Commentary

Wolverines aim to erase '08 memories

Originally Published: July 28, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Rich Rodriguez cannot go anywhere in this town without a rude reminder.

Monday night, the Michigan football coach and his group went to famed Chicago restaurant Gibsons Steakhouse, only to find Ohio State's Jim Tressel and crew at the next table. Rodriguez's record against Tressel: 0-1, in a 42-7 blowout, extending the Buckeyes' winning streak to five in the series.

After Tressel's party departed, in came a group that included several Michigan State staffers. Rodriguez's record against the Spartans: 0-1, ending a six-year winning streak against the in-state rival.

No wonder Rodriguez was happy to chat with the next name to walk through the door, actor Jamie Foxx. At least he didn't beat the Wolverines in 2008, the year when Rodriguez took over the winningest program in college football history and promptly produced the losingest season in school history at 3-9.

Everywhere he turns at Big Ten media day, the ghosts of an epic failure are lurking and laughing.

"We don't want to talk about it," was Rodriguez's semi-joking, semi-serious summation of last season.

Talk we must. Nothing else to do until Sept. 5, when Michigan finally gets a chance to make itself and everyone else forget.


One of the great charms and great problems with Michigan football is its love affair with the rearview mirror. With such a storied history, who wouldn't relish reliving it and trying to replicate it? But living in the past can keep a place from moving forward.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez is looking to get the Wolverines back to a bowl in '09.
The ultimate commentary on Michigan football inadvertently came Monday from Scott Draper, one of the school's assistant athletic directors.

Draper said the school will open a new indoor facility next month that has been nine years in the discussing/planning/building. The biggest reason the old one, Oosterbaan Field House, was outdated?

The roof was too low.

"It's not a high-enough ceiling to accommodate passing," Draper said.

He might have been joking -- even Bo Schembechler had a grudging tolerance of the forward pass -- but that doesn't really matter.

The punch line that Michigan would build an indoor facility unfit for the passing game reflects upon the hidebound nature of a program that still considers night games an abomination. The reality that it would take nine years to get a new facility built drives that point home.

For decades on end, Michigan football has been a museum piece. A good one. A high-quality, Louvre-level exhibit. Like the Mona Lisa, the Wolverines have been a timeless masterpiece for much of the 140-year history of the sport.

And they're smugly aware of it.

But most museum pieces are static shrines to bygone times, and that was largely the case for Michigan football. Dynasties -- Ming, Romanov, Schembechler -- eventually grow stale. The Earth's plates have moved more rapidly than the pace of change for the tradition-addicted maize and blue.

Now change has come to Ann Arbor.

First in the form of facility upgrades, including the new indoor building and a remodeling of massive, unadorned Michigan Stadium. (Club seating, what a concept!) Then in the form of Rodriguez, a complete outsider at the most inert, inbred program in America.

He was hired to delicately uproot the Wolverines from their successful stasis and propel them into the 21st century -- implement a modern offense, but don't tinker too much with the Michigan Way, please. After one difficult year, the doubters have multiplied, even if the coach remains a resolute believer.

"If we're not in a bowl game, we're all going to be ticked," Rodriguez said. "If we're not competing better every single game, we'll all be upset."

Rodriguez's track record shows a major payoff in Year 2. His first team at West Virginia went 3-8; his second team went 9-4. After that, there was no looking back in Morgantown, as he delivered some of the greatest moments in that program's history.

[+] EnlargeTate Forcier
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesThe Wolverines are counting on freshman QB Tate Forcier for a spark.
There is reason to believe something similar could happen this season -- if the Wolverines have some defensive players grow up quickly under new coordinator Greg Robinson. They return 10 starters on offense, but the best news might be the one newcomer: quarterback Tate Forcier. The high school spread star was enrolled for the spring and is expected to hold off fellow freshman Denard Robinson for the starting spot.

If neither of the freshmen can beat out Nick Sheridan, who started four games last season and struggled to assimilate the spread, cancel the optimism.

"You get nervous as a coach when you talk about possibly playing a true freshman anywhere, particularly at quarterback," Rodriguez said. "But I have all the confidence in the world that our coaches and Tate will put the work in to get ready. … His daddy's been training him since he was 5 or 6 to be a quarterback.

"We have no chance -- no team has any chance -- without getting good play at the quarterback position."

So there is pressure on the youngsters taking shotgun snaps. But not as much as on the man in charge.

Rodriguez says he applied more heat to himself earlier in his career, when he worked for seven years on one-year contracts for modest wages at Glenville State. Yet there is a long list of coaches who have expected too much of themselves too quickly after signing a big contract at a prestigious place.

A guy might intellectually understand that it will take time, but the rush to justify his new salary and hear the hosannas of the faithful can cancel rational thought. Meanwhile, most fans leave rational thought at home when they go to the stadium. That's how perspective is lost.

"I wish there was more patience," Rodriguez said of Michigan. "But I ain't got much patience myself."


Patience was found wearing a gray suit Monday in a Hyatt hallway. There was Jim Tressel, the guy who put the sour cherry atop Rodriguez's spoiled sundae of 2008, recommending restraint to the rivals up north.

"Everyone who's ever been part of a transition knows that for about 365 days, every day is a new day," Tressel said. "Every adjustment, every move you're trying to make, it's hard. Transitions are hard."

Tressel knows. He went a bumpy 7-5 his first season at Ohio State and has been the boss of the Big Ten ever since. He's not alone.

Tressel also pointed at Nick Saban. He went 7-6 his first year at Alabama, including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. In Year 2, he unleashed a 12-2 haymaker.

There are others. Pete Carroll rocketed from 6-6 to 11-2 at USC, then won a national title in his third season. Joe Paterno sprang from 5-5 to 8-2-1 to 11-0 at Penn State. Lou Holtz bounced from 5-6 to 8-4 to 12-0 at Notre Dame.

"I wouldn't worry at all about Michigan," Tressel said. "They're going to be just fine."

He's probably right. But until Sept. 5 arrives, Rich Rodriguez and the Wolverines still have to live with the ghosts of 2008.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.