August 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Bob Wojnowski

U-M coach Rich Rodriguez knows it's 2010 or bust

Rich Rodriguez will need someone to step and play big at quarterback. Denard Robinson is one of those options. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- After practice today, Rich Rodriguez is scheduled to board a flight to Seattle, along with other Michigan officials, to attend an NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing Saturday. In that meeting, and upon his return to Michigan's two-a-day workouts, we'll begin to learn how much fight Rodriguez has left in him.

He knows what he's facing, on the field and off, and I think it shows. Ask him about the urgency of the upcoming season, he answers wearily, that he always feels urgency, that he wants to win as badly as anyone.

The odds don't look good. The troubling news never stops. New athletic director David Brandon publicly and repeatedly supports his coach, but adds this season is "huge" for the future of Michigan football. Of course, that means it's huge for the future of Rodriguez.

Michigan faces five major violations, and now there are similar allegations stemming from Rodriguez's tenure at West Virginia. The primary way he can fight back is to win, but win how much? If the NCAA situations at both schools go badly, it won't even matter. And while Brandon won't say, I will: If Rodriguez doesn't have a winning season, at least 7-5, I think he's gone.

It's hardly a newsflash that this is the biggest test of his 17-year career as a head coach. Amid all the justifiable criticism of his awful 8-16 record here, as well as the program's first nasty brush with the NCAA, it's worth recalling Rodriguez was one of the hottest coaches in college football not long ago. Now, he just sits on the hottest seat.

Rodriguez is embattled, but he needs to fight back and not get embittered, and he's trying. Michigan's internal squabbles appear to have subsided for now, almost as if the one-huge-season scenario is set, and everyone's waiting for it to play out.

And yet, Rodriguez hasn't settled on a starting quarterback, between Denard Robinson, Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner. His defense, which has been abysmal, is packed again with questions. His secondary is thin and inexperienced, which can't bode well for his 3-3-5 formation.

'Winning cures a lot'

His two-season Big Ten record is 3-13, and most pundits pick the Wolverines from fifth to eighth. It's not impossible to think they could spring some surprises. I see at least seven winnable games -- home against Connecticut, Massachusetts, Bowling Green, Michigan State and Illinois, at Indiana and Purdue. Who knows about the trip to Notre Dame. Home games against Iowa and Wisconsin, and the trip to Ohio State? Uh, good luck.

The twisted irony is, the job security of Michigan's head coach could swing on avoiding a third straight loss to Michigan State. At least the program's recent misery against Ohio State pre-dates Rodriguez. Losing control of his own state is the more immediate issue.

"Winning cures a lot of things," Rodriguez said the other day, smiling weakly. "I've been told that by many folks. I plan on us playing better and winning, that's the ultimate goal."

They do have an experienced offensive line, lots of speed at the skill positions and decent talent on the defensive line. Rodriguez's spread offense still could damage Big Ten defenses, especially if Robinson can throw as effectively as he runs.

But man, the issues just don't go away, do they? Forcier was supposed to be the incumbent, but some have questioned his commitment. Senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk reportedly criticized Forcier's offseason workout habits. Rodriguez tried to squash any controversy by saying he was glad seniors were taking leadership roles.

'Great support system'

Rodriguez, 47, is a tough guy and a likable guy. He really is. If he ever found a way to fit here, it could be dynamic. But this isn't about implementing a long-term plan anymore. This is about winning games early, especially the opener against Connecticut in refurbished Michigan Stadium, to set any kind of a positive tone.

Michigan football has a ton at stake and so does Rodriguez, whose six-year, $15-million contract can be terminated if he's guilty of major violations. Brandon is walking the line smartly and aggressively, self-imposing sanctions for practice rule violations while currently backing the coach. The biggest charge facing Rodriguez is the one he'll fight in Seattle: He didn't promote an atmosphere of compliance.

If the NCAA finds a pattern there, going back to West Virginia, that's a major concern piled on top of others. Rodriguez just lost touted cornerback J.T. Turner, who will transfer. Another celebrated prospect, Demar Dorsey, was denied admission, a blow to the current roster and further indication of how desperate Rodriguez is (and should be, frankly).

I asked him if he addressed all the pressure with his team.

"No, I handle that," Rodriguez said. "That's the head coach's job. I don't want our players to get hung up in that."

And how does the head coach handle it?

"Do the things a head coach is supposed to do, take care of your responsibilities, be forthcoming and truthful, and go full speed ahead," he said. "Nobody wants to go through some of the difficulties we went through. I got a great support system on my staff, my family, the university, our athletic department. When I go to bed at night -- when I can sleep -- I think of what I can do the next day to make our program the best in the country. That's all you can do."

Those are long, daunting trips, all the way to Seattle, all the way back to Big Ten and national respectability. Rodriguez knows, even if he tries not to show it, that he's in the toughest fight of his coaching life.

Rich Rodriguez's career record

At West Virginia

Year Rec. Bowl
'01 3-8
'02 9-4 Continental Tire, L
'03 8-5 Gator, L
'04 8-4 Gator, L
'05 11-1 Sugar, W
'06 11-2 Gator, W
'07 10-2 Fiesta, W

At Michigan

Year Rec. Bowl
'08 3-9

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

U-M coach Rich Rodriguez knows he has to win big this season. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
See Also
More Bob Wojnowski