Commentary

UM hit with embarrassing misdemeanor

Originally Published: May 25, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

What Rich Rodriguez is accused of doing probably happens on most college football practice fields around the country. It's like a pack of cars driving 80 mph on the interstate and only one gets pulled over.

Nonetheless, it's an embarrassment Michigan has never had to endure before.

In all honesty, Rodriguez is accused of NCAA misdemeanors. He is accused of having too many coaches involved in offseason conditioning programs, staff meetings and film rooms. He is accused of having his players practice too long and too often. The violations do not involve cash payments to players, academic fraud or improper recruiting inducements.

On Tuesday -- under Rodriguez's purview -- a dubious mark was left on one of the sport's most storied traditions. For the first time in more than a century of playing football, the Wolverines will be placed on NCAA probation at some point this year.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanBefore now, Michigan was among only 15 or so schools from BCS conferences that had never faced major NCAA infractions in football.

Michigan announced it would self-impose two years' NCAA probation for five alleged major infractions. The NCAA can accept the school's self-inflicted punishment or add penalties of its own when the Wolverines appear before the Committee on Infractions in Seattle on Aug. 13.

In 128 football seasons, the Wolverines have won 877 games, more than any other college football team in the country. And, more important, Michigan always won while avoiding NCAA scrutiny.

Now the Wolverines can't win enough games, and there's at least the perception that they're cutting corners to turn their on-field results around.

"There's nothing good about the word investigation," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said Tuesday. "There's nothing good about the word 'violations.' There's nothing good about the word 'probation.' This is an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in.

"Having said that, our history and our tradition and our value system is out there for the world to see. We've been in the business of football for 130 years. We'll let our brand and our integrity and our merits stand on our history and our beliefs. Yes, we made mistakes. We are being transparent about it. We're accountable and we're doing something about it. We're going to be sure it doesn't happen again."

Brandon could have made sure Rodriguez didn't make the same mistakes by firing him on the spot Tuesday, which probably would have satisfied most of Michigan's disgruntled fan base. After watching Rodriguez go 8-16 in two seasons and lose home games to the likes of Toledo, Illinois and Purdue during the past two seasons -- and lose twice to rival Ohio State by a combined score of 63-17 -- Brandon could have cut the program's losses and started anew.

There is a clause in Rodriguez's six-year, $15 million contract that allows Michigan to fire him without financial penalty if his program is found guilty of committing major NCAA rules violations. Michigan raised its arms and admitted guilt Tuesday, but Brandon balked at pulling the escape clause in Rodriguez's contract.

Instead, Brandon will let Michigan's on-field results decide Rodriguez's future.

"These are major violations, and we understand that," Brandon said. "They could be interpreted to trigger a dismissal clause in the coach's contract. We don't deem that appropriate under these set of circumstances."

During a news conference in Ann Arbor, Brandon argued that extra practice time wasn't necessarily an advantage for the Wolverines. If you saw Michigan play during the past two seasons, it might be difficult to argue with him.

For a coach who seems to be on a hot seat, Rodriguez is getting plenty of support from his boss. Brandon seemed to fall on the sword for a coach he didn't even hire. Brandon said he was the person to blame for Michigan's current predicament, even though he didn't start his job as athletic director until after the NCAA violations were committed.

[+] EnlargeDavid Brandon
Tony Ding/Icon SMIAthletic director David Brandon has shown full support for Rich Rodriguez.

When asked why Michigan is so strongly defending Rodriguez against the NCAA's most severe allegation that the coach "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program," Brandon described Rodriguez as being just the opposite.

"I strongly disagree with that," Brandon said. "I can tell you that our compliance group talks about this coach being as open and transparent as anyone they've ever worked with. Our compliance group has assured me that they had full access to this program in any shape or form. We disagree and I disagree that Rich failed to provide an atmosphere of compliance. I think Rich is a coach who understands the importance of following the rules and has a history of following the rules."

Rodriguez isn't out of the woods yet. Tuesday's announcement only increases the pressure he'll face this coming season. He has to prove to Brandon and the school's rabid fans that he's really worth all this trouble. Any results short of a winning record and a New Year's Day bowl game might not be enough to save his job.

Then again, another blowout loss to the Buckeyes might be all it takes to seal his fate.

The NCAA will decide Michigan's fate in less than three months.

"We'll take our case to those folks and ultimately they will decide whether our self-imposed sanctions are appropriate or not," Brandon said.

Then Rodriguez will have another three months to build a case to keep his job.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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