November 30, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Lynn Henning

Waiting to decide Rich Rodriguez's fate could backfire for Michigan

Rich Rodriguez is 15-21 in three seasons with the Wolverines. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

It's very simple. And necessary, because Michigan football, Rich Rodriguez, a potential new head coach, and the assistants on one or more coaching staffs, as well as recruits, all need to know as soon as possible what Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon has in mind for his football program.

To wait until after a bowl game to affirm or cancel Rodriguez's time at Ann Arbor is inviting things to get steadily messy and counter-productive.

It sounds like the high-road path, waiting until a season is officially over, before making any changes in a football office that might affect leadership during the coming month's practices as well as at an upcoming bowl game.

But it's making way too much out of a bowl game and 30 days of operations versus the long-term considerations that must be Brandon's guide on this, his most vital concern, nearly nine months into his first year as Michigan's AD.

Frankly, that a man as steeped in football — a man who played under Bo Schembechler — wouldn't agree that there are greater costs at stake is a mystery as Brandon maintains his stance that nothing will be decided about Rodriguez until after U-M's bowl game.

Whether or not that's a cryptic statement about Brandon's confidence — or lack thereof — in Rodriguez, it's not the way to reassure players, much less Michigan's incoming and potential recruits.

Make the decision now. Either let Rodriguez continue with business as usual, minus any anxiety, or allow the new man to begin his transition. Settle the unrest in recruits' minds. Allow assistant coaches and their families to pursue new jobs or to know they can retain their present addresses.

Be responsible to your team and to your recruits. If the man coaching them and recruiting them in December isn't likely to be the same boss in January, they deserve to know. Now.

Quick resolution better for everyone

Michigan State went this same, presumably lofty, route eight years ago and, maybe not coincidentally, was looking for a new head coach four years later. Worse, the bowl game that was so sacred — Louisville vs. Marshall at the GMAC Bowl — turned into a debacle after John L. Smith, who was then coaching Louisville, told his players at halftime he was leaving for Michigan State.

Cell phones were blowing up on the sidelines. And what should have been a big night for Louisville turned into a joke, all because MSU, which had said goodbye to Nick Saban four years earlier when Saban left for LSU ahead of the Citrus Bowl, tried to do the "honorable" thing by letting the bowl-game schedule play out.

And not one group benefited from it.

You can argue that MSU's situation in 2002 was different. Michigan State had already fired Bobby Williams and was shopping for a new coach.

Correct, except that there aren't any obvious circumstances where changing coaches in January is better than changing coaches in December if you're an athletic director with change in mind.

You can say, as well, that Michigan knew of Lloyd Carr's retirement in November 2007 and spent a sloppy following month chasing Greg Schiano and Les Miles. The counter argument there is if that's how things worked in December, you can image the mayhem January might have delivered.

Michigan needs resolution. And it needs a decision on where things are headed far more than it needs sensitivity to bowl-game obligations, which can be carried on with or without Rodriguez.

The sooner a new coach gets a beachhead in Ann Arbor, the better for a university's nerves, the better for players, the better for recruits — committed and non-committed.

There are also coaching vacancies now that could benefit from Rodriguez's candidacy if he, in fact, is headed out the door. There are assistants galore moving from one staff to another, or seeking jobs, and those dominoes deserve to spill with Rodriguez's staff as part of the process.

That is, if Brandon is going to make a move.

If this is a financial issue — Rodriguez would receive a $4 million buyout ahead of January versus $2.5 after Jan. 1 — then there are infinitely better ways to save $1.5 million, which is about one-half or less of a new head coach's salary for one year.

You can make the same argument against waiting with respect to Jim Harbaugh and Stanford, if, in fact, Harbaugh is the man likely to replace a fired Rodriguez. Stanford doesn't benefit from any 30-day delays in getting on with its football life. A university with Stanford's clout and reputation doesn't need to be played for a fool as it waits for Brandon to decide not only Michigan's football future, but also the Cardinal's.

Former longtime AD: Timing is everything

These points were run past a retired athletic director, Bob Goin, who ran the athletic departments at Cincinnati and Florida State from 1995-2004. He agreed that it's essential to get these issues resolved as quickly as possible and to let new people get to work immediately — if that's your call as athletic director.

"I'm not advocating a change," Goin said during a phone conversation, "but if that decision's been made in your heart, the change should be made sooner rather than later.

"I know Rich Rodriguez, I like Rich Rod, I think he's a good coach. But if he isn't viewed as a fit, then it's better to cut your losses and get on with business. Why waste another day?

"When I made a coaching decision," said Goin, who worked at Bethany College and West Virginia before moving Cincinnati, "I made it the day after the last game of the season. And then you didn't have to prolong anything. There's no good timing for one of these situations — it's hurtful to a lot of people.

"But it's better to send out the signal, to your own people and to people across the country, that there should be no speculation. If there are some contractual things you have to weigh (such as a buyout), that's a price you should pay to get everything behind you and start fresh as soon as you can."

Goin agrees on two more points: Fans and university executives who will lose their head coach to a new job (Harbaugh as a possible example) will be doubly upset to lose him four weeks from the first day recruits can sign national letters of intent.

In the same way, assistant coaches who can search for a new job, or expect to retain their old one, will have a more peaceful Christmas if they know ahead of January what's up for them and their families.

"Absolutely," Goin said. "It's the timing. Every day counts when a man needs to provide for his family and may need to relocate and move forward.

"Hey, no one at Cincinnati was happy a year ago when Brian Kelly (he, of course, took the Notre Dame job) left. But Kelly had to do what was right for him. And that was easier to handle ahead of the bowl game." Brandon is sticking to his guns and doing what he believes, with conviction, is the right thing for Michigan.

But try selling the idea a month from now that waiting until January, or the final couple of days in December, was better for one of the biggest football programs in America. That it was better for Rodriguez. That it was better for a university, such as Stanford, which wasn't looking to hire a new football coach as its first task of 2011.

lynn.henning@detnews.com

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