Twice rejected, Michigan gets its man – sort of
The last time the top job at Michigan’s football program came open, it was widely considered one of the best in the business. Three years later, any coach with a pulse seemed to be on the Wolverines’ short list.
Few things demonstrate the dizzying, desperate, downward spiral the college game is locked in better than that. A season that began with agents running amok and decades-long conference ties being severed in pursuit of a quick buck came to an unsatisfying end with fewer viewers watching the bowls while harboring plenty of unanswered questions.
Auburn, the national champion, could wind up abdicating the throne by the time the NCAA enforcement staff wraps up its months-long investigation into the eligibility of Tigers star Cam Newton. Loyalty is in such short supply that he’ll likely be auditioning for the NFL before it’s completed, along with one or more of Ohio State’s so-called “Tat 5,” who like Newton wriggled through a loophole and found themselves suiting up for the postseason.
Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, one of the longer-serving, genuinely good guys still working the sidelines these days, could have made a statement by sitting down the five players for the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas; the NCAA announced the suspensions in December, yet deferred punishment until the first five games of next season.
But he chose not to. Like his brothers in the coaching fraternity, Tressel knows his exalted status in Columbus hinges on competing for national and Big Ten titles each season. Or at the very least, beating his archrival with some regularity, which just happens to be Michigan.
More than one of Tressel’s predecessors was handed a pink slip after failing on that last count. And if Ohio State’s domination of the series extends much further into the tenure of just-hired Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, the one-time Michigan assistant can expect the same quick hook that got his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, canned after three miserable seasons.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon was intent on hiring a “Michigan man,” an outdated notion if there ever was one. The last one, Lloyd Carr, vacated the office in November 2007, despite a national championship, five Big Ten titles and a .750 winning clip, because he was stickler about running a clean program and didn’t like the direction the sport was heading.
We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Not so long ago, the people in charge at Michigan were to college football what Pittsburgh’s Rooney family was to the NFL: patient and loyal almost to a fault, just as committed to doing things right as they were to doing them better than anyone else.
With the game’s winningest tradition, topflight facilities, a track record of turning out NFL stars and entree into the best recruiting circles, they could afford to be. But now it’s just another football factory.
When Rodriguez was hired to replace Carr, those same people in charge thought he could rejuvenate the program simply by updating the offense rather than the culture. But Rodriguez, who had been an assistant or head coach at Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia by then, knew better. The only way to compete with the juggernauts all around him was to do things the same way they did – pushing everything and everybody in the program right up to the edge, and sometimes beyond.
That culture clash resulted in the school’s first losing season since 1967, snapped a 33-year streak of bowl appearances and brought the NCAA to campus after the most serious violations in Michigan’s storied past.
Hoke will be entitled to a grace period not afforded Rodriguez simply because he was a defensive coach on Carr’s staff for five years, including the 1997 national championship team. Then again, even while rebuilding programs at Ball State and San Diego State, Hoke managed only a 47-50 record and Wolverine fans ranked him a distant third behind Michigan men Jim Harbaugh, who left Stanford for the San Francisco 49ers, and Les Miles, who wound up staying at LSU.
If the faithful still feel slighted, well, they’ll just have to get used to it. College football has become an edgy, high-stakes game in which payouts matter more than pride and nobody worries about a clean getaway anymore.
– Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org