Rich Rodriguez's record at Michigan is 13-18. "We haven't been good enough, but we're getting closer, and we'll get there," he said. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — A rollicking 5-0 start brightened the mood and lightened the load on Rich Rodriguez. Quarterback Denard Robinson was dazzling and the Wolverines were rising, even as their defense struggled.
Then came back-to-back home losses to physical Big Ten opponents, and the questions returned. Rodriguez has never been far from the hot lights in his two-and-half seasons at Michigan, with a 13-18 record and NCAA scrutiny. The Wolverines are still 5-2 and have a bye before traveling to Penn State, but for some, images of last season's collapse to 5-7 are stirring.
Not for Rodriguez. At times defensive, but mostly defiant, he sat down this week to discuss the state of his program.
Athletic director Dave Brandon has publicly supported his coach. And if you ask Rodriguez what he can do to quell concerns, he answers bluntly: "Go win. I mean, what do you want me to do — go jump off a bridge or cut off a knuckle every time we lose?"
It's not bloody-knuckle time at Michigan, but it's always white-knuckle time. Rodriguez is trying to fix his defense and make his spread offense fit, and remains confident he'll win here. Displaying feistiness and folksiness, he had no problem addressing a range of topics during an engaging hour-long talk in his office at Schembechler Hall.
Bob Wojnowski: Your team started fast, then lost at home to Michigan State and Iowa and now is 5-2, with tough games ahead. Does all the scrutiny ever get to you?
Rich Rodriguez: Everybody's got pressure in life, and ours happens to be more public. Does it change who you are? Does it change what you do? Do you let it affect your day-to-day life? I choose not to.
It's not like, 'OK, I'm gonna try harder because there's more pressure.' You kidding me? I'm gonna try as hard as I can whether we won the last 10 or lost the last 10. That's the way I think you should approach life. Go full speed.
Q: So you can handle it?
A: (Smiles). Every year as a head coach in Division I is like dog years, it should count as seven. There's the toll on your family too. You sign up for it, so you know it. You just have to deal with it.
I've said this many times, it's not my first rodeo. People may not believe it around here, but it's no different here than it was for me at West Virginia. At West Virginia, it might've been more public, because it was a smaller state and I was from there.
So people that say, 'Well, there's a lot more pressure at Michigan.' No. There's just as much.
Q: But at West Virginia, did you have your job status speculated about, like here?
A: Oh, maybe after my first year, we were 3-8, I don't know. Again, I don't pay much attention to it.
The job speculation part almost started immediately here. Probably started before I coached my first game. A lot of people don't know what's going on in a program and make opinions based on what's written or what they hear or what's rumored. If they really, really knew everything, maybe they wouldn't be so quick to judge.
Q: But most of the criticism is simply based on your won-loss record (13-18).
A: No question. That's the reality of it. OK, but why are the wins and losses there?
Q: Tell me, what are people missing?
A: In football, it's not as easy as saying, 'OK, you go to a place like Michigan that has so much winning tradition, you can screw up and win eight or nine, right?' Maybe that's not the case.
I think every program nowadays, it's not as easy to win. It doesn't automatically happen. I'm not making excuses, I'm just telling the truth. We haven't been good enough, but we're getting closer, and we'll get there. But it's gonna take longer than anybody wants, especially us.
Q: Some of the issues are well-documented — NCAA investigation, divisiveness, scheme change, injuries. Why do you think it's taking longer to fix?
A: Oh, you don't have enough room in the paper to write the story. If it's in the past, it's in the past. Are you doing the right things now to have a program that everyone's proud of? I think we are. I'm more confident now than I was two years ago.
Q: Why are you so confident?
A: Why not?
Q: Is it confidence in your own ability?
A: No, it's everything. It's the players, it's the attitude, the commitment, the focus. We lost two games this year, two games we didn't play very well, and the other team had something to do with that.
I think you can look at it and say we're fun to watch. We need some help on defense and the kicking game, but I would hope you could see we're a better football team. We're playing a lot more younger guys and we're a lot more banged up than we were the last two years. So I'm encouraged — disappointed but encouraged.
Q: As the leader of the program, you're accountable for the results. How do you calm people and show them this season isn't fading?
A: Go win. I mean, what do you want me to do — go jump off a bridge, or cut off a knuckle every time we lose?
Q: So you see signs this year is different?
A: Every year is different. Why do people view life in a negative way? Why not say, boy, what an opportunity you have after the open week to maybe get some guys healthy and win this game (at Penn State), instead of just the gloom and doom?
