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Rich Rodriguez on Jim Harbaugh, Michigan's struggles, Dave Brandon and more

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez praised current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh during a recent podcast but said Harbaugh and his staff must “look under the hood” and examine what is ailing the program from attitude to coaching to recruiting.

Rodriguez was interviewed by his daughter, Raquel, during the latest episode of his “Hard Edge Football with Rich Rod” podcast. Together, they revisited his time at Michigan, 2008-10, the hiring process, his introductory press conference, what type of team he inherited and how his three seasons evolved. He finished 15-22 before then-athletic director Dave Brandon decided to make a coaching change.

But first, Rodriguez was asked about Michigan, which is 1-3 and preparing to play at Rutgers Saturday night. He said he was shocked by how badly Wisconsin beat Michigan (49-11). The Wolverines have lost three straight, against Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Rich Rodriguez

“The Indiana game surprised me a little bit, but Indiana’s got a very good football team,” Rodriguez said on the podcast. “Didn’t surprise me that Wisconsin won because I think they’re good, got a great young quarterback, but by the amount, you had to be surprised that at home that Wisconsin would beat them that badly.”

Rodriguez, who spoke highly of Harbaugh as a coach, said it’s hard looking from the outside in to say if Michigan can turn things around this season and mentioned the uniqueness of college football this season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does he think is going on with Michigan?

"Why would I have any theories about Michigan football?” Rodriguez said, laughing. “I do think they need to kick the tires a little bit and look under the hood and see everything that’s happened from a recruiting standpoint and a development standpoint. Is the attitude where you want it to be? Are you getting the kind of effort out of everybody involved in the program?

“All those things, I’m sure, are getting evaluated. You want to do that whether you win or lose but particularly when you lose, there’s more of a sense of urgency to get it done right away.”

Here are highlights from Rodriguez’s podcast, which explored his time as Michigan's coach. After getting fired at Michigan, Rodriguez was head coach at Arizona from 2012-17 and offensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 2019.

►On his interview process for the Michigan job: “It’s been a few years, 10-12 years ago, but I do remember a little bit about the interview with the administration, the president, and athletic director. I think more times when you interview, they already know your record. They have an idea what kind of scheme, they’ve seen your teams play, but it’s more of a kinda get to know you."

►Was Michigan aware of his personality and spread offense? “I wanted to make sure they knew that, OK, this is obviously a different type of scheme offensively and defensively, and also personality-wise. This is who I am as a coach. We’re very passionate and coach aggressively. Our practices are very intense. We’re very passionate about what we do it and how we go about doing it in every facet of our program from recruiting, coaching, practicing, in the weight room and all that. And I can remember they said, ‘Well, that’s exactly why we’re talking to you. That’s why we want you, because we want that passion, we want that type of energy.’ College football was, from a scheme standpoint, was trending that way to be more wide open, but it was assuring to me to believe that’s what they wanted from a personality standpoint too, and I wanted to make sure they know who I am.”

►On Michigan hiring him as a top offensive coach: “I was very fortunate, we were having great success at West Virginia, we were ranked in the top five. We were on TV a lot and they could see the Mountaineers play and have great success, and I think they could envision bringing that same mentality and success to the university. Everybody wants that, but certainly at Michigan they expected that.”

More: Michigan mailbag: Manuel's philosophy; why Rutgers game is must-win for tepid Wolverines

►On if he was offered on the spot: “They did. I didn’t accept it. I told them I needed to go back to West Virginia and talk to the administration there and weigh everything out. We talked about going to campus, which I always recommend to any coach, to go to campus and visit the facilities, the school and the area. I didn’t get a chance to do that, because somehow word leaked out that I was doing an interview and all the media was going to be surrounding, so it was like, this is not good, let me get back to West Virginia and talk to our folks there.”

►On if he was “warned” about the atmosphere before accepting the Michigan job: “Warned is a good term. I had several coaches talk to me in general and most impactful was probably a couple athletic directors. One athletic director I was particularly close to called me and said, ‘Hey, you want to make sure you look at it, because it’s a little different.’ I’m like, looking at my coaching background, how can it be that different? But there were some that called about it, and sometimes you’ve got to go in and find out yourself.”

Lloyd Carr

►On the introductory press conference: “The press conference for a new coach is always the top of the thing and everything goes downhill from there, right? You’re undefeated, and everybody’s so excited to have you there. And I was a little bit surprised the press conference wasn’t the same kind of feel. Looking back at it, it’s like, maybe there were some different factions, and if you looked at it, there probably was. There was a certain faction that probably wanted Les Miles to take the job, and maybe a certain faction, Coach Carr was retiring, he should be able to pick the coach, and then there was a certain faction that maybe wanted somebody else. And I was the outsider coming in, so maybe that kinda tempered the enthusiasm somewhat. But it was still OK. It was not like some of the other press conferences I’ve been involved in for sure.”

