No place like home for Rodriguez

Originally Published: November 9, 2004
By Joe Bendel | Special to ESPN.com

The coal mines called Rich Rodriguez from the day he was born. His dad was a miner. His friends and cousins were, too.

It was pretty much a rite of passage in tiny Grant Town, W.Va., (pop: 647) for a kid to go to high school, get his degree (maybe), then plop "down in the hole" for the rest of his life.

Rodriguez could have followed suit, but he saw the light. He found an escape in football. Basketball. Anything and everything.

  Which Big East star had the game he'll always remember on the field last Saturday, and a moment he'll always regret immediately afterward? Who provided the silver lining in Syracuse's upset loss to Temple? And which kicker prepared for facing a hostile crowd by recalling his days as a heckler? Our Big East notebook addresses these questions and more.
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  • "Ever since I was old enough to hold and throw a ball, I was obsessed with athletics," said Rodriguez, who used to have nightmares about his helmet light going off in the depths of a mine. "All I did was play ball and dream about going somewhere and not having to work in the coal mines."

    Football ultimately provided Rodriguez with the proper outlet. He became a walk-on defensive back at West Virginia, then went on to a career in coaching that ultimately led him back to his roots.

    Today, his office as the coach of the West Virginia University Mountaineers is just 20 miles away from Grant Town, mere minutes from those endless mines he so desperately avoided.

    He is close ... yet so far.

    "Everybody says, 'Step back and smell the roses,' and I've never really done that," Rodriguez said. "I guess I'm too obsessed with the next game."

    The next game for Rodriguez is the biggest of his career. He leads his 10th-ranked Mountaineers (8-1, 4-0 Big East) against No. 21 Boston College (6-2, 2-1) in a Morgantown showdown (ABC, noon ET) that would give his program the conference title and the lucrative BCS berth that goes along with it.

    "There's a lot at stake, and everybody in the program realizes it," Rodriguez said.

    This game is four years in the making for the 41-year-old WVU coach. He came in as a hotshot assistant from Clemson who had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Don Nehlen, who retired after 21 years and a 149-93-4 record.

    It seemed like a lose-lose situation.

    "Nobody wants to be the next guy," said Rodriguez, who inherited a team that finished 7-5 in 2000. "You see that at Florida and other places like Alabama and, really, in the history of college football. And for me, having played here and being from here added to that a little bit. But we came in four years ago and wanted to build on tradition and do things differently."

    Rodriguez made his imprint early. He retained only two assistants from Nehlen's staff and implemented the no-huddle spread offense. He made his players learn the names of every person who worked in the football buildings, from the janitors to the cooks to the media relations staff to their teammates.

    His style did not impress everyone. A number of players turned their backs and left. Some who remained still weren't fully convinced.

    "I was definitely skeptical," said senior defensive end Ben Lynch, a Nehlen recruit. "First of all, I'm thinking this guy is young and he can't know that much about college football. Then, rumors start flying and people say he had a hard time getting along with players at other schools. It made you wonder."

    But Lynch stuck it out. Why?

    "There was just something about him that made me believe," he said. "You know how that is. He was always giving 150 percent, even when we went 3-8 in his first season. And he was always moving 100 miles per hour. He made us want to work hard. He convinced us that it was a privilege to play football at West Virginia University."

    Rodriguez, though, did not feel privileged after that three-win season in 2001. He absorbed sharp criticism in Morgantown, where his family members even felt the heat.

    "There were a lot of nasty articles and some nasty letters," he said. "Thankfully, my secretary would screen the ones that would get really, really nasty."

    The next year, West Virginia executed the biggest turnaround in Big East history (9-4), and Rodriguez became a millionaire with a new, seven-year contract. This year, his team is off and running to a BCS berth.

    He is one of the hottest college coaches in the country, not to mention the 12th-youngest. His Mountaineers are 16-2 in Big East play the past two-plus seasons (both losses came to former league member Miami) and his spread offense has turned Morgantown into the run-game capital of college football.

    The Mountaineers are fourth in the nation at 260.56 rushing yards per game and feature four running threats in quarterback Rasheed Marshall and running backs Kay-Jay Harris, Jason Colson and Pernell Williams.

    "He puts all of us in position to succeed," Harris said. "He knows how to outcoach the opposing defense."

    Rodriguez acquired his offensive mindset in the late '80s as at NAIA Glenville State by studying film of the Detroit Lions' offense under "Mouse" Davis, the innovator of the run-and-shoot. The Buffalo Bills' no-huddle attack and the Houston Oilers' spread also intrigued him.

    "Not that small schools are a place to experiment, but that's basically what we did (at Glenville)," he said.

    The big boys began to take notice. Rodriguez was hired as Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Tulane, which promptly went undefeated in '98. The next year, Bowden took Rodriguez with him to Clemson, where the Tigers set 69 offensive records in two years.

    Then, came the WVU opportunity.

    "He put his stamp on this place right away," senior running back Hikee Johnson. "The whole thing with us having to know the staff is a big example. He gives us a directory and we have to know every single person here. He flashes their pictures on the projector screen and calls us up to identify them by name. It's a way to build camaraderie."

    There's more.

    "No hats inside and no cell phones in the football facility with coach Rodriguez," Lynch said. "He wants us talking among each other, not on the phone. There's a time and place for that. He even talked to the seniors the other day about leaving the facility and not eating dinner at the training table. He said, 'Stick around and talk to the younger players. Be with them. See how they're doing.' He's built a family."

    A winning family.

    "He's man of his word," said senior offensive lineman Jeff Berk. "If he says it, he does it. He promised Big East championships and big-time bowls. Now, we're close to where he always wanted to be."

    Close to home ... but far from those mines.

    Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.