January 3, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Rodriguez must be fired, but choose his replacement wisely

In the next few days, coach Rich Rodriguez will meet with athletic director Dave Brandon, who will wrap up Rodriguez's evaluation. (John T. Greilick / the Detroit News)

Jacksonville, Fla. -- Once again, Michigan football sits at the intersection of Uncertainty and Unknown. Once again, there are debates and raging opinions and oh so much angst.

This time, more than ever, it's imperative Michigan gets it right. It's squarely on athletic director Dave Brandon now, and it begins with deciding the fate of coach Rich Rodriguez. I believe Rodriguez has to go, and after Michigan's embarrassing 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, it's a common sentiment.

If Brandon is preparing to fire Rodriguez, he isn't indicating it yet. In the next few days, he'll meet with Rodriguez and wrap up his evaluation, and he needs to consider all elements — with particular emphasis on the 15-22 record — and choose very wisely.

The stakes are higher than ever, with Michigan's power status in college football now damaged. This is why Brandon was hired, and why he has taken so long to evaluate, no matter how uncomfortable it made people. He must have everything in order because he cannot screw this up, not with a likely second major transition in three years.

This has to be smoother and smarter than the last time, when Rodriguez was hired by then-athletic director Bill Martin to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr. Rodriguez might be a good coach, but he's proven to be a poor fit who never figured out how to navigate the obstacles.

Stanford's Jim Harbaugh is the obvious leading candidate, and while we assume there's a strong mutual attraction, both sides have kept remarkably quiet, as Stanford prepares for tonight's Orange Bowl. NFL teams also are interested in Harbaugh, and under normal circumstances, the pros might make sense.

Harbaugh knows

But Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan under Bo Schembechler, and right now, fans and alums crave someone who completely understands the bedrocks of the program, including the overwhelming need to be competitive again with Ohio State (and not lose three in a row to Michigan State).

It would take a lot of money — if not necessarily a lot of wooing — to land Harbaugh, upwards of $3 million per season. Rodriguez has three years left on a deal that pays him $2.5 million annually, and Michigan likely would pay a $2.5 million buyout, which just dropped from $4 million on New Year's Day.

But this isn't about saving money, not with fancy luxury suites to be filled. This is about finding stability, the elusive trait that once was woven into the fabric of Michigan football.

Rodriguez admitted after the Gator Bowl it wasn't easy dealing with the speculation, and it was harder to recruit because of it. He addressed his situation briefly with the team, calling it "the elephant in the room." He was low-key and mildly philosophical, and when asked if he expects to be back, he gave the only answer he could.

"You're asking the wrong person," he said, before pausing and saying softly, "I do."

Brandon is the guy who will decide, and he said Saturday he expects to reveal more "the latter part of the week."

"It was a really, really disappointing day," Brandon said of the bowl loss. "Our expectations were much higher."

Expectations need to be elevated again, because what happened the past three seasons — 6-18 in Big Ten play — cannot continue. Would the Wolverines improve if Rodriguez stayed? Yep, probably. But at what rate and what cost? Maybe this is a system, and a coach, that would always have difficulty in a bruising conference like the Big Ten.

Michigan is in this predicament because everything changed when Carr retired in 2007 and the program inexplicably wasn't ready for it. Martin displayed good intentions, landing one of the hottest coaches available in Rodriguez. But it was done haphazardly, amid a curious reluctance to pursue LSU's Les Miles.

Once he made the choice, Martin and others didn't do enough to prepare Rodriguez, and didn't do enough to generate support for an outsider from West Virginia. It got divisive quickly, and Rodriguez didn't help matters by, frankly, just being himself. That sounds unfair, and maybe it is, but he didn't keep many vestiges of the Bo-Gary Moeller-Carr era.

He made small changes, such as the way captains were elected, and one really large change, introducing the touted, speed-oriented spread offense to a place that had known nothing but power football. That wasn't Rodriguez's fault — it's what he runs, it's how he's won. That was Martin's miscalculation.

The transition got messier when West Virginia sued Rodriguez over his buyout. Then came the NCAA investigation and sanctions, and while that's a notable smudge, it's not ultimately what makes Rodriguez's tenure here unworkable.

Beatings demand change

It's the losses, the pounding losses, the 20-point loss to Wisconsin and 30-point loss to Ohio State and 38-point loss to Mississippi State to close a 7-6 season. With dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan's offense moves, until it runs smack into bigger, physical teams.

Michigan's defense is young, but whose fault is that? There was attrition as players left because of the new system, and the rebuilding task was significant. But Rodriguez's recruiting hasn't measured up. He also fired a defensive coordinator after one season and hired another, Greg Robinson, who had little experience running the 3-3-5 system.

The delay in Brandon's decision has frustrated some, but at least he's sticking with a plan, waiting until all evidence is in and all options are available. If he delivers someone as natural a fit as Harbaugh, perhaps a few days after the Orange Bowl, it would make perfect sense.

If not Harbaugh, there's San Diego State's Brady Hoke, a rising candidate with Michigan ties. A unified direction is desperately needed, and it could use a dose of the old Michigan way.

Rodriguez kept his emotions in check after the last loss, then offered plaintively, from the heart, "We're paid to do a job, and we did it as hard and as well as we could."

Fair enough. It hasn't worked out, and it's too risky to see if it will. This is why school president Mary Sue Coleman hired Brandon less than a year ago and gave him full authority. The pressure officially is on him.

He cannot choose poorly.

bob.wojonowski@detnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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