So...we have a coach. I don't know if we will win more than we lose next year, or the year after, or the year after. I don't know what to think about anything. All I know is that I will support our new coach unequivocally, even if I do not believe he is a great hire (which he isn't, by any standard of evaluation, relative or in a vacuum). Then again, whenever we go through anything so mind-bogglingly dizzying and frustrating, it's best to go with the "count to ten" method of our childhood before jumping to conclusions, Office Space-style. And that's all I have to say about that...for now.
This is not a eulogy. I don't intend it to be one, especially not for Rich Rodriguez, the man. He will go on and find a job (and likely success) somewhere else, some other place that is not Michigan. It is the end of an era, marked with trials and tribulations and hope and crushed hopes and so many other things. A new man will be coaching our Wolverines next year, and that's fine. It has to be, because it's a fact, and nothing will change that. Michigan will be different next year. No more Holdin' The Rope, no more HARD EDGE (!!!), maybe even no more Shoelace. The loss of ideas, of promising ones, even the idea of Denard Robinson being lost (as opposed to the production lost, in the form of rushing yards, wide open passes down the seam produced by those rushing yards, and beaming smiles), is possibly quite as lamentable, if not moreso, than the loss of Rich Rodriguez: the football coach, the man.
But how did we get to this point? That is a loaded question. Could anyone have done better with the roster we currently have? Was the Gator Bowl the final straw? If it was, it shouldn't have been. Would things be different if we had lost by a score, or won, even? I don't know. The logical counterpoint to the "Gator Bowl was just one game" mantra is that we have three seasons of data points from which to draw from and fashion our conclusions about whether Rich Rodriguez: a) succeeded, relatively and b) whether or not we were on the road to the type of success that we all envisioned when he was hired. Big Ten Championships, rectifying the horrifying streak of failures against Ohio State, and contention on the national level.
I take myself back to the beginning and remember the inchoate stages of hope when Rich Rodriguez was hired and an exciting new offense was brought to breathe life into the stagnant Michigan football program. We will be a machine, people said. And we were, at times, as early as RR's second year. We became a machine, on the offensive side of the ball, predicated upon tempo and athleticism and speed, all things which in part contributed to the failure of the defensive side*. We sped down the field, scoring sometimes, and others, faltering in the redzone, missing field goals or turning it over on downs when kicking no longer became an option. Each drive was like a brilliant revolution of the hoi polloi, standing up and saying "Hey, we're Michigan," moving forward so far until we couldn't move any farther on that philosophy alone, until the Csar's forces came in and overwhelmed the tides of progress with a blitz, a 4th down stop, a turnover. We were a machine, prone to brilliant outbursts and random, violent self-explosions**. As quickly as we progressed, we failed just as suddenly, as if what happened in between was nothing at all, nothing but a strange dream. And that's what the last three years feel like.
*Of course, there were many more reasons for this, which we are all aware of...there's no need to rehash them.
** Yes, like Malfunctioning Eddie.
I came to Michigan in 2007 with the understanding that we would win games, and many of them. After the 2006 season, I was filled with a sense of unyielding enthusiasm. We were Michigan again. Despite the last two games of that season, I took on the following season with a general excitment that can possibly only be rivaled by the days prior to this year's UCONN game. Then, everything changed with Appalachian State. It was clear that we were not Michigan again, and even a win over a Tebow-led Florida was not as sweet as it ought have been. It was the final salvo of a long and mostly successful era that had reached its rightful end. Lloyd Carr was a great man and a better coach than many gave him credit for, but it was time for a change. it seems curious that we would want to return to those ways when we have at least done one thing right the last three years, but again, that's all I have to say about that.
In comes Rich Rodriguez, a man with a healthy resume and an exciting brand of offense that Ann Arbor had not seen to date. I remember his half-time speech during a home basketball game against OSU like it was yesterday. He came over to the stadium section to exchange high fives and jingoistic things of that sort with the Maize Rage, and what transpired then was perhaps a metaphor for his entire tenure.
