December 7, 2010 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan football squirms as Dave Brandon delays decision on Rich Rodriguez

Denard Robinson celebrated after Michigan beat Bowling Green this season, but the Wolverines' celebrations have been rare during Rich Rodriguez's tenure. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- And so, the uncomfortable dance continues. Rich Rodriguez obviously wants to stay and has found, ahem, interesting ways to express it, like at that much-discussed banquet.

But Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon isn't budging, isn't moving quickly and isn't tipping his hand. Can Michigan survive another month of this? It's far from ideal, but it makes more sense than rushing.

Rodriguez tried Monday to put a semi-smiley face on the Gator Bowl announcement pitting Michigan against Mississippi State. It wasn't exactly a joyous occasion, and Rodriguez and Brandon didn't really interact with each other. Brandon reiterated he'd wait until after the Jan. 1 bowl to determine his coach's fate, and I can think of a few reasons he's taking his time:

*He possibly was leaning toward retaining Rodriguez a fourth season, but the last lopsided losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, which led to a 7-5 record and angry unrest among fans, has caused him to seriously ponder a change.

*Perhaps Brandon truly believes a fair evaluation can't take place until a season is over. And oh, by the way, Rodriguez's buyout drops from $4 million to $2.5 million after Jan. 1, which shouldn't be an overriding factor.

*Jim Harbaugh's availability must — must— be known before any change is made. Three years after a convoluted coaching search, Michigan doesn't need another.

I'm on record saying Rodriguez should go because progress has been slow and the defense has been horrible, and because this is an unusual situation with a candidate who seems like the perfect fit. I think Harbaugh would be very interested in returning to his alma mater, but if he's not, or if he's smitten by the NFL, Brandon might be less inclined to fire his coach.

That's why it's silly to shriek for an immediate answer, and to his credit, Rodriguez hasn't done it. I asked him if he felt he was in limbo.

"Am I?" he said. "I know that's everybody's question. It's a unique situation, and you deal with it the best you can. I'm excited to come to work every day. I'm excited to work with the coaches and the players and I'm excited about recruiting."

Recruiting is one variable, and the uncertainty can't help. Rodriguez has been mostly upbeat, as has Brandon, who's unwavering in his plan.

Taking his time

I don't think it's stubbornness, and it had better not be. Brandon is a smart guy and must know he doesn't have to wait until after Jan. 1 just because he repeatedly said he would. I assume he's using the time to thoroughly evaluate Rodriguez, gauge Harbaugh's situation and see if there are other worthwhile candidates.

"I just believe the process I outlined is the appropriate process," Brandon said. "I've been very clear, very consistent, and I'm very comfortable with that. Rich and I communicate really, really well, and spend a lot of time together. I'm not the least bit concerned about our relationship."

There are plenty of variables here, further evidenced by Stanford's move to boost Harbaugh's contract. Athletic director Bob Bowlsby said he was confident Harbaugh would stay, but what else could he say?

It isn't exactly Harbaugh-or-bust for Michigan, but it's close. It's also politically delicate, because Harbaugh's brash style — and controversial comments three years ago about Michigan's academic standards — can rankle people.

Over the top

This isn't necessarily fair to Rodriguez, and at some level, you feel for the guy. But it's a big-boy business, and he knows it. As he showed with his emotional — and somewhat unfortunate — display at the banquet last week, he's passionately scrapping to keep his job.

Was it over the top to quote a biblical reference about faith and lock hands revival-style while Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" played? Uh, yeah. Was it the worst thing Rodriguez has done here? Uh, no.

"Every coach has their own personality, and I probably always have been emotional at our senior banquets," Rodriguez said. "No matter what I say, it's not going to change people's opinions. So I'm better off not saying anything."

That's probably the truth, as the piling-on piles up. Those who want a change because of his 15-21 record (0-6 against Ohio State and Michigan State) aren't likely to be swayed. Those who support him because of Denard Robinson and the dynamic offense aren't wrong.

It's too bad it hasn't worked out better because there's no easy answer. If Brandon makes the move, the new coach probably would shuffle the system, which could lead to another painful rebuild. If Brandon commits to Rodriguez, can he commit beyond next season? At the very least, he surely would ask Rodriguez to change his defensive staff.

This isn't about one bowl game, or one banquet, or one quarterback. It's fraught with complicated issues, and it's doubtful Brandon and Rodriguez will get much restful sleep the next few weeks.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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