Rodriguez's style key to West Virginia's rise
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Dinner with some big-shot college football coaches starts with a $100 bottle of wine, continues with a $40 entrée and ends with a suitably decadent dessert.
Then there's dinner with Rich Rodriguez.
The West Virginia coach sticks a fork into a square slab of cafeteria lasagna at the Mountaineers football complex. His wife, Rita, and children, Raquel and Rhett, are eating dinner by his side. When they're done, they bus their brown plastic trays themselves.
This is livin', Coach Rod style.
Rodriguez last went to the theater 14 years ago -- hoping to see Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" but talked into "The Crying Game" by Rita. Since then, his films of choice all contain graphic scenes of blocking and tackling.
The innovative native of Grant Town, W.Va., is uncomplicated and unpretentious. His personality fits this program and this state like a pair of well-worn work gloves.
During dinner, the conversation that truly gets Rodriguez animated pertains not to the powerful buzz building around his sixth West Virginia team. Nor does it pertain to the steady stream of coaches from other schools who have visited this spring, cribbing ideas from one of America's foremost practitioners of the spread offense. (Dennis Franchione and the Texas A&M offensive staff were in Morgantown last Wednesday, and about 850 high school coaches came in from all over the nation for their clinic.) Rodriguez doesn't trust the hype.
"I don't worry about what's said in this building," he said. "What's said outside the building [to his players] is what worries me. Stay humble and hungry. We'll keep saying it until they get tired of hearing it."
Rodriguez's own humble-and-hungry days as a young coach are what really rev him up at the dinner table. The man has a gift for storytelling fit for an Appalachian front porch.
Like the time when he was the new head coach at Salem (W. Va.) College. He was promoted from assistant coach in May of 1988, after the previous head coach "bought a pontoon boat and a bar" and quit.
"I was the youngest head coach in America at 24," Rodriguez said. "I was fired at 25."
Not just fired; disbanded. About 13 months after he became head coach, Rodriguez remembers sitting in his office at Salem one June day, just a few weeks away from his wedding to Rita. He'd just bought his first house for $33,000. He was living large.
Then the phone rang around 8:30 a.m., and there was a reporter asking for his reaction to Teikyo University's buying Salem and discontinuing the football program. Rodriguez figured it was a friend playing a prank. Then the phone rang again, and it was a college coach asking whether Salem's players were going to transfer, and how he could get hold of them.
Finally, his athletic director popped his head in the door, well behind the breaking news.
"There will be a press conference today that is detrimental to your program," the AD said, then walked out.
Rodriguez picked up the phone and called Rita.
"The good news is, we're still getting married," he told her. "But I've got no job."
Rodriguez worked bus duty at the high school so he could leave at 1:30 and rush the roughly 30 minutes to Morgantown for the Mountaineers' practice.
"It took me 2½ minutes to get to my car," he said. "If the lights were all green, I could make it to campus, get in my coaching gear and be on the field when the whistle blew."
Rodriguez was usually at the football complex until late at night. Then it was time to teach driver's ed again early the next morning.
"That was our wedding bliss," Rita said, smiling.
It lasted only a year before Rich got another head-coaching job at another wheezing West Virginia football program, NAIA school Glenville State. The Pioneers had gone 1-8 the previous year and were outscored 301-38.
"It was heaven," Rodriguez said. "I got a first down and got a standing ovation. When I came in there were 25 guys on the team, and I was bigger than all of them."
After winning five games his first two years at Glenville, Rodriguez's program took flight. His final four seasons they were 32-12, racking up gaudy offensive numbers by spreading the field.
Tommy Bowden, the new coach at Tulane, took notice. He offered Rodriguez a job as his offensive coordinator.
For a guy who had never left West Virginia for any appreciable length of time, this sounded wildly exotic.
"I didn't know where Tulane was," Rodriguez said.
He went anyway, and a torrid two-year love affair ensued. The moribund Green Wave went 7-4 during Bowden's first season in 1997, then put together a fairy-tale 12-0 run the second.
Along the way Rodriguez's spead-the-field, shotgun offense turned quarterback Shaun King into a record-setting passer. King's 183.3 quarterback rating in 1998 still stands as the NCAA's single-season hallmark for efficiency.
That season was good enough to get Bowden the job at Clemson, and he took Rodriguez with him. The Tigers went to bowl games two straight years, and Rodriguez molded his spread offense to fit quarterback Woody Dantzler's running ability. That second year, 2000, Clemson started 8-0 and rose to No. 5 in the rankings, the highest it had been since 1988.
After that, Coach Rod was called home to replace Nehlen at West Virginia. Tommy Bowden hasn't looked as smart ever since, and Rich Rodriguez looks like the hottest thing in headphones.
After a 3-8 record in Rodriguez's debut season, West Virginia has averaged nine wins a season over the last four years and Rodriguez has showed his coaching versatility. A guy whose teams set passing records at Glenville State is the same guy whose West Virginia teams have been pummeling opponents on the ground. Last year was the big payoff -- an on-paper rebuilding year that turned into an 11-1 stampede through the Big East and a stunning upset of Georgia in a Sugar Bowl played in the Dawgs' backyard.
Having done that with a young team, the smashmouth Mountaineers have slotted themselves as a top-five preseason pick for 2006. One guy (yep, it was me) even picked West Virginia No. 1 back in January.
Rich Rodriguez has come a long way from the program implosion at Salem and the NAIA years at Glenville. But he's brought some of that hungry-and-humble vibe with him to the big time. Even startling success hasn't changed that.
"I said if I ever get a Division I head coaching job, I want to take a small-school approach to it," Rodriguez said. "Some things are not the same, but in terms of the relationship with the community and the school, having your family around, those kinds of things. In a place like Morgantown, you can have that kind of relationship."
You can have your family dinners at the team training table and still feel like King of the Mountain(eers).
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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