October 5, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Lynn Henning

Fun is back at U-M, thanks to 5-0 record

Ann Arbor -- Demonizing the opposition is as old as the Garden of Eden, when a snake pulled a few shenanigans and got an otherwise nice couple into trouble.

The species hasn't recovered since.

In this particular football paradise, Michigan and Michigan State’s camps tend not only to despise each other, but in most cases the coaches, as well.

Rich Rodriguez has been a particularly enticing target for the folks from East Lansing. Michigan State’s zealots have a schoolyard nickname for Michigan's commander, which isn't any more flattering than some of the creative monikers Michigan has conferred upon various Michigan State coaches through the ages.

Good or bad, it’s all mischief, and pretty much a basic requirement for Rivalry 101.

But what's interesting about the Rodriguez flak is, at least until lately, it wasn't all Michigan State’s doing.

Rodriguez has had problems within his Maize and Blue galaxy, problems that Monday seemed distant and at odds with the man sitting before microphones during his news conference.

What was on display is what has been evident in his three seasons: Rodriguez, simply, is not the ogre his critics and skeptics have so often branded him as being.

He is a human being, pleasant to be around, with a nice wit and easy smile.

Not a bad disposition when you consider Rodriguez has been under constant heat — and deservedly so.

The end of a 40-year run of winning seasons, the structural overturn of a system and personnel, and the probability of NCAA probation is no way to win friends and influence rivals.

But the Wolverines are 5-0 heading into Saturday’s delectable duel against the Spartans at Michigan Stadium.

Football is back to being the merry pursuit in Ann Arbor it was for all those decades when Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were keeping watch over their respective eras of Michigan grid history.

Rodriguez’s team has restored the passion to a campus and community that seemed as bewildered as it was deflated by back-to-back losing seasons.

Overcoming 'issues'

These are the components for a grand football party — if Michigan can get by a balanced, high-quality Michigan State team that has no business being a 41/2-point underdog.

There was nothing haggard in his face or voice as Rodriguez spoke, often amusingly, about a game that should help determine whether he has a long, triumphant run in Ann Arbor or reclaims his seat on the front burner as Michigan weighs its football future.

He talked about injuries, and bad defense, and about how injuries and “issues” — a reference, no doubt, to too few defensive backs when he arrived, transfers, etc. — have been part of the reality.

“But we're 5-0,” he said. “So I don’t want to sit here and belabor the fact. The main thing is to win. We have won, and it's a little like winning a prize and winning $10,000 and being all upset because you have to pay taxes on half of it.“You’re still going to take the money, you know, and be happy with it.”

Winning cures most

That's what came across Monday in Rodriguez’s address -- the momentary glee few coaches allow themselves during a season as fraught with setbacks, or outright disasters, as awaits them during a 31/2-hour crucible each week.

“I think I’ve probably not allowed myself to be as open as I’d like to be,” Rodriguez said, talking about his 34 months at Michigan. “The first couple of years, there was such a regimen, plus all the other drama (read: losses, NCAA trouble).

“But it’s been fun so far this season because we’re winning. You never want it to be just that, of course. You want it to be more than that.”

In other words, you want it to be about kids enjoying the high-profile game they play, and fans and alums being upbeat, and coaches feeling good about going to work.

Which, when you think about it, has absolutely everything to do with the one word Rodriguez believes has limitations: winning.

Those limitations are imagined, as Michigan's crowd, and campus, will remind him Saturday should the Wolverines make it to 6-0.

At that moment, a beleaguered coach just might join Robinson as Ann Arbor's newest football icons.