Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Michigan's Future?

Champions? Contenders? Suckers? As Rich Rodriguez retools college football's most tradition-bound program, Michigan men want to know: How will his team fill in the blank?

The most telling barometer of Michigan football lives on a Columbus Dispatch website. It's a counter that reads, "Days since Michigan's last victory over Ohio State in football." The tally will stand at 1,826 when the two rivals square off this Nov. 22.

It's been nearly 40 years since the Wolverines have felt this inferior to the Buckeyes. That was before Bo's reign, before Desmond and Woodson won Heismans, before Michigan passed Notre Dame as the NCAA's all-time wins leader. All this glory, without any of the typical grade-fixing scams or payola scandals, has defined the Michigan Man. It made him (and her) believe that only a disciple of Schembechler himself could lead this program, a program that has become itself, well, elitist.

Then Rich Rodriguez came to town. And he's, well, the opposite of elitist. Proudly so. In a few months, Rodriguez has torched all ties to his home-state school, irked rival Big Ten coaches, run off some players and sparked anger from a former star. Now, with UM's preseason starting Aug. 4, Rodriguez will finally get a chance to prove he was worth hiring.

An uncanny mix of in-your-face firebrand and aw-shucks charmer, Rodriguez uses his West Virginia twang to spin folksy stories that play well with recruits, their parents and the media. Like the one about the time he wanted to see Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven but let his wife goad him into The Crying Game. His punch line: "I haven't gone to the movies since." Or about how, at 24, he became the nation's youngest head coach, after his boss at Salem (W.Va.) College bought a bar and quit. He even chuckles while recalling how he lost that job a year later when the program disbanded.

But on the sideline, Rodriguez is as strongheaded as they come. As word spread that Rodriguez was leaving West Virginia to take the Wolverines job, Mountaineers safety Ryan Mundy, a Michigan transfer, started getting frantic calls. And Mundy told all 20 former teammates who called the same thing: "Be prepared to run. Everything's way more up-tempo. If you're not willing to bust your ass, you should leave. But if you stay, you'll love it."

To make Michigan over, Rodriguez brought in 20 staffers from Morgantown. His first order of business was gutting Michigan's strength program. Out went the machine-based system that had been in place for four decades. In came an Olympic lifting program (cost: over $1 million) geared toward improving core strength and hard-wiring bodies to make explosive movements. "Everybody, especially guys in their last year, was nervous," says fifth-year defensive end Tim Jamison. "We said, 'What's he gonna bring that our old program wasn't?'"

More of the article here.

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