I know why. Because it's more sensational to read and hear about somebody's problems than talk about something positive. People watch the reality shows, the Housewives of New Jersey, whatever that is, and hope they see a catfight. They don't want to watch them have tea and crumpets and talk about how great everything is.
Some people feel better about themselves if they make somebody else feel worse. Why do people watch the Jerry Springer show? To watch somebody else's misery.
Q: I used to enjoy Jerry Springer, to be honest.
A: (Rodriguez laughs). You gotta have a sense of humor, and you gotta have thick skin around here.
Q: OK, on the positive side, your offense is ranked third in the country. What do you like best about your team right now?
A: The attitude. I think the guys are trying hard, I think they're close. I think they're very conscientious. That's why I don't want them to worry and believe in the doom and gloom.
Offensively, we haven't played our best game, but we've played some pretty good games. I even see some signs in the other phases, the kicking game and defense.
Everyone wants it right now, and so do I. But you gotta have patience. This process is painfully slow, but it still hasn't been three whole years yet. And building a football program, sometimes there are more obstacles to get where you want than people realize. It's not like all of a sudden, you get two or three players in this recruiting class and it changes.
Q: There are more obstacles than you thought when you came here?
A: Oh yeah, sure. But that doesn't mean you can't overcome them.
Q: As defenses focus more on Denard Robinson, do you worry about the wear and tear, and whether they've figured out how to contain him?
A: Not really. Because we've run this system for a few years, whether it was Pat White or Rasheed Marshall or Woody Dantzler. Denard's kind of the same makeup as those guys. He's had the knee injury, that was a bruise, and the shoulder was just a sprain. We did the MRI and all the tests to give him a little peace of mind. He should be fine. He's a good player now, but he's going to be really, really good the next couple of years.
Q: Tate Forcier played well in relief. How do you view talk of a quarterback controversy?
A: That's comical. But that's OK — at least it means we got two guys that have been pretty productive. Denard's the starter.
Q: Your defense is ranked 105th in the country. Can you explain why you're in this situation?
A: I've used this term before — it's been a perfect storm of circumstances that have forced us to play some younger guys, particularly in the back end. We're not nearly as fast as we need to be defensively. People talk about size, but really, we need to get faster.
Q: You do often employ a 3-3-5 scheme. Is that not working?
A: I think the scheme part is probably way overrated. I worry more about fundamentals and us being fast enough and physical enough. We've got to play better, we know that, and our defensive staff is working as hard as they can. You can have the best scheme in the world, and if that guy over there beats your guy over here, and you don't tackle well, you're going to struggle.
Q: Recruiting-wise, do you need to focus more on defense?
A: Our numbers were down defensively last year, definitely. But it takes more than one year to adjust. Our defensive numbers now are better, scholarship-wise, but they're young guys. I'm really happy with our freshman class. We need another recruiting class like this one, from a defensive standpoint.
Q: Do you need to take a more active approach with the defense?
A: There aren't a lot of head coaches that call plays on either side of the ball, but I'm heavily involved in the offense and also special teams. To say, do more on defense, well, it's just not realistic. Our defensive staff knows what they're doing. I meet with them, we talk daily. I trust those guys.
Q: Is your faith in defensive coordinator Greg Robinson unwavering?
A: I don't think that's a fair question to ask. It's the same way when a team is struggling, or a quarterback is struggling. I think it's easy to point the finger at one guy. I don't think we should point fingers. We all see the same things and we're all trying to fix it together.
Q: Injuries, especially to (safety) Troy Woolfolk, are a factor. What about the players that left the program?
A: There hasn't been a guy that left that would've helped us. They left for a reason. That's why I don't talk about them. I talk about the guys that play for Michigan. The guys that left weren't playing for Michigan anyway.
Q: When you look ahead with this team, what gets you excited?
A: I'm excited about the players, that they're truly all in. I think the first thing in building a program is, you gotta have everybody completely in, not halfway in, not just in when it's convenient. All in, all the time. We're closer to that than we've ever been.
Q: That was a challenge at first, having that full support?
A: Sure. I think it's a challenge any time a new coach comes in anywhere.
Q: Especially a new coach from such a different background?
A: New coaches, new weight and strength staff, a lot of new faces. That was a struggle, no question.
Q: Do you feel you've been able to break through some of those perceptions about a different style of play?
