January 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Bob Wojnowski

U-M must regain its identity with hire

U-M Athletic director fires Rodriguez
U-M Athletic director fires Rodriguez: U-M Athletic director fires Rodriguez

Ann Arbor -- For three seasons, Rich Rodriguez tried to be who he is, tried to coach as he had. It didn't work, he adjusted poorly, and now it's over, mercifully.

And now, Michigan must try again to be what it was, and operate as it once did. The biggest disaster in Michigan football history provided a teaching tool, although a really painful one. At least athletic director Dave Brandon knows the mistakes to avoid, and what to seek in the next coach.

Michigan needs to stomp back to its stable roots, to a Midwest power program built on physical, disciplined play.

Rodriguez was fired Wednesday after a 15-22 stretch marked by constant turmoil. This grand experiment with a West Virginia outsider touting a crafty spread offense didn't fail for lack of trying, but failed spectacularly.

In an odd way, Michigan had to see the failure to recognize what it used to tout. Brandon seems to understand that, and confirmed Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback and Bo Schembechler disciple, would be coveted — if he's available. Brandon said he thinks Harbaugh will end up in the NFL, and the 49ers and others are in hot pursuit. But you have to believe Michigan will take its shot (if it hasn't already) because he completely fits the mold.

This is the candidate profile Brandon outlined, and it makes sense: Someone with head coaching experience who understands Michigan, has Midwest recruiting ties and knows a little something about defense. And oh, by the way, Michigan is willing to pay large bucks.

That high-spending declaration might be a way to flush out Harbaugh's true intentions, and also a hint for two other top candidates — San Diego State's Brady Hoke and LSU's Les Miles. Both have deep Michigan ties and would love to coach here. Many will seize upon the "Michigan Man" mantra, but I don't think the parameter is that narrow. Someone like Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, a Midwest guy who knows the Big Ten, could be intriguing.

Good coach, bad fit

Rodriguez isn't gone because of his lack of "Michigan Man" credentials or his brush with the NCAA. The NCAA sanctions weren't even mentioned Wednesday.

Rodriguez is gone because he didn't know what he was getting into, didn't recruit well enough and didn't win nearly enough. Other issues contributed, no doubt, but the record — 6-18 in the Big Ten, 0-6 versus Ohio State and Michigan State — was impossible to explain.

Brandon noted this was the worst three-season stretch in Michigan's 131-year football history, and against Michigan's toughest traditional opponents — Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Notre Dame — the Wolverines were 3-15.

"The Big Ten is a challenging conference, a smash-mouth conference with big teams," Brandon said. "You saw how difficult it has been for us to go nose-to-nose with the big guys. We have to have a coach who's able to put us in position where we can compete with those programs."

Ultimately, this was about the punishing and repetitive nature of the losses, blowout after blowout, capped by the 52-14 crushing by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

The high-drama run ended tamely, with Brandon delivering the news in a morning meeting. Rodriguez spent the day with his assistants and players at Schembechler Hall, and after pocketing his $2.5 million buyout, probably will end up with a decent coaching job somewhere else.

Rodriguez is a good coach who found a really bad fit here, and made it worse. Former athletic director Bill Martin deserves blame too, even though Rodriguez was one of football's hottest commodities when Lloyd Carr retired.

Getting defensive

Let's not forget many people wanted a more dynamic offense and were willing to overlook the risk. There's nothing wrong with innovation, but you can't abandon long-established Michigan principles.

Martin didn't sufficiently prepare Rodriguez for the culture shock and divisiveness among old-school Blues. He never even had him on campus for an interview, then gave him so much freedom, Rodriguez figured he could change anything. He did, retaining only one assistant from Carr's staff (Fred Jackson) and stubbornly forcing in offensive and defensive systems that didn't mesh with Michigan's personnel.

The offense worked very well at times with the unique skills of quarterback Denard Robinson, so to pin this on the scheme is wrong. Heck, spread-offense teams Auburn and Oregon will play for the national championship.

The demise was in the details, and the defense. The defense was horrific, the special teams were astonishingly poor and the controversies were unrelenting.

Defense was a staple under Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Carr, and must be a staple again. That's what rocketed Ohio State and Jim Tressel past Michigan, and it's what sustains the Big Ten's best. No one is demanding Michigan adopt straight-ahead stodginess, but more toughness would be nice.

Asked what he wanted from his next coach, Brandon chuckled as he repeated the question.

"Is there a thought of getting a defensive-minded coach?" he said. "There's a thought of getting a defensive-minded everything. I want the ball boys to be defensive-minded."

Hoke was a defensive line coach under Carr from 1995-2002. Miles played and coached under Schembechler and has a tremendous record at LSU.

Brandon's choice is beyond crucial, and he can't let the program be split into competing camps again.

He can't worry about money and can't look for a coach who runs the spread just because the Wolverines have a lot of smaller, quicker players.

Some element of updating was needed, but a wholesale, new-age overhaul proved way too drastic. You can't change who you've always been, as Rodriguez discovered, as Michigan now knows painfully well.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Wolverines defensive tackle Terry Talbott, left, stands with wide receiver Terrence Robinson just inside Schembechler Hall after the players' final meeting with fired head coach Rich Rodriguez on Wednesday. / John T. Greilick / The Detroit News