Wed Feb 09 05:57pm EST
Last week, Rich Rodriguez told the Associated Press he could "see a light at the end of the tunnel" of his tribulations at Michigan, if only he'd had more time to finish the job. Today, he doubled down on the "tunnel" metaphor in an interview with national radio host Colin Cowherd, clarifying precisely the tunnel he had in mind:
"We were making progress," he said. "The best was ahead of us and the worst was behind us.
"I almost felt like Andy Dufresne in the 'Shawshank Redemption.' Went through 300 yards of the foulest smelling crap you can imagine and we were finally getting to the good part at the end — and we didn't get a chance to do that. It was frustrating."
"The way things worked out, certainly there's regrets," he said. "… I just wish we had more time to succeed."
Actually, it was 500 yards, coach, but we see where you're going with this, again: The extreme attrition, factionalization, bullying from the press and simple bad luck Rodriguez endured in Ann Arbor made one of the most coveted jobs in America seem like a prison, and quarterback Denard Robinson finally offered a way out. But the new warden had the escape route sealed, or was waiting at the other end, or had Rodriguez shipped off to a new prison before he could make his escape, or stole his Racquel Welch poster, or, uh … well, we get the idea. Rodriguez did the tedious, day-to-day work to get the program out of the dire situation he inherited, put it on the right path and was cut out of the plan at the last second. We get it.
Do we buy it? We do not. Rodriguez's appeals for more time to see the thing to fruition might fall on a more sympathetic audience if a) He hadn't already had three years to demonstrate unmistakable progress at a program that was consistently worse throughout his tenure than it had been at any point in the previous 40 years, and b) Whatever semblance of progress the Wolverines had demonstrated the first ten games of 2010 hadn't been so thoroughly erased over the final three.
At 7-3, there's room to claim progress, even if the last three wins in that record happen o be harrowing, skin-of-the-teeth triumphs over three of the most hapless teams in the conference. (In this case, Indiana, Illinois and Purdue, all narrow Michigan victories, wrapped around a not-so-narrow losing streak at the hands of Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.) But the final three games brought any and all vestiges of optimism to the grisliest possible end. The Wolverines were trounced by Wisconsin by 20 points, Ohio State by 30 and Mississippi State (!) by 38 in the bowl game. The hopelessly green, sad-sack outfit that greeted Rodriguez in 2008 could have hardly fared worse. The new defensive coordinator was demonstrably worse than the one who'd been run out of town after Rodriguez's first season. When a 5-0 start devolves into a 2-6 finish, of which the high point is a 67-65 escape against a team coached by Ron Zook, in triple overtime, that is the opposite of progress.
Presumably, Rodriguez thinks Brady Hoke only has to crawl through the last few remaining yards of crap before he breaks into the clear, thanks to the previous administration's legwork. That makes some sense: Going forward, the Wolverines figure to be one of the most veteran teams in the country this fall, with nine offense starters returning around Robinson – including four-fifths of the offensive line – and a defense that should at least have a clue for a change, if not a sudden influx of talent. Hoke is obviously exaggerating for effect when he says anything short of a Big Ten championship is a "failure," but it's not an exaggeration to expect the 2011 edition to look closer to the Michigan that you (and Hoke) grew up with than any of the depressing teams that took the field under his predecessor.
And really, that would probably be the case if Rodriguez had been miraculously granted a fourth year. But some discernible return to form was the mandate for 2009, too, and again last year. Despite their fast starts, those teams ultimately delivered nothing of the sort. The 2011 team, the first legitimately veteran lineup at Michigan since Lloyd Carr's last go-round in 2007, may be the one to fulfill that promise, regardless of who's at the top; a lot of people who aren't dumb will probably spend the next six months predicting exactly that. But the natural optimism that comes with an experienced team is an inevitable matter of time, not of steady, coordinated progress. If a more seasoned outfit does manage a breakthrough this fall – minor or otherwise – does Rodriguez really think he's earned the right to lead it?
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.