A: I find it amusing when people say, 'Well, you should run a different kind of offense than you're used to until you get the guys you recruited to run your offense.' I said that's ridiculous, if you look at who we had coming back offensively the first year we got here. Most of them had never played at all. So you might as well teach them our style, and I'm glad we did, because now we have guys in our offense that have been in the system for years.
Q: Your Big Ten record is 4-15. Are you still sure this system works in the Big Ten? Do you have to target a different type of recruit?
A: Regardless of what offense or defense you run, everybody's going to recruit the same kind of players. These are the same schemes and system (at West Virginia) that beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. I don't blame people for looking at our defense. We need to get better.
Q: When we talk about blame, it's on you and your coaching staff too, to make it work.
A: Yes, it's coaching. Putting them in the position to make plays, that's coaching. Getting the right players in recruiting, that's coaching. You gotta get those pieces in place first.
Q: Do you feel good about how recruiting is going?
A: Yeah, and we base it on how we evaluate them, not what some Internet service rates them.
Q: You've often mentioned the drama. When the NCAA thing is over, now fairly soon, will it be a major relief?
A: Yeah, I think that part really is behind us now. They did their investigation, as long and thorough as that was, and we've been doing our self-imposed penalties. Since we went there and met the committee in August, I really haven't put any thought into it at all.
Q: It seems like you and (athletic director) Dave Brandon have a good relationship.
A: Yeah. Dave is really smart, and he's jumped in with both feet.
Q: He has publicly supported you, and said his evaluation of the program won't be based on only wins and losses. What did you think when he said that?
A: I'd be surprised if any athletic director would say something different than that.
Q: So the speculation that you need to go 7-5 or 8-4, or whatever, for job security doesn't bother you?
A: You hear it all the time, your family hears it all the time, the coaches hear it all the time, but do you sit there and worry about what people are saying? You can't. How can you live life that way?
Nobody's going to feel worse after we lose than me and our coaching staff, I promise you that. We hate it. We're not used to it, either. This process is taking longer than anybody wanted, but let us get there.
Q: Do you ever have conversations with Brandon about the job issue?
A: Oh we've talked about everything. It's unfortunate we have to deal with the rumors in recruiting, but who's making the rumors? It's not Dave Brandon saying this stuff, it's not (school president) Mary Sue Coleman saying these things. It's people that are blogging or on the radio, or a reporter writing a story.
Q: So how do you dispel the "hot seat" stuff, other than just by winning?
A: You mean at every press conference, should somebody say, 'You still on the hot seat, coach?' The media doesn't do that, it's better than that. All you can do is go out and do our job.
It's been less than three years. The patience is less now, but they pay coaches more, so you understand that. People want to vent, and there's nothing wrong with that. This game is in a great spot because of the fans, so it's not like you complain about it.
Q: Do you feel more comfortable here now?
A: Yeah, but I don't know if I ever was uncomfortable. I just think the drama made it appear that way. I've felt welcome since we got here.
I know I haven't done a good job of letting people know me, because I just figured the truth will come out and they'll eventually get to know me. I live kind of a boring life. I come here (to Schembechler Hall), go recruiting, go home with my wife and kids, that's all I do. And I play a little golf in the summer.
Q: Stress is an issue in this business. How do you relieve that?
A: I'm a Stairmaster guy. Every day at 6 a.m., that's how I get the frustration out.
Q: You made a quip the other day about Vince Lombardi not being able to help your defense, referencing the players' lack of experience. Some people took exception to it.
A: Everybody wants to look for the Dr. Phil moment and talk about psychology. I don't care about that. People are gonna draw conclusions the way they want anyway, so what am I supposed to do? I can go to every press conference now and be the most boring guy if that's what people want. I probably am anyway. (He laughs).
Q: Do you feel this is the place you'll be for a long time?
A: Yeah, this is a destination job. But I felt the same way at West Virginia. It was gonna take something special for me to leave my home, and this is something special. There's been more challenges, but gosh, if you look at who we have coming back, the things that are setting up with the facilities, it's hard not to get excited about what we're gonna be. Real excited.
Q: So amid it all, you're staying upbeat?
A: You're not gonna see my team hanging their heads. We're gonna get mad when things don't go well and we're gonna try to fix it, but we're not gonna hang our heads.
And we're not gonna gloat when this thing is rolling, either. We're 5-2 and we lost two tough games to pretty good teams. But you know what I say? 'Next.' I'm only worried about what's next.