Michigan lost to an abject Penn State team when they were coming off a bye week. The Wolverines dropped to 5-3, 1-3 in the Big Ten. They nearly lost to Notre Dame, Indiana and I-AA UMass. They have probable losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State remaining on their schedule. A win against Purdue is no given. They could conceivably finish 5-7, repeating their disastrous slide from last year. Should Rich Rodriguez be fired? It depends how you phrase the question.
Does Rich Rodriguez deserve to be fired? Yes. Michigan plays the majority of its games in the Big Ten. Rodriguez has lost 16/20 games in conference. He is 1-16 against teams besides Minnesota and Indiana. The comparison is inexact, but that is more conference losses than Bo Schembechler had through his first 15 seasons. Rodriguez has a worse winning percentage than Tim Brewster who was recently fired, at Minnesota. By even the most forgiving expectations, he has failed.
Defense has been the bane of Rodriguez’ tenure. He inherited a unit that finished 24th in total defense. That fell progressively to 68th in 2008 and to 82nd in 2009. The 2010 group is currently ranked 106th. Rodriguez is an offensive coach. He cedes control of the ball’s other side during games, but the poor communication and philosophical inconsistency that have plagued Michigan’s defense is largely his fault.
Rodriguez brought in his own defensive assistants in 2008. He hired Scott Shafer from Stanford to coordinate them. The situation became untenable. The assistants mutinied. Rodriguez overthrew Shafer’s defensive scheme for the 3-3-5 he ran at West Virgnia. Shafer resigned at the end of the season. Shafer went to Syracuse, who had the 37th best defense in 2009 and currently have the 13th ranked group.
Greg Robinson replaced Shafer for the 2009 season, after going 3-25 in the Big East with Syracuse. He took on the same assistants. That season was a greater debacle. Rodriguez again overthrew Robinson’s scheme for the trusty 3-3-5, but kept Robinson to run it. Robinson is naturally conservative. The 3-3-5 requires aggression and blitzing. The match has not worked. Robinson may not have done much better given free reign, but he was never given the chance.
Rodriguez appointed one of his infamous “quality control assistants” to linebackers coach when Jay Hopson left for Memphis rather than opting for experience and recruiting ability. He has left his good buddy Tony Gibson in charge of the secondary and the special teams. Both units are among the worst in Division I.
Michigan’s defense lacks depth, talent and experience, but the framework Rich Rodriguez constructed exacerbates each weakness. The performance is directly and ultimately his responsibility. He has held the tiller for every facet of this team’s demise. If it’s time to roll out the guillotine, he should be the first man detained. There’s a coherent case to fire him. That does not mean it’s the wise decision.
Rodriguez was hired for his offense. The offense is flourishing. He has recruited speed guys from Florida. He has cultivated a mobile, athletic offensive line. He has three quarterbacks who can play in his system. While not functioning at full capacity, they are still producing 520 yards per game. Any head coaching change now risks attrition and transfers on offense, possibly Denard Robinson.
Michigan needs a coach who gives them the best chance to win immediately, but also has a coherent vision for the program’s future. Progress is not enough. It must be progress toward an eventual goal, consistently competing for a Big Ten title.
Right now, the best chance for that outcome is keeping Rodriguez, on the condition that he cleans out his current defensive staff, hires a competent coordinator and allows said coordinator the autonomy to hire his own staff and enact his own scheme. Stability and a modicum of success on defense would allow Michigan to recruit and keep the kids they do recruit from transferring. If the defense can improve from abysmal to mediocre or even moderately bad, Michigan will win games.
Michigan should only fire Rodriguez if there is a replacement worth the patience for another, not necessarily as traumatic, rebuilding project. The only name on that list may be Jim Harbaugh.
There are reasons for Harbaugh to come to Michigan. He is an alum. He could double his salary. The Big Ten is better suited for his pro-style power attack. He would have no ceiling. If he raised the Wolverines back to Schembechler-level, he would be a god. There are reasons for Harbaugh not to come to Michigan. Michigan’s program disowned him a few years ago. He could triple or quadruple his salary in the NFL. Harbaugh being a good fit would depend on how seriously he wants to stay at Stanford and where his ultimate ambitions rest.
Rodriguez’ loss to Penn State was crucial. It would have made Michigan bowl eligible. It would have halted the negative momentum and 2009 redux talk. Now, even if Michigan beats Purdue, the most likely finish is a 5-6 FBS record, 2-6 in the Big Ten. Even with the electrifying efforts from the offense this season, it’s hard to claim that is progress. If Rich Rodriguez wants to ensure his return next season, he better get his A into G.