Tuesday, July 1, 2008 Updated: July 7, 10:52 AM ET
THOSE WHO STAY WILL BE _____
By Bruce Feldman
The most telling barometer of Michigan football lives on a Columbus Dispatch website. It's a counter that reads, "Days since Michigan's last victory over Ohio State in football." The tally will stand at 1,826 when the two rivals square off this Nov. 22.
It's been nearly 40 years since the Wolverines have felt this inferior to the Buckeyes. That was before Bo's reign, before Desmond and Woodson won Heismans, before Michigan passed Notre Dame as the NCAA's all-time wins leader. All this glory, without any of the typical grade-fixing scams or payola scandals, has defined the Michigan Man. It made him (and her) believe that only a disciple of Schembechler himself could lead this program, a program that has become itself, well, elitist.
Then Rich Rodriguez came to town. And he's, well, the opposite of elitist. Proudly so. In a few months, Rodriguez has torched all ties to his home-state school, irked rival Big Ten coaches, run off some players and sparked anger from a former star. Now, with UM's preseason starting Aug. 4, Rodriguez will finally get a chance to prove he was worth hiring.
An uncanny mix of in-your-face firebrand and aw-shucks charmer, Rodriguez uses his West Virginia twang to spin folksy stories that play well with recruits, their parents and the media. Like the one about the time he wanted to see Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven but let his wife goad him into The Crying Game. His punch line: "I haven't gone to the movies since." Or about how, at 24, he became the nation's youngest head coach, after his boss at Salem (W.Va.) College bought a bar and quit. He even chuckles while recalling how he lost that job a year later when the program disbanded.
But on the sideline, Rodriguez is as strongheaded as they come. As word spread that Rodriguez was leaving West Virginia to take the Wolverines job, Mountaineers safety Ryan Mundy, a Michigan transfer, started getting frantic calls. And Mundy told all 20 former teammates who called the same thing: "Be prepared to run. Everything's way more up-tempo. If you're not willing to bust your ass, you should leave. But if you stay, you'll love it."
To make Michigan over, Rodriguez brought in 20 staffers from Morgantown. His first order of business was gutting Michigan's strength program. Out went the machine-based system that had been in place for four decades. In came an Olympic lifting program (cost: over $1 million) geared toward improving core strength and hard-wiring bodies to make explosive movements. "Everybody, especially guys in their last year, was nervous," says fifth-year defensive end Tim Jamison. "We said, 'What's he gonna bring that our old program wasn't?'"
Skepticism comes with any coaching change, particularly at a winning program steeped in tradition. But the traditionalists seem to have forgotten that their hero, Bo Schembechler, didn't start out as a Michigan Man. He was a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed Ohio native whose résumé included five seasons in Columbus working for Woody Hayes. And, like Rodriguez, he took over a team that had been recently embarrassed by Ohio State. "When we came here, Michigan was the Izod school, the gentleman's school," says Schembechler's offensive line coach Jerry Hanlon. "And Bo said, 'Well, now they're going to be tough gentlemen.'"
Rodriguez shares Schembechler's fiery side, although Bo never made people as mad as Rich has.
The historical parallel isn't lost on Rodriguez, who invited members of Schembechler's first team to speak to his squad. When former All-America linemen Reggie McKenzie and Dan Dierdorf detailed the radical change they endured—and later embraced—it stunned the current team. They told stories about how Schembechler, arriving right after a 50-14 loss to Ohio State in 1968, was adamant that no team would outhit or outhustle Michigan. It was then that he put up the sign that now hangs over the doors to the practice field. It reads, "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions."
Bo's boys talked about how they had started that winter with 150 guys and ended spring practice with 75. "They told us how it wasn't just guys who weren't playing who left," says Jamison. "There were some great players too. I was like, 'It won't happen here.' But then you start looking around, thinking, Who's gonna leave?"
As Rodriguez's rigorous workouts progressed, some players bailed. But the skeptics who stayed say they got faster, more explosive. New strength coach Mike Barwis, a former MMA fighter, also encouraged the players to loosen up. "Barwis likes you to be loud in the weight room," says Jamison. "All the time, high energy. He's brought more fun into it. He doesn't want you to be uptight."
Still, the new staff knew they'd get a better read on guys at Rodriguez's spring practices. The tempo change was dramatic. "If Bo could see these practices, he'd love it," says Jim Brandstatter, a lineman on the 1969 team. "It's eerily similar to the culture shock when Bo took over. They're being physical. They hit. They wear pads every day."
Among the new Michigan mandates: Practices double as conditioning (no walking—even linemen sprint into stances), and a QB is live in drills until he proves in a real game that he can handle pressure.
And like Bo, Rodriguez isn't shy about cursing, especially if someone doesn't hustle or makes the same mistake twice. "Rod cusses. A lot," says former NFL QB Shaun King, who played at Tulane when Rodriguez ran the offense there. "He takes some adjusting to. I hated his ass at first." Says Michigan wideout Greg Mathews, "You have to learn how to not take it personally."
Some couldn't. By the end of spring ball, Rodriguez says, 10 players had bailed, including starting guard Justin Boren, who openly lamented having to sprint to the line. On his way out, Boren said the program had lost its "family values." Then, the second-generation Wolverine transferred to Ohio State. "We're not in the business of running players off," says Rodriguez. "But at the same time, we won't lock the doors from the inside."
Besides, a more important question than "Who will stay?" might be "What will this team look like?" In the past decade—as an offensive coordinator at Clemson, where he had dual-threat Woody Dantzler, and as the WVU boss, with running QBs Rasheed Marshall and Pat White—Rodriguez was pegged as a spread-option guy. So it's easy to forget that King left Tulane as the NCAA's most efficient passer ever. Or that, before Dantzler came along, Rodriguez helped Brandon Streeter set the school mark for passing yards in a game. "I played for these great coaches—Mike Martz, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden," says King. "Those guys are so stuck in their systems they aren't capable of adapting to their personnel. Rich adapts."
He'll have to. His top QBs, Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, are unproven drop-back passers. And while Rodriguez has been an aggressive recruiter—so much so that Purdue's Joe Tiller and Ohio State's Jim Tressel blasted him for chasing verbally committed kids—he insists his offense will suit his roster. "People try to say we don't have anyone who fits our system," Rodriguez says. "But we're not forfeiting games."
Of course, anything short of that—as long as it involves actual W's and L's—might be preferable to navigating the code of the Michigan Man. Last May, another fire broke out. Braylon Edwards, the former UM star, called out the new coach for "breaking tradition" after Rodriguez gave the school's No. 1 jersey, which Edwards had endowed with a scholarship for a distinguished receiver, to a freshman DB.
During his public mea culpa, Rodriguez pled ignorance, explained that he didn't know the jersey had been promised to a receiver and added that no one would wear it this fall. "If I could fix all problems as easily as I fixed that one, we'd be in a good place," says Rodriguez. "I'm educated now."
Sounds just like a Michigan Man.