History points to Wolverines rebounding
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It is still the University of Michigan, and all that means in college football. The Wolverines still wear the winged helmets. They still sing the best fight song on God's green earth. They still go to work in Schembechler Hall, and they still wear the maize and blue.
In the spring after going 3-9, they are still the Michigan Wolverines. One season removed from the most losses in the school's 130 years of football, they profess no doubt that 2008 will go down as a freak event, a snowstorm in July, say, or Keith Olbermann in repose.
Take the Sept. 27 home game against Wisconsin. The Wolverines trailed the Badgers 19-0 at halftime.
"Should have been 49-0," head coach Rich Rodriguez said the other day. "We're running up that tunnel, people were booing.
"People said, 'Did you hear them booing?'
"I said, 'You could hear them booing in Detroit. I probably wanted to join them.'
"Thank God, we came back and won that one."
The Wolverines scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Badgers 27-25. That would be a once-in-a-season comeback. Michigan lost to Purdue and to Northwestern. Michigan lost to Toledo, for Bo's sake.
"We didn't win because generally we didn't deserve to win. Pretty simple," Rodriguez said. "That's hard to take if you're at a place like Michigan that's been to bowl games 30-something straight years. That's hard to take."
Despite the struggles in 2008, Rodriguez is upbeat. It is his natural front. Rodriguez may be the least self-important head coach in college football. A smile is never far away. But behind that smile there is no fiercer competitor. Here's a father who pulled his son Rhett out of T-ball a few years ago because the league didn't keep score.
"Everybody bats, and everybody scores," Rodriguez said. "At the end of four innings, there's no winner. I said, 'To hell with that.'"
The pattern in Rodriguez's coaching career is clear. The first year is a struggle; the second, a revelation. In 2001, Rodriguez's first season at West Virginia, the Mountaineers went 3-8. They went 9-4 in 2002. That pattern helps to explain the lack of panic among Michigan fans. He has done it before. He will do it again.
Confidence is coursing through the players like chocolate milk, the favorite drink of Wolverines strength guru Mike Barwis.
"Last year, there wasn't too much enjoyment out there," tailback Brandon Minor said. "This year is going to be totally different."
Minor rushed for 533 yards last season, despite a right wrist that hurt so much he couldn't carry the ball in his right hand. And when he carried the ball in his left hand, he couldn't stiff-arm. Even a 215-pound back with sprinter's speed needs to occasionally stiff-arm. And just to top it off, those 533 yards led Michigan in rushing. The last time the Wolverines' leading rusher had fewer yards than that came in 1963.
"Everybody has bought into what they're doing," redshirt junior guard Stephen Schilling said. "There's not as much arguing or bickering on the field. Nobody wants to have happen what happened last year."
Minor was asked for clues that would indicate an improvement in the offense. Not just for stats: Anyone could tell that the offense needs to average more than 290.8 yards per game, or convert more than 27 percent of its third downs.
Would it be better running between the tackles? More long runs, an indication that the receivers are blocking well downfield?
"You'll be able to tell," Minor said, "when we have our starters sitting on the sideline in the fourth quarter, enjoying the game."
What if 2008 is the new Michigan? What if the football team is no longer the escape for a state in an economic death spiral? What if it's a mirror?
"Everybody says, 'We're going to be better, aren't we?' We're hoping," Rodriguez said. It could be superstition. It could be that Rodriguez is too smart to guarantee anything aloud. Whatever it is, that last sentence -- "We're hoping" -- is one of the few phrases uttered in a 90-minute interview that is not relentlessly positive.
The history of Michigan football declares that the Wolverines will rebound. The history of Rodriguez's career screams it in 72-point type. Alas, these days, history doesn't count for much.
"There was probably a time when you put on that winged helmet and came out of that one tunnel in the Big House, and that might have been worth 10 to 14 points right there," Rodriguez said. "That day is over. What we've got to do is try to get some of that back."
The Wolverines will have three quarterbacks. The only one who has taken a snap, redshirt junior Nick Sheridan, fractured a bone in his left leg on the last play of the Wolverines' practice on March 24. That cost Sheridan the rest of spring practice. The other two, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, played high school football last fall.
Forcier, one of seven freshmen who enrolled in January, looked overwhelmed by the offense in an early practice. But he will be 15 practices ahead of Robinson. And both, by all accounts, are more talented than Sheridan.
"I'm not saying we're going to start a true freshman quarterback, but we might," Rodriguez said. "That's kind of scary. We're probably going to start a couple of freshmen on defense. That's kind of scary. But there's no question that we're more comfortable."
Five years used to be the standard by which to measure a coach. Now the athletic director who grants a fourth year to a struggling coach is seen as the epitome of patience.
Rodriguez refuses to take his eye off the horizon. He made only one coaching change. He brought in his one-time Big East colleague, deposed Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson, as defensive coordinator.
Robinson, like Rodriguez, is relentlessly positive. He is old enough to have coached the UCLA defensive line in 1982, when the Bruins beat the Wolverines in September in the Big House and in January at the Rose Bowl.
"We grew to hate them," Robinson said. "We used to always say, 'You can tell a Michigan man but you can't tell them much.'"
His eyes disappear as he smiles. Robinson is wearing a blue sweatshirt with a big, yellow "MICHIGAN" across his chest. Robinson cold-called Rodriguez and pitched himself as the new coordinator.
"I told him, 'I know you're going to win,'" Robinson said. "I knew that before. When he was at West Virginia and I was at Syracuse, I could see how he ran his program. He infused his personality into that program. I knew it was just a matter of time before he won here. I could see this football team is very hungry. I like their work habits. They are very intent. They are looking to please Rich."
That may be the biggest difference of all. The number of players who have bailed out of their Michigan scholarship since Rodriguez arrived 15 months ago is in the double digits. This team is younger than it should be.
"Guys actually believing in what we're doing," cornerback Donovan Warren said. "When you believe in what you're doing, you feel more comfortable and put more effort into what you're doing. Last year, everybody wasn't on the same page. They were on different agendas. That messed up the cohesion of the group and set us back. Everybody has bought in."
The players who remained have brought renewed resonance to the saying plastered throughout Schembechler Hall, the watchword of the namesake himself: "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions."
No one is ready to say when.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
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