He came over with that sly "aw shucks" grin that many reviled because Michigan Men don't look like that. It was the beginning of things, and there was no reason to worry because it would be a long time either way before anybody would have to face the music. Times were good because they were new and hadn't been stamped with anything bad yet. The program was wiped clean, a tabula rasa of sorts. In a brief second or two, everything changed, and it might be a stretch to say that I should've known what what happen right then and there. But, maybe not.
The entire student section seemed to lurch forward in unison like a mass of brainless zombies, down the rows toward Coach Rodriguez. I nor anybody else seemed to care that people were pushing and nudging their way to get to him, because we were all happy and curious and maybe a little bit naive. Amidst the shouts of "Coach!" and "Rich Rod!" I watched his face as all this transpired. The aforementioned grin that always henceforth seemed to hide a dual air of confidence and uncertainty vanished from his face as the mass of students moved towards him. It was as if he had seen a ghost right there in Crisler Arena, floating towards him, like the ghost of Hamlet's father; a reminder of the heavy burden of the past. I finally reached him, sticking my hand out between two other people to slap him five. It was the closest I had ever been to a Michigan head football coach; I was 19 and hopeful. Nothing bad could happen, right?
The way his face changed like that, from a state of vintage RR to oh God what have I gotten myself into, while a product of the absurdity of that situation itself, can be visibly traced throughout the following three years, the Rich Rodriguez era. I don't know what being a right "fit" necessarily means, especially when that very concept changes over time because people want it to or because the times compel it to do so (i.e., the pro-style to something new, the "spread"). We knew what we were getting. Maybe RR would've failed anyway if the Michigan fanbase had supported him completely. One has to think, as difficult as such a thing is to quantify, that that probably would not have been the case. Does one more "big win" earn RR a 4th year? Really? Is 8-5, with a win over one of the five Big Ten teams we lost to, really more palatable than 7-6? We would have all felt a little better, sure. Sometimes you've got to look a little bit to the future, people. The sunk cost we have here is unfortunate, and, above all, sad. After waiting in a Chick-Fil-A parking lot on a Sunday for the place to open, we've settled on some 4 a.m. Waffle House, because that's what we've wanted all along.
You always tread a dangerous line when you compare sports to anything bigger than sports; war, natural disasters, and so on. And yet, I can't help but feel that college football is a lot like life in a lot of ways. It moves slowly at times, or so you think, but when you look up, three years have gone by and you're wondering if things are going to be okay, and if you should worry that all that times has scurried away under your own nose so sneakily. College football is often random to the point of absurdity that you have to wonder, Are we good or are we just lucky? Or, in our case, Are we bad or just a product or a confluence of dastardly variables, intangible and malevolent in their intent? A turnover here, a turnover there. A missed bomb down the field, a red zone failure. A Mr. Casteel, we'd like to offer you th...oh? Somebody call Greg Robinson.
More could certainly be said, but what's the point. It's over and time to move on. That nagging uncertainty will always be there, like a phantom limb flailing about in the space where a leg used to be, but it does nobody any good to acknowledge past the point of saying what you need to say to move on, in whatever form or method that suits a person. Some deal with life's failures with bitter acceptance, some with righteous anger, others with quiet acquiescence, fading away into the night. These are all options, and we're all human and free to deal with our frustrations as healthily or unhealthily as we please.
Whatever we carry in our private self is our own issue. Being pro-RR or anti-RR is irrelevant and perhaps even more destructive now when RR isn't even an employee of the University of Michigan any longer. If we can learn anything from the past three years, it's this: we can control the support that we offer the University and the football team that we all love. Brady Hoke may fail, but if he does, I would rather he do so with everyone behind him, even if, especially if, the same people that never got on board with the RR era come to fall in line with the people formerly known as RR supporters...because, you know, we all support the same team. If that doesn't happen, if we remain fractured and boisterous with our ill-conceived and ultimately meaningless opinions, then this is a eulogy, and Michigan is dead.
I have faith that we are not. Blind faith, maybe, but faith nonetheless. In the end, that might be all we've got to offer.
As always, Go Blue.