This is me on November 22, 2003 the last time Michigan beat Ohio State. I was 19. I wore a lot of jewelry. I rushed the field. My best friend took this picture on a disposable camera. Digital was still a novelty. I’ve lived in five different cities, gone from inept with women to engaged and emerged from multiple career plans and existential crises. Sporadic hairs have gone grey. The one constant has been the persistent, lingering disgust and disappointment I’ve felt every November.
Ohio State is always crucial, but, this time, it’s a must-win for Rich Rodriguez. Michigan began as 18-point underdogs to Ohio State. Assuming the inevitable defeat, here are his Ann Arbor accomplishments. Two Big Ten wins in 2008. One in 2009. In 2010 they have progressed narrowly to a whopping three Big Ten wins, scraping wins against a terrible Indiana team, Illinois at home and a Purdue team down to its third-string quarterback. He broke Lloyd Carr’s record for most collective facepalms in a single venue.
If you wish to include the soft non-conference schedule, I will permit it, but only the FBS wins. 3-9 in 2008. 4-7 in 2009. 6-5 in 2010. Progress! He has won one game combined in three seasons against Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa. That win was a fluke during his first season.
Rich Rodriguez’ offense has put up dazzling numbers, however, opposing defenses have posted equally dazzling numbers. Wisconsin scored 24 points in the second half last weekend, without throwing a pass. You can win in the Big Ten with a boring, pedestrian offense. You can’t win without a good defense that can counter a power-running game. Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin went to the ground, limited Michigan’s possessions and threw off the offense’s rhythm. The pattern has been and will be similar against good teams.
Michigan needs two to three seasons to rebuild the defense. Rodriguez’ future should depend on whether he is the most able man to accomplish this. His track record of persistent meddling, hiring, undermining and firing coordinators he’s never worked with, changing systems three times in three years and insisting a 3-3-5 stack will work in the Big Ten does not engender confidence.
The Wolverine’s losing has been disturbing, but not as disturbing as the megalomania. It’s not about the kids, the fans or the legacy of one of the country’s most historic football programs. It’s about Rich Rodriguez’ system, proving the system can work in an elite conference. If he weren’t saddled with these inexperienced players and these defensive coaches letting him down, it would be working, he insists. No accountability. No responsibility. Blame the purportedly bare cupboard, repeatedly.
Michigan is a simple place. Most people have never carried a lunch pail or operated heavy machinery, but they are the descendants and carry the ethos of those who did. Life is a grind. Stress is internalized. Success comes solely through hard work. Michigan fans have little patience for snake oil, delicate genius or a load of excuses. Their enthusiasm for tickets, luxury boxes and Adidas-branded Maize and Blue shit will dwindle.
Jackhammer Jim Harbaugh is breathing down his neck. The administration has offered no words of comfort. Rich Rodriguez must win.
[Photo via Ty Duffy]