Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
You'll have to excuse Rich Rodriguez for not being full of good cheer around Christmas this year.
Rodriguez isn't used to spending the holidays like most Americans, hanging out at home. From 2002-2006, he devoted those days to preparing West Virginia for various bowl appearances. Last December, he was slightly preoccupied, as you might have heard.
But Rodriguez doesn't have a bowl game in his future this year, and for the first time since 1974, neither does Michigan.
"It's not going to be any fun, but we'll have a little bit of time over Christmas," Rodriguez said. "I've talked to the wife, like, 'What are we gonna do? We've got three or four days here. I don't want to sit around because I'll be mad watching everybody else play in a bowl game.' I've got to figure out something."
Rodriguez's Christmas confinement will end a tumultuous year for the Michigan coach.
There was the controversy and sour sentiment following his departure from West Virginia, and the cautious curiosity about his arrival at Michigan. There was the lawsuit and the settlement. There was spring ball, Justin Boren and questions about the program's values. There was installing a proven offensive system with mostly unproven players.
And then there was the season. Despite major personnel losses and a surplus of inexperienced players thrust into major roles, the transition proved to be tougher than many could have ever imagined. Michigan started 2-7, ensuring the program's first losing season since 1967, before rebounding with a nice road win last Saturday at Minnesota.
Rodriguez's team mounted the greatest comeback in Michigan Stadium history against Wisconsin and also became the first Michigan squad to fall to a MAC school (Toledo). The offense ranks 104th nationally in yards and 86th in scoring, but it has shown flashes.
Trying times, for sure, but there are reasons for hope.
Rodriguez spent some time with me Monday afternoon discussing the season, his own performance and the work that lies ahead.
Are you at the point where you can go back and evaluate yourself, what worked, what didn't work, or is it something you do at the end of the season?
RR: I do it all the time anyway. The last 27 years of coaching, not just the 16 years as a head coach, every year I'm always constantly doing that. Obviously, having a tough year, it makes it even more of a sense of urgency to do that. So not only evaluating everything that we're doing individually as coaches, but also everything in the program. Some of the progress we're making Sunday through Friday isn't showing up on Saturday. It did a little bit last Saturday. So some of the progress is already in place, but more of it is going to take a little more time. We know the major things we've got to do to make this program a top 10, 15, 20 program, but it's just now implementing it and getting it in place.
When you evaluate, do you look back at the summer and see things you missed or didn't emphasize enough?
RR: I usually do that right after camp, evaluate how camp was, and then after the first game, how that first game week went. And the system and putting the program in place, it's not like it's the first time. Even this season, having gone through something similar seven or eight years ago at West Virginia, I was able to draw on some things from that. Some of the problems didn't happen overnight, won't be solved overnight. But some of the issues are similar to things I've dealt with before, and it's just a matter of getting it in place and hopefully having a little bit better success on game days. As a coach, you always have to reevaluate yourself every week, every month and certainly every year.
So it's not like you're in Week 8 and you say, 'Maybe if I had just hammered that home a little bit more, maybe I missed a mistake that now showed up on game day.' Is there any of that going on?
RR: Not as much. There's always some, like maybe we should have tried this guy earlier at this position. But you usually try to figure that out after camp. And nowadays, with the way the camp schedules are, it's hard to make as good of an evaluation on some of the guys as you used to. Because you don't want to beat your team up and you're not allowed to beat your team up every day anyway. Sometimes it takes you through the season to figure out, 'Hey, these guys may be better served in this position or this part of the depth chart,' anything like that. Then always scheme-wise, you're always optimistic that guys can be able to execute some things. And until you play the games and go against somebody else, they may not be able to do all you want. A lot of people have said, 'You shouldn't have put in a different system until you get certain guys in place, particularly offensively.' And I said, 'Well, what would we have relied on?' The O-line was new, the quarterback's new, the running back's new, the receivers are new. So it wasn't like a facet that you could say, 'Let's rely on that part and run this offense because that will be the strength.' I think you're better off putting your system in and teaching and coaching the guys up. Hopefully, they can perform.
Is it almost like trial and error, they're not going to learn it unless they fail and go through it.
RR: You've got to have enough versatility in your system. There's a misconception about the spread. The spread can go a lot of different ways. Everybody wants balance, but you can feature different formations and different strengths, based on your skill players offensively. We have enough versatility in our spread. We're not doing nearly as much as we would like, either run or the pass game, because of experience and some other things. But at least we think we have the base knowledge in, and then we can grow from it.
