December 30, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Bob Wojnowski

U-M's Rich Rodriguez coaches through gray cloud of uncertainty

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is the center of attention at the Gator Bowl, but everyone seems to have noticed but him. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union)

Jacksonville, Fla. -- Nothing was spoiling the mood on this day. Hawaiian Christmas music blared, followed by "Margaritaville," and in the bright sun of a cool Florida morning, Michigan players loosened up. Everything seemed relaxed and normal, although of course, it's not.

This surely is the strangest bowl week ever for the Wolverines, with one big cloud hovering. Rich Rodriguez, the man under the cloud, refuses to let it block the sun, and give the guy credit for that.

Here he was before Wednesday's practice, his job in limbo, the Gator Bowl matchup against Mississippi State three days away, and Rodriguez was cheerfully discussing the health of his team (good), the status of his kickers (uh, who knows) and other issues. Meanwhile, speculation swirls, which is what happens when you're 15-21 in three seasons at Michigan.

Some time after the Jan. 1 bowl, athletic director Dave Brandon will meet with Rodriguez to complete an evaluation of the program. Brandon is revealing very little, but it doesn't take a trained columnist to see an ideal candidate — Stanford's Jim Harbaugh — sitting there, also likely to draw interest from NFL teams such as the 49ers.

Brandon might have several choices, but I see only two viable ones: replace Rodriguez with Harbaugh, or keep Rodriguez but require changes on his defensive staff. If Brandon determines Harbaugh might opt for the NFL, it makes much less sense to fire Rodriguez. San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, a former Michigan assistant, is a solid candidate but a tougher sell (although an easier buy).

End of the line?

Rodriguez also might have choices, and he already has made a personal one. He won't publicly lobby or complain, and he's gonna try his darndest to enjoy this week, whether it's the end of something or just a blip in his Michigan career. Frankly, Rodriguez is handling the situation as well as possible, and if he's hiding deeper, truer emotions, it's the right thing to do.

"The best time for us as coaches is when we're around our players, at practice, in meetings," Rodriguez said, squinting at the sun. "Look at the weather. This is a great time."

Can you block out all the talk about your job?

"Sure, yeah, no question at all," Rodriguez said. "It's just been get up, let's meet, go practice, go meet again. I love this part."

This can be an agonizing business, no doubt. Maryland just told Ralph Friedgen he won't return, even though the Terps went 8-4 and Friedgen was named ACC Coach of the Year. And oh, by the way, Rodriguez's name already has been loosely linked to Maryland, in one of those connect-the-dots kind of ways.

The theory is, a job like that would fit a guy like Rodriguez, unhindered by all the stuffy Michigan Man labeling. But the truth is, Rodriguez wants to stay where he is, and with Denard Robinson leading an explosive offense next season, you can see why.

Even the porous defense, with so many young players gaining experience, should be improved. Rodriguez will make his case privately with Brandon, and in the meantime, he'll whistle in the sunshine.

"It really has been close to normal," Rodriguez said. "It's been as smooth a bowl preparation week as I've had."

Is Rodriguez's relaxed mood the sign of someone who already knows his fate and accepts it? I don't think so.

Is it the sign of someone who doesn't know his fate but can't do much to change it, so why sweat it? That'd be my guess.

Tough call

There's one more chance to do something, Saturday against Mississippi State, with the 7-5 Wolverines modest underdogs. I doubt one game would sway Brandon, but a lopsided victory or lopsided defeat can't be totally ignored. Rodriguez's buyout also drops from $4 million to $2.5 million on Jan. 1, but this long evaluation can't be all about money.

It might be a difficult call for Brandon, especially if Harbaugh plays hardball and wants a ton, or actually prefers the NFL. It's already clear Harbaugh is aware he'll be coveted after taking the Cardinal to the Orange Bowl with an 11-1 record.

Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby recently attempted to extend Harbaugh's contract, and said the coach indicated he'd accept it. Harbaugh shot that down by saying it hadn't been discussed and perhaps Bowlsby "misspoke."

That's a telling comment, and another indicator of what you get with Harbaugh — brash self-confidence and blunt speaking. The former Michigan quarterback was one of Bo Schembechler's feistiest, and he'd put an instant charge into the Michigan fan base.

But nothing is certain in this delicate process. Some think Harbaugh is destined for the NFL, where his brother, John, coaches the Ravens. Others, like me, believe Harbaugh would relish the opportunity to revive his alma mater and would be a great fit.

Rodriguez wouldn't be human if he weren't concerned about it. At the end of a long, strange season, he actually seems as human as ever. He's trying to make the best of a tough situation, trying to enjoy the sun as long as it shines.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com