Michigan was clobbered by Ohio State 42-7 in Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez’s first season. Michigan is an 18-point underdog Saturday. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor -- For nearly three years, we've waited for some sign, some signature moment of clarity. Rich Rodriguez has taken Michigan on a rocky ride, and even though he didn't create all the dips and twists, he has driven the lead car.
Now, the Wolverines face a daunting task in Columbus, and athletic director Dave Brandon faces a huge call. The stark reality is, it could be an easier call after Saturday.
If the Wolverines lose again in embarrassing fashion to the Buckeyes, it's time to make a change.
Brandon would have sufficient reason to fire Rodriguez, and possible added motivation. Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh easily would be the top candidate, and he'll be coveted by others. The brash former Michigan quarterback surely would be interested, and there's no need to open another search circus.
If the Wolverines pull the shocker, Rodriguez would deserve more support. It's just really, really hard to see it happening. Michigan has lost six straight to Jim Tressel, was clobbered 42-7 in Rodriguez's first season and is an 18-point underdog.
Troubling track record
Should Rodriguez's tenure be pinned to this one game? Three years isn't very long to prove oneself, but there's too much at stake to be completely fair. This game has long been the bedrock of Michigan football, and if Rodriguez loses, he'd have dropped pretty much every contest against a tough opponent. He's 15-20 overall, 6-17 in the Big Ten, winless against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, 2-1 against Notre Dame.
The numbers are staggering, starting with that awful defense, the worst in school history. Wisconsin ran the ball its final 31 plays in a 48-28 victory, and that physical pounding in the Big House was the most-disturbing and telling game yet.
Michigan's offense is dynamic and Denard Robinson is a unique quarterback, and those are factors in Brandon's decision. He has said he'll evaluate the program after the season on a variety of issues, more than wins and losses.
It no longer matters how the program got to this point, whether it was the messy transition from the Lloyd Carr era, the spread offense that caused player transfers, injuries, recruiting miscalculations or simply the failures of Rodriguez and his staff. Blame Michigan arrogance, too, which divided the fan base and made Rodriguez's job more difficult.
Last chance for Harbaugh?
Debate it all you want, but I'm done with that. Now, it's about finding the best and quickest way to fix it. Harbaugh is a tremendous fit, for his pedigree under Bo Schembechler, his age (a youthful but seasoned 46), his ability to unify Michigan factions. His public swipes a few years ago at Michigan's academic leniency will be overlooked by most. It was 24 years ago he guaranteed a victory over the Buckeyes — and delivered, 26-24.
Oh, and the guy clearly can coach. Harbaugh is 10-1 in his fourth season at Stanford, 27-21 overall and 56-27 as a college coach. Stanford plays traditional power football, and that could cause another tricky transition at Michigan, although I think he could work with Robinson.
The sophomore quarterback running the Big Ten's top offense (514 yards) represents Rodriguez's best argument to stay, and it's an interesting one. The Wolverines return 10 of 11 starters on offense, 19 of 22 overall, and there's a chance they'd take a significant step next season. From three victories, to five, to seven and bowl eligibility usually constitutes job-saving progress. But this isn't a normal situation, especially when you factor in the NCAA violations.
Michigan might not get another opportunity to grab a prodigal son like Harbaugh, who's also likely interested in the NFL. His brother, John, is the Ravens coach, and the 49ers could have an opening. Brandon is smart and aggressive, and has to know Harbaugh's potential availability is as important as Rodriguez's vulnerability.
I do think Rodriguez has gotten a rotten reception from large segments connected to Michigan football. His stubbornness didn't help, but he figured he was brought here to install his offense, collect speedy players to win bowl games and be his folksy self.
Is he a bad coach? Nope.
Can he win big somewhere? Yep.
Could it still be at Michigan? The toll to find out has become so taxing, the fit so uncomfortable, the odds against it have grown.
"I didn't get this job by getting a lottery ticket that said, 'Congratulations, you're the coach at Michigan,'" Rodriguez said the other day. "We didn't get stupid overnight. Every program has unique circumstances that maybe alter the timeframe."
Patience wears thin
Rodriguez has handled the strife with admirable calm. He wearily fields questions about his job status, but rarely lashes back. I wouldn't be stunned if he'd actually appreciate a mutual, amicable parting. Sometimes, you wonder why he ever left his alma mater, West Virginia, for such a profound change, and then you realize why.
He wanted to test himself and his offense, to show it could work in the big, bold Big Ten. And he was so intent on proving it, he paid little attention to the defense. He hired coordinators — Scott Shafer, now Greg Robinson — he hadn't worked with, and insists on a 3-3-5 alignment with smaller players that struggle in the Big Ten.
Yes, the Wolverines have suffered injuries, and lost two starting defensive backs, Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd.
But that doesn't completely explain why they're forced to list eight true freshmen in their defensive two-deeps, or how the defense is 112th nationally.
It doesn't fully explain how Michigan has lost to upper-echelon Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin by an average of 14 points.
For Rodriguez to stay, he'd have to make major changes on his defensive staff, and it's mostly a familiar, loyal group. I bet that wouldn't be easy.
Tough calls are about to made here, and Brandon will make the biggest one. He has to decide if there's evidence Michigan will be competitive against the Big Ten's best by next season. If not, he needs to move quickly and make a change.
Michigan at Ohio State
Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV/radio: ABC/WOMC 104.3, WTKA 1050
Records: Michigan 7-4 (3-4 Big Ten), No. 8 OhioState 10-1 (6-1)
Series: Michigan leads 57-43-6 (Ohio State 21-10 in 2009)
Line: Ohio State by 17