There's a perception that this should never happen at a place like Michigan. But if you look at Notre Dame last year, Washington's really down. You mentioned all the new players. Is this inevitable for even the Michigans of the world, that something like this is not impossible?
RR: It's not. I can see an outside perception saying, 'Well, that should never happen.' We've always had outstanding players here, but if you look in depth at not just the talent that we lost, but the talent and the depth that we lost and who we were playing with, particularly offensively, this year. You're in a situation where most of these guys had never played at all, let alone being a backup or playing a part-time role. And even defensively, we've been disappointed at times, but the four top tacklers are all gone. So none of these guys had to really be The Guy or be the focal point of the defense. It's been a combination of things. With that being said, we've had good players, but some of the problems that we, that Michigan has had in the past several years, whether it's offense or defense, came up to bite us a little bit more this year. We've got to get those solved.
What are some of those problems?
RR: There have been games where if a guy or two was hurt, it really affected the performance from an athletic s
tandpoint. We probably have not been as athletic the last couple of years as maybe we were in the past here. Last year's games when Chad Henne and Mike Hart were hurt, it really affected the offensive performance quite a bit, even with the other guys around them. And defensively, sometimes we struggled a little bit against teams that spread out a little bit in space, the Appy States, the Oregons and all that. We had some problems earlier in the season with that. We're hopefully getting those fixed as well. But even that being said, in the transition, we'd like to be able to do some things better and do it and do it over again. But also, if I go back, there's not as many regrets as you would think. There are some, but the biggest thing I wish we would have been able to do, and the NCAA limits that, is being able to spend more time with our returning players. With the time limitations, we weren't able to spend much time with them, them get to know us, us get to know them. I had 'em over to my house, a bunch of guys at different times over the summer, but we didn't get a chance to get to know them as well as we do right now. That's when people say, 'Are you happy the season's going to be over?' I say, 'No. Even though it's a tough season, I enjoy coaching these guys. I see us getting closer and closer all the time.' Unfortunately, we only have a couple weeks left.
I'm sure the athleticism is a focal point of your recruiting. How important are those needs, and at the same time, how important is it that you don't have another situation where you have a completely new group that hasn't played?
RR: Right now, there's probably going to be more opportunities for young guys to play coming in our program than maybe in years past, simply because of transition and because of who was graduating last year and who is graduating this year. Three, four years from now, maybe it won't be the case, but right now, there's a lot of opportunities, for all the freshmen we're playing this year, and next year's class, there may be some more opportunities. But the biggest thing we need to create here is quality competition at every position. Not only does that make you a better team, but also if you get a couple injuries, there's not as much difference between the next guy going in. That's something that's not at the level you would think it would be at a place like Michigan, but eventually, it will be.
What are your goals for recruiting? How do you gear it?
RR: We're at such a great place that we can recruit nationally. We still obviously want to focus in the Midwest, particularly Michigan and the core states that surround us. But we have a lot of ties down south with our staff. A lot of those guys that we know we think will come up here and play in a terrific environment. I know the recruiting rankings and all that are important to a lot of people, but for us, we've got to pick the right guy, the right guy that we think fits our system, fits our university and who we think has the type of competitiveness that we want in our program.
I know you've been through similar things like this in your first year at other stops, but how has it changed you?
RR: I know there's been a lot out there. I follow sports, I'm a big fan of sports of all kinds, so I like to watch the TV and read newspapers. But I quit several years ago of getting into the newspapers and the Internet because it can really sour your mood. It's like I told the team, when people are on you all the time and criticizing you, it may create some scars on the outside, but it's not going to change who you are on the inside. Unfortunately, our family's been through a little bit in the last 10 months. Some of that, from the transition from West Virginia to here, really caught me off guard. I knew there was going to be some backlash. I never thought it was going to be like it is. And I never really got the chance to stand up and say, 'Hey, wait a minute, now. All this stuff is not right.' I just tried to stay single-minded and focused on my job at Michigan. I don't want to say it's hardened me to everything, but in a strange way, it's probably helped me focus on what I've got to do here.
Has your patience been tested?
RR: Oh, gosh, there's no question. Coaches by nature aren't very patient, and I know I'm not. This has tested my patience more than any time in my career, without a doubt. I've got to learn to see the bigger picture sometimes, and all that. But I don't want our staff or our players ever not to be ultra competitive. So there's that fine line of being patient, but at the same time, not losing your competitiveness.