November 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Bob Wojnowski

For Rich Rodriguez, there's still no easy breathing

U-M addresses the NCAA violations report
U-M addresses the NCAA violations report: U-M addresses the NCAA violations report

Ann Arbor -- Now the evaluation can narrow, finally. The NCAA rendered its verdict, slapped Michigan and admonished Rich Rodriguez appropriately, but didn't wield a heavy hammer.

So we're back where we started, trying to figure out if Rodriguez ever can build a football team here. He survived this and escaped the most serious charge, when the NCAA ruled he was not guilty of "failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance," but culpable for "failing to monitor."

It's a relatively key distinction and Michigan fought hard for it, and as moral victories go, it's a decent one. It's a decent one, too, for the Wolverines, led by athletic director Dave Brandon, who deftly steered the program through this mess and was pleased with the outcome.

A dark, dangerous period just ended for Michigan, but really, it doesn't change a whole lot. Rodriguez won't be fired for the violations, and he shouldn't be. He also hasn't done nearly enough to cement his position. This case wasn't remotely as serious as many in college football, but Michigan nevertheless is stained, its football program on probation for the first time, three years worth.

There still are issues to be addressed and decisions to be made. This was an important day, although not as big as, say, winning a few more games, or stemming the latest on-field slide, or getting the Wolverines a sixth victory and a bowl bid.

"There were reputations on the line, and we fought for the things we thought we should fight for," Rodriguez said. "Now it's over and we can move on. Everybody's accepted responsibility that needs to, including myself."

The verdict — five major violations dealing with excessive practice time and assistants — didn't help Rodriguez, but didn't hurt as much as some surmised a year ago. It would hurt a lot more, for instance, if he dropped the final four games and finished with another bowl-less 5-7 record.

If Rodriguez somehow can right his program now, he probably can handle anything. He handled the probe as well as an embattled coach could, and earned praise from school president Mary Sue Coleman. Rodriguez expressed relief Thursday that the process was over, even though the real evaluation process is just beginning.

Watchful eyes

Brandon said again he would review the program after the season, as he evaluates all 27 Michigan sports. He doesn't look like a guy eager to make a change in the football coach, but if he has to, I think he will.

"Before I started this job, before all this information came to light, and before this whole failure-to-provide-an-atmosphere-of-compliance issue was dropped, I made it very clear I did not feel anything had taken place that would impact the status of our coach," Brandon said. "Where we stand today is in an even more positive position, in terms of the nature of the allegations."

In terms of the allegations, yes. The biggest sanction was just the loss of 130 hours of practice time. But everything else remains under severe scrutiny, starting with Rodriguez's 13-19 overall record, a horrific 4-16 in Big Ten games.

I asked Coleman how she felt about the future of the program and she dodged as nimbly as a sprite university president can. She said she was proud how coaches and players responded to the allegations, but deferred to Brandon on the direction.

"I'm very pleased I was able to hire an athletic director who is thoughtful, careful and an expert in the area we're dealing with," Coleman said. "And this is ultimately his call."

The NCAA report doesn't solely blame Rodriguez but certainly doesn't exonerate him. It criticized how slowly the football staff responded to concerns about missing forms used to count workout hours. Rodriguez said some of those concerns never reached him.

Maybe they didn't, but like I've said about 500 times regarding Michigan's awful defense, it's Rodriguez's program and responsibility. At some point, he needs to move beyond damage control.

"The best way to explain things is the captain-of-the-ship theory," said Paul Dee, chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. "The coach is ultimately responsible, but that doesn't mean the coach is involved in all the activities."

The future

Fair enough. But if Rodriguez is mainly guilty of careless indifference, that's not good enough. For the constant challenges he has faced, completely changing the dynamics of Michigan football, he hasn't shown he can handle all facets of the job.

Brandon won't back himself into any corner on Rodriguez, who has three-plus years left on a six-year contract.

Here's what Brandon said: "Wins and losses matter, and so does the management of your staff, so does the pipeline of recruits, so does the academic performance of your student-athletes, so does the academic performance of your prospective student-athletes, so does the conduct of your student-athletes. … We still have several important games to play that will be great tests for our football program. Let's just go play and let our coach and players be focused on the task at hand. And then at the end, we'll do what we'll do every season and see where we've gotten better and where we need to improve."

Brandon looked genuinely relieved. So did Rodriguez. Deep breaths, then back to work, with the real tough work still ahead.

Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, right, listens as Rich Rodriguez speaks Thursday. Coleman said she was pleased with the way he handled the investigation. / Todd McInturf/The Detroit News
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