying his "coaching internship." Mercifully, it was taken down quickly.

He still has to deal with the really important, impatient alumni, the kind who write checks for weight rooms, not billboards, along with old coaches like Holtz, who brazenly predicted an appearance in the national championship game for a team that was happy to win the Hawaii Bowl.

The true test of Rodriguez's fledgling Michigan career will be whether his Wolverines defense can handle Notre Dame's twin receivers, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, and the well-tested junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who is 37-for-44 for 716 yards and nine touchdown passes in his last two games, going back to last season's bowl win over Hawaii. Floyd had 189 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the 35-0 win over Nevada last week.

This game is just a game, they'll say. It's the second week of September, they'll say. But it's not true. College football is winner-take-all. Every Saturday counts, and when you look back on the season later, some count more than others.

I'm not a slave to the past, or to the orthodoxy of collegiate traditions, but Michigan versus Notre Dame is about as pure a college football rivalry as it gets, and there should be some celebration of that.

From Bo Schembechler to Touchdown Jesus, an air of religiosity abounds in both programs. More people pray in their stadiums than in Vatican City on a Saturday. And of course, more people swear as well.

More than 30 years ago, Charlie Weis, Class of 1978, was one of those congregants, even though Notre Dame and Michigan didn't play each other during his undergrad years. He knows how this game will be looked upon.

"I think because both teams were somewhat question marks going into the opening week and both had sound, convincing wins, it's increased the interest of everyone else as it relates to the game," he said. "The trickle-down effect is that it permeates to the players."

The coaches, he said, know this is just another game to prepare for, another game to lose sleep over, another game they must win. A little more, perhaps, than the others.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.