Rich Rodriguez fired by Michigan

Updated: January 6, 2011, 4:54 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan fired coach Rich Rodriguez on Wednesday, ending a disappointing three-year tenure marred by embarrassing losses and NCAA violations at college football's winningest program.

Athletic director Dave Brandon announced the decision after meeting with Rodriguez on Tuesday and again Wednesday morning. He said the two had an "open, honest and direct exchange."

"Michigan is not used to this," Brandon said.

"I believe this is the best decision for the future of Michigan football. We have not achieved at the level that I expect."

Rodriguez, who was the coach at West Virginia before arriving in Ann Arbor, finishes 15-22 at Michigan. Rodriguez was 6-18 in Big Ten play, 11-11 at home. The school can buy out the final three years of his contract for $2.5 million.

"I am proud of the dedication and commitment exhibited by the coaching staff and student-athletes who have represented the University of Michigan football program over the last three seasons," Rodriguez said in a statement issued Thursday. "While I am disappointed to depart Ann Arbor before we were able to reach the level of success we had in our sights, I am confident that the players who remain have the potential to do great things and to return the Wolverines to greatness. I would like to thank our fans and our student body for their tremendous support. There is great passion for Michigan football and I have made lifelong friends through this experience."

Brandon said he will immediately begin a national search for a replacement amid speculation that Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback, and former Michigan assistant Brady Hoke, now San Diego State's head coach, are possible candidates.

Brandon said he has talked with Harbaugh and "will continue to talk" with him.

"I personally believe that Jim Harbaugh is headed to the NFL, that's my opinion," Brandon said.

The San Francisco 49ers met with Harbaugh for five hours Wednesday, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported.

Harbaugh has declined to comment about the Michigan job and a Stanford spokesman would not say whether Michigan had asked for permission to speak with him. His brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, said he thought "the Michigan thing is done now."

"I think that's over. I don't think he's interested in doing that," he said Tuesday on WBAL radio in Baltimore. "That's hard for him because he loves Michigan."

Meanwhile, LSU coach Les Miles, who was pursued by Michigan before it hired Rodriguez to replace Lloyd Carr, said Wednesday he has had no contact from the school about becoming coach at his alma mater.

During a news conference for the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Miles said he was there to "speak about LSU" and its game Friday against Texas A&M.

"Michigan will be fine. They'll always be Michigan," Miles said.

Brandon said a candidate with head coaching and recruiting experience would have an edge in the search, but he didn't set a deadline for making a decision.

"My timetable is: Go fast, but do it the right way," Brandon said.

Rodriguez was not available for comment after the decision was announced. Rodriguez and his son drove away from Schembechler Hall at 6:45 p.m. EST.

"It's really hard on all of us," defensive tackle Mike Martin said before a private team meeting.

It didn't get easier inside a somber gathering in which both Rodriguez and Brandon addressed the players.

"What would you expect the atmosphere to be like when you lose a member of your family?" defensive tackle Dominique Ware asked reporters.

Rodriguez's final season was pivotal and it didn't go well on or off the field.

The Wolverines won seven games and a berth in the Gator Bowl, but he could only stand by helplessly on the sideline on New Year's Day as Mississippi State handed them their worst bowl beating -- a 38-point drubbing.

Quarterback Denard Robinson couldn't consistently make the sensational plays he did during a jaw-dropping start to the season. And Michigan's young defense, which ranked among the nation's worst, was overmatched again.

"There's a thought of getting a defensive-minded everything," Brandon said when asked if he was looking for a coach who emphasizes defense. "I want the ball boys to be defensive-minded."

Rodriguez finished 7-6, losing six of the last eight games. The improvement wasn't enough from his 5-7 finish last year and the Michigan-record nine losses in his debut season in Ann Arbor.

He was 1-11 against ranked teams and 0-6 combined against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.

The season had clearly weighed on Rodriguez.

He surprised supporters and his players at the team's postseason banquet when he broke down and cried, talking about the toll his job had on his family, then quoted the Bible and Josh Groban and played a song from the musician in a surreal scene.

"I don't think Rich Rodriguez has had a peaceful night sleep since he arrived in Ann Arbor," said Brandon, who was lured to Michigan a year ago from his job as chairman and CEO of Domino's Pizza. "I think that his three years here ... can somewhat be defined as three years of turmoil. It seems like it was one thing after another. It clearly impacted recruiting. It clearly impacted the positive energy that the team needs to be successful. It created a lot of hardships and a lot of distractions.

"Clearly, we need to put ourselves in a position where that is all history."

Michigan's former athletic director, Bill Martin, hired Rodriguez away from West Virginia after the 2007 season in a messy divorce. The school Rodriguez had played for and rooted for as a kid had extended his contract a year earlier, and he didn't want to pay a $4 million buyout. Michigan eventually agreed to pay West Virginia $2.5 million, leaving Rodriguez to take care of the rest.

Rodriguez didn't inherit a roster full of talent from former coach Lloyd Carr. Quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas and offensive guard Justin Boren left for Ohio State, making his transition even more challenging.

The Wolverines took pride in winning with class and by the rules for three-plus decades under Bo Schembechler, Carr and Gary Moeller.

Under Rodriguez, the program was hit by the kind of news it dreaded.

Just before the 2009 season, anonymous players told the Detroit Free Press that the Rodriguez-led program was exceeding NCAA limits on practice and training time.

"We know the rules, and we follow the rules," an emotional Rodriguez declared a day after the report was published. He insisted the off-field "drama" didn't affect his team.

The school later acknowledged that it was guilty of four violations. It was put on three years of probation, though Rodriguez and the school avoided major penalties in part because the NCAA agreed that the coach didn't fail to promote an atmosphere and compliance in his program.

Still, Paul Dee, chair of the Division I infractions committee, compared the coach's role to that of being captain of the ship.

"The coach is ultimately responsible, but that doesn't mean that the coach is involved in all of the activities that occurred," Dee said. "Some of the things that did occur did not get all the way to the coach, but ultimately, the coach bears a responsibility for the program."

Rodriguez is widely considered one of the architects of the spread offense that has become the rage in college football, creating his version of three- and four-receiver sets at tiny Glenville State in 1990.

Rodriguez recruited two freshmen who could lead his offense -- Robinson and Tate Forcier -- and they helped the 2009 team get off to a strong start that put Michigan on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His defenses never kept pace.

Toward the end of the collapsing 2009 season, Rodriguez took a few not-too-subtle shots at Carr and his staff in terms of recruiting talent to Ann Arbor.

"The last three Februarys, or four Februarys, have hurt us a little bit," Rodriguez said. "The next two or three Februarys will be very critical. That's where it starts."

Rodriguez might've been willing to fire his second defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson, and let the new hire run his own assistants and scheme to keep his job. But he didn't get that chance.

"Rich is a good person and coach," Brandon said. "It's unfortunate that it didn't work out at Michigan, but I'm sure that Rich and his staff will find opportunities at other institutions."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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