- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Last month, I was in the stands at one of college football's most famous stadiums for one of the sport's biggest rivalries: Michigan-Ohio State in Ann Arbor. It's always the kind of game in which stats and rankings are thrown out the window in favor of guts and pride.
Visitors are welcome at the Big House, but they should never feel that way.
On this day, though, Buckeyes fans not only were comfortable, but they pretty much owned the joint. The sea of scarlet in the stands was so large that even Moses would've looked for a way around it. Apparently, a large number of disheartened Michigan fans sold their tickets to the enemy.
It was a hard day to be a Wolverine.
Actually, it's been a hard two years, which is why I'm beginning to wonder if the bird in the hand truly is better than the two I've been seeing in the bush -- namely, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly and Stanford's Jim Harbaugh.
"We didn't end the season the way we wanted," Rich Rodriguez (the one in the hand) said at last week's 89th Annual Detroit Football Bust put on by the University of Michigan Club of Greater Detroit. "We didn't win as many games as everybody would have liked. But don't tell me this team is a failure. It's a disappointment because we thought we could have won more and should have won more."
Actually, given that this year's wins against Notre Dame and Indiana came within the closing minutes, the 5-7 Wolverines could easily have repeated last season's dismal record.
Now logic suggests it takes more than a couple of seasons for a new coach to implement a new system and recruit the kind of players who can excel in that system. But with just eight wins and one NCAA investigation so far in the Rich Rod era, the question is fair: Is he going to be around for the long haul? Following the 21-10 loss to the Buckeyes, Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman issued a statement saying she "supports the coach and supports the football team," which sounds to me like an exit strategy as much as a ringing endorsement. And if the strategy is to make the exit happen next year, didn't Michigan risk losing a better-suited coach to one of its bitter rivals -- Notre Dame -- this year, just to give Rodriguez one more look-see?
Looks like it's happening. It appears that Kelly is about to take the Notre Dame job.
I asked a prominent alumna about Rodriguez.
"It's nerve-racking, for sure," said Jeanne HuangLi, president of the San Francisco-area Michigan alumni club. "On the one hand, you don't want to be impatient. But on the other, you don't want to see the program struggle for years with someone who doesn't fit. We're the winningest program in history, so no one is used to us losing like this. But the true Michigan fans are optimistic cautiously optimistic."
Back in November, Coleman told The Wall Street Journal that it wouldn't be fair to fire Rodriguez after only two years. But that quote was made before the Wolverines lost their final three games by a combined score of 104-70. And since the university is currently searching for a new AD who might want to make his or her own hire -- especially if the football team remains mediocre -- Rodriguez might have the shortest leash in football.
Should Michigan have fired him already and pursued Kelly before Notre Dame came calling? Should it reach out to Harbaugh now? I don't know. It isn't as if Rodriguez doesn't have a track record for turning a nobody into a BCS contender. But we all hear there is significant tension in the locker room, and we all know there are brand-new suites being built in the stadium that still need to be sold. Fans are extremely anxious. So it would appear that it might better serve the university if Coleman and others have that keep-him-or-fire-him conversation today, because "next year," those coaches I mentioned earlier likely won't be available.
Harbaugh ruffled feathers at his alma mater a couple of years ago when he took some verbal shots at the school's academic standards for football players. And HuangLi said Harbaugh, Michigan's quarterback from 1983 to 1986, has not been overly friendly to the Bay Area alumni club, which boasts about 15,000 members. But the group is well aware of his success at Stanford. And what he could potentially bring to Ann Arbor.
"He's a Michigan man, so it would be great if he came home," she said. "But we trust and support the administration and believe they are making the right choice."
However, that doesn't mean they're happy with what they see. HuangLi said game viewership parties went from a couple of hundred attendees at the beginning of this season to "two or three, depending on what time the game started" by the end of the year.
Philip Maguran, vice president of the Michigan alumni club in Grand Rapids, Mich., near where Kelly started his head-coaching career at Grand Valley State (1991-2003), said he, too, saw similar drop-offs as the season wore on. But, like HuangLi, Maguran supports the administration.
"I am happy with Rich Rodriguez," he said. "I'm not happy with the results, but I don't think you can fire him after two years but next year, well, next year is important."
At the Ohio State game, Michigan grad and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told The Associated Press, "If he has a bad year next year, he'll have a lot more pressure."
But all this talk about next year it makes you wonder if anybody lives in the moment anymore?
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Sure, two years probably is too soon to give up on Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. But why wait 'til next year if the right man for the Wolverines is available in the here and now?