Tue Sep 01 05:50pm EDT
The last word on the season's most pressing topics.
Since some people are beginning to take a step back and ask, What is the Michigan story really about? that seems like the relevant question of the week. To me, the story -- or stories -- is that nothing good has happened to Michigan since it hired Rich Rodriguez, and at least a few people close to the program are strongly suggesting that's the coach's fault.
Literally nothing good has happened. What? Beating Minnesota? A passable spring game by 180-pound freshman quarterback? It's been a tough slog for Michigan fans. But none of the trials to date have been personal; almost none of last year's collapse or the accompanying angst was specifically on Rodriguez. You could see all of that coming before he held a single practice: New quarterback, new running back, new receivers, four new offensive linemen. Five departing draft picks yielded to five freshman starters, none of whom was Terrelle Pryor. (Or even Ryan Mallett). The quarterbacks were overmatched and had no support; the young talent was unsuited not only for Rodriguez's vaunted system but apparently for any system. They couldn't even hold on to the ball for a large portion of the season.
So, okay, those are the circumstances, uncontrollable. The loss to Toledo was especially bad, but surely no coach of any caliber could have made a credible soup from ingredients that were still years from ripening. And there was Appalachian State under the previous regime, anyway, and the team more or less recovered from that. This is why anyone suggesting during the offseason that Rodriguez might be anywhere in the vicinity of the proverbial hot seat was so off-base, and was met with such derision from Michigan fans. 2008 = Disaster under any and all circumstances. Rodriguez went 3-8 his first year at West Virginia and won at least eight games the next six years in a row. Pete Carroll was 6-6 his first year at USC. These things happen. It's a mulligan, and an understandable one. Now, with his system and more of his players in place, 2009 was the year Rodriguez really went on the record.
And I think that's still true, for the most part, with the key difference that the Free Press report, whatever its motives, has ">made the stakes personal. And with that, the make-or-break nature of the coming season is enormously amplified.
Saturday's report was a clear rebuke to the narrative of circumstance in favor of a narrative of responsibility. The specific allegations and potential sanctions mattered far less than the voices leaping off of the page/screen to grab readers by the lapels and shake them and say, "Do you see? The program is dishonestly administered and rife with dissent. It's not just bad timing. It's performance. It's him."
I can't put words in the Freep reporters' mouths in terms of intent -- they've answered some questions themselves -- but I can measure effects, and it's clear enough that Rodriguez took it personally on Monday. Obviously Michigan fans are taking it personally:
So this is bizarre after everything. But this year one of the many, many reasons I want Michigan to win ... will be a new one. I'll be rooting on a personal level for Rich so he can have a press conference during which he can make an awkward comment about all this with a smile on his face, and I can wince inwardly at it.
That's just the most prominent voice in a growing bunker mentality that's quickly evolved from more de facto defenses of their coach to something like a movement to defend the program's honor. In that sense, the fan base -- or at least some substantial, heavily invested segment of it -- is probably much more united behind Rodriguez that it's been at any point until now. If there is a clash of New vs. Old, there's a good chance the crowd for Saturday's opener with Western Michigan will lean far more vocally toward the New.
This will last as long as the team keeps its head above water. It won't be lost on anyone in the Big House that the last two times the Wolverines hosted a feisty but nominally outmanned underdog in the home opener, they left the stadium at 0-1 with the season unfurling in front of them in all its sobering doom. The one thing Michigan needs right now more than anything is optimism, which has been wholly missing now for two full years. None of the old excuses apply Saturday, which will have to be the most satisfying victory over a MAC opponent in the long history of Michigan football -- not because beating Western Michigan means anything, but because, with the stakes raised and battle lines beginning to form, Rodriguez and his backers cannot afford another loss.