►On the so-called "Michigan Man" concept and what that means: “I thought about it then, and I’ve even thought about it since then at times. Nobody really defined to me what a Michigan Man was. If you played there and you grew up there, you went to school there, and I assume if you coach there, you become a Michigan Man. For me, I know I was asked a question, you know you’re not a Michigan Man or something like that, as a coach, how do you feel about it? I’m like, I am now, they just hired me. Bo Schembechler wasn’t a Michigan Man before he started working there and became a Michigan Man. I was still to this day confused a little bit about what that term defines." 

►On what he found roster-wise at Michigan: “You’re always gonna find a few things maybe that you. Certainly, when we came in, when you take over any program, but particularly maybe when a coach is retiring. I didn’t know the school, know the area as well, but I knew a little bit of what happens when you take over for a retiring coach. And you look at the roster, OK, how many seniors starters do they have returning on offense and how many on defense? How’s the recruiting been going in the last year or two? I looked at it, and I knew they were losing really good players, like seven, eight or nine starters on offense, and six or seven on defense, and some of the best, not just starters, but guys that were three- or four-year starters, so they were gonna have a transition no matter what. I knew that, and then obviously look at your quarterback depth chart and other important positions, do you have any experience coming back, and there was none. That told me this might be a little bit harder than we think.”

Rich Rodriguez

►On the roster challenges: “What was surprising and disappointing was when we got there, I wanted to meet with all the players and talk to all of them individually. But there were several players even before I had a chance to talk to them that were advised by some of the guys on the previous staff, ‘Hey, you need to transfer, you won’t fit in here. The system’s not going to be good for you,’ and so on and so forth. I didn’t get a chance to talk to them in person before they were told that several times. That was disappointing. We still tried to talk to some of the guys, give us a chance, and some chose to leave before we even had an opportunity to talk to them and let them see our program. That was disappointing. You don’t see that all the time. But no matter what was going to happen, we were going to face challenges in the roster. That didn’t scare me because were going to get after it. It might be taking a little longer than everybody wants, including us, but we’re gonna get it right.”

Subscription: Wojo: If Jim Harbaugh wants to stay at Michigan, plenty must change

►On some odd things he encountered at Michigan: “I remember after a weekly press conference after a game, I got called to the administration to talk to them about what I said at the press conference. And I’m like, ‘Uh, I can get pretty intense sometimes,’ and I’m thinking, ‘OK, did I say some four-letter word at the press conference I wasn’t aware of?’ So I go in there, and they said, ‘Well, coach, we’ve had several complaints from some board members and from some folks that in your press conference you said the word 'ain’t.' I said, ‘Uh, excuse me?' That’s not the four-letter word I was thinking. They said, ‘At Michigan, that’s not really the proper language,’ and I was like, ‘I’m in trouble here if that’s going to be the case.’ And then I got called to the carpet when I first got there, in looking at the roster and having a new system, ‘Hey, we’ve got to rebuild this to the level where everybody wants it and expects it to be.’ Well, I guess you can’t say 'rebuild.' I’m like, ‘Yeah, we need to rebuild. There’s a lot of guys that are going to be playing that haven’t played before, a lot of youth, a completely new system, we weren’t in a national championship last year with everybody coming back, so there is a little bit of a rebuilding process.’ I got called several times, ‘How dare he come out here and say we have to rebuild the Michigan program?’ Well, you did."

►On wanting to see it through at Michigan: “That’s the most disappointing thing about that whole experience is we did feel the trajectory was going up. It went three, five, to seven (wins), and we felt very confident with so many players coming back and so many young, skilled, talented players, recruiting was going really well that, boy, that fourth year is going to be up to here and then we’re going to be able to keep it there because of the plan we had put in place. And we had worked hard to build that. They may not want to hear this at times at Michigan about rebuilding, but we had built to that point, that fourth and fifth year, we’re gonna be able to stay at that 11-win season. And they won 11 in the first year we were gone, and all the players that made catches and tackles and runs and throws were guys we recruited. At least felt good about, we left the trajectory on the way up.”

Dave Brandon

►On the impact of an athletic director. (Brandon became AD before Rodriguez’s last season.) “As a football coach, it depends I guess how established you were and if the guy coming in there, does he understand and have the same vision? The problem when you have a new athletic director come in that wasn’t there in the beginning when you were building the program, they may not have either an appreciation or an understanding of how the program is developing, how it’s working. That’s why you see new athletic directors come and sometimes you see a new coach coming in. ... You want everybody to pull the rope in the same direction. But if you have enough resistance, your opponents pulling against ... But if you can get everybody aligned with you to pull the rope in the same direction you’re gonna have a great success. Sometimes that’s a challenge.”

On Michigan’s current struggles: “I’m sure Coach Harbaugh and his guys are working extremely hard, but when they go around campus and they go outside, are people telling them, ‘Well, you should never get beat because you’re Michigan'? There’s that entitlement or that unwarranted arrogance (from fans, alumni, etc.) It’s almost as if it should be anointed to them instead of having to work and earn it. ... I know those coaches are busting their tail up there, the players are. Our players worked extremely hard. I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. I loved coaching the guys, and they gave everything they had. It was just going to be a process to go through to get them at a championship level.”