David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
The Populations of Two States May Refuse to Read This

December 28, 2011: The Populations of Two States May Refuse to Read This

My father is Darth Vader.

I am Luke Skywalker, having to adjust my world view.  I am facing some hard truths.

As most readers know, I am a staunch West Virginia University Mountaineer.  I lived in Morgantown the first 23 years of my life.  My mother, my sisters, most of my friends are WVU graduates.  My father served West Virginia University for over 40 years.  For almost all of us, there has been a central rallying point, at least since 2008--Rich Rodriguez is the devil incarnate.  That is the comforting blanket we wrap ourselves in every night since Rodriguez "abandoned" us to go to the University of Michigan.

For most of us, that rallying point spun like a top, knocking out whatever Rodriguez touched, which primarily was the University of Michigan. (Oh, I'm sorry, I believe I should have capitalized the "T" in the.) For me, a recent immigrant (if you can call almost 18 years as "recent") to the state of Michigan, I gladly kept spinning the Rodriguez top in the hopes of knocking down more and more of the apparently arrogant Michigan fans, alumni, students and staff with the velocity of Rich Rod's actions.  U of M has to help bail out Rich Rod from his WVU buyout clause?  Excellent.  Terrell Pryor chooses Ohio State (oh, I'm sorry, The Ohio State University) over Michigan?  Boo-hoo.  The football team goes 3-9 in the first year with its new coach?  Gee, it's too bad you had to win three games.  The NCAA is investigating Rodriguez and Michigan?  There is a God in heaven.

Trust me, most of us from West Virginia know we look petty and vindictive as we wish the worst for Rodriguez and Michigan, but we are pained to see a local boy leave (under such strange circumstances), and we are tired of being the stepping stone for coaches to go somewhere else.  Why isn't West Virginia football seen on par with Big Ten football?  (I won't attempt to follow up these mostly rhetorical questions; I'm sure people are wondering when I'm getting back to the Darth Vader reference.)

Then, this year I readJohn Bacon's 3 and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines In the Crucible of College Football, the outstanding, as-far-as-I-can-tell very objective, recounting of the Rodriguez years at Michigan, and I realize the balding native son trading the dark, impenetrable Vader helmet for the winged helmet is not a simple villain.  In fact, I now realize how he has been equally a victim.  I wouldn't want to steal the thunder of this excellent book (buy it!), but it now appears very likely that West Virginia's governor, the university's president, and the university's athletic director may all have treated Rodriguez rather shabbily.  Most disappointing is that President Garrison (later removed as President because of questionable ethics related to a degree awarded the governor's daughter) seemed uninterested in keeping Rodriguez at WVU after Michigan had made Rich Rod an offer.

In addition, I'm tempted to transfer the portion of my venom for Rodriguez to the deep wells of venom I have for U of M.  After all, it does appear that the university's president, university's athletic director, and former coach treated Rodriguez rather shabbily.  They put him in a spot where he was a marked man and gave him little public support.  Since President Coleman, AD Martin, and ex-coach Carr didn't respond to requests for interviews from Bacon, I'm tempted to see them, minimally, as horribly negligent mentors for Rich Rod.  Was Carr outright undermining Rodriguez?  The book has no basis to say so, but one can certainly infer much.  If nothing else, if Carr had received the kind of support (or should I say lack thereof) from former University of Michigan football coaches--most importantly, that almost mythological figure of Bo Schembechler--that Rodriguez received, there is no doubt he would have suffered in many of the ways Rodriguez did.

Still, I am reminded of what I know intuitively, but often don't want to acknowledge: there is no black and white in the world.  Many Michigan people, including the mythological "Michigan Men" that still exist as the cornerstone of the university's image, did come to Rodriguez's aid, including former coach Gary Moeller (who certainly understood what it meant to get a bum's rush) and former quarterback Rick Leach. For the most part, the players, including Denard Robinson (Brady Hoke should thank Rodriguez publicly everyday for bringing Robinson to U of M), come across as fine young men desperately trying to do the things needed to win games and bring success for their head coach.

In addition some of my worst fears about journalism, with the specific example of The Detroit Free Press, the newspaper I so proudly read everyday for years, and the NCAA are confirmed.  Any day of the week, the typical sports journalist will gladly write tomes revealing the inadequacies, inconsistencies, and incompetence of the NCAA rules and governing body.  Yet, if you believe Bacon's sources, one writer's "I don't like that guy" mentality led to a scathing Free Press article that may have clouded Rodriguez's second season at Michigan beyond recognition, but that clearly ignored the challenges with the NCAA's byzantine rule book.

Concerns about university leadership are highlighted throughout the book.  Lawyers put gag orders on all university personnel whenever any controversy comes up (see the sections on the four million dollar buyout clause with Rich Rod's WVU contract).  Athletic directors with no athletic background are hired.  Boards of Regents are only given information on an as-needed basis.  Perhaps not surprising is the unhealthy resentment university presidents may have of their head football coaches.

So, I'm not writing this simply to exonerate Rodriguez.  He has a core arrogance and volatility that makes me uncomfortable.  Still, I suspect those qualities can be said about most major college football coaches (if you want to see how petty college coaches can be, note Purdue's Danny Hope's classless act after the second season Purdue/Michigan game under Rodriguez).  Until I die, I will also say that Rodriguez's Achilles Heel as a coach somehow comes out at least once a year, even with his best teams, with a painful loss that inevitably includes turnovers, bad penalties and missed kicks.  Yes, the players make these mistakes, but the reason WVU never made a national championship game with Rodriguez as coach is that when we lost, we were always beating ourselves (a lament Rodriguez cites frequently in the post-game speeches of his Michigan losses).

Still, Rich Rod clearly is a good man, father, and leader of young men.  Lord knows, I'm not the first one to point out that West Virginia football has not been relevant since he left.  I am amazed at the strength and patience coaches' wives and children must develop.  Rita Rodriguez should receive sainthood immediately.

I think about a second, much different, book.  John Bowden's The University of Learning talks about the higher levels of learning, which frankly are what universities are supposed to be about.  Learning at its highest levels means seeing something in a different way and then changing as a person.  I am not falling back on hyperbole when I say that John Bacon, Rich Rodriguez, and the University of Michigan have all helped me reach this higher level of learning about the pressures, demands and challenges with major college football programs.  I can't wait to see what I learn from the first really good book documenting the Jerry Sandusky nightmare at Penn State.