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During World War II, with men overseas, women dominated U-M as they never had before — and would not again until the '70s.
Rich Rodriguez has called his first season as U-M's football coach the hardest of his career. But he's faced tougher times and longer odds in his life.
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Rich Rodriguez has called his first season as U-M's football coach the hardest of his career. But he's survived plenty of tough times in his life already.
November 18, 2008
As of this writing, Michigan's football season is not over—but Rich Rodriguez has already endured enough travails to fill a decade of Saturdays.
Just one year ago Rodriguez had a golden opportunity to get his second-ranked West Virginia team into the national title game. But in their last regular season game, the Mountaineers were stunned by lowly Pittsburgh, knocking them out of title contention.
A few days after that crushing defeat, Rodriguez got some good news: Michigan was on the line, prepared to propose. It was a whirlwind courtship between the most successful program in college football and the sport's fastest rising star—and consummated within a week.
You'd think the story might have ended there—but that was only the beginning. Still ahead: a seemingly endless lawsuit over a buy-out clause in Rodriguez's West Virginia contract, and the loss of ten of eleven starters from his new Michigan offense—five to graduation (four of whom were good enough to play in the NFL), two more who jumped early to the NFL and three who transferred to other schools.
"The last seven months have been the hardest of my career—hands down," he said. "We should have been able to enjoy the honeymoon, instead of dealing with all this."
Next up: the most trying season in recent Michigan football history—one that has seen the Wolverines' blow a seven-game winning streak against Michigan State, a nine-game winning streak against Penn State, and a 24-game winning streak against the entire Mid-American Conference. Add it all up, and you have the first losing season since 1967, which will break a 33-year streak of bowl games—the longest in the sport—and Michigan's first eight-loss campaign ever.
But when you consider the long, winding road that has led Rodriguez from Grant Town, West Virginia, to Ann Arbor, this past year looks less like a roadblock than a speed bump.
Rodriguez's grandfather left Spain for the coal mines of West Virginia. Looking for a better life, the family moved to Chicago, where Rich was born.
His father soon became fed up with the crime and intimidation of their rough neighborhood. So one night he rented a U-Haul and a guard dog, packed the family's scant belongings in the middle of the night, and headed for tiny Grant Town, West Virginia, under cover of darkness.
"I was in the second grade," Rodriguez recalls, "and I'd never even heard of West Virginia. Man, I just hated it. But what saved me was sports. I could go outside, and bounce a ball off our roof for hours—a baseball, a basketball, even a football, it didn't matter—until my dad got a hoop and bolted it onto the roof. Looking back on it, for a family that was getting government cheese and didn't have enough money to pave our dirt driveway, that was a hell of a gift."
Rodriguez shot on that hoop every chance he had. In the winter, he'd grab the family snow shovel, pack down the snow, put his gloves on, and keep shooting. By his senior year in high school, he was the state's leading scorer.
"I knew two things: I wanted to spend my life in sports, and I wanted to do it on the biggest stage around. I wanted the pressure!"
He turned down scholarship offers to play basketball at Davidson, Marshall and Army because, he says, "I really loved football, and I wanted to play for the Mountaineers. That was always my dream. So I decided to walk on and take my chances."
As a 4.0 student in high school, he had cobbled together enough scholarship money to last one year. After that, he either had to earn a scholarship—or drop out.
When his father drove him down to West Virginia University, it was an adventure for both of them. Neither had ever seen the campus before. "He dropped me off with just a single hand bag—that's all I had. We left me at the stadium—on the wrong side! We didn't even know where the locker rooms were."
The assistant coach who welcomed the walk-ons didn't know Rodriguez's name. When the coach barked out the list of walk-ons, he called off "Gonzalez," thinking it was Rodriguez.
"Once I realized they had no idea who I was, my plan was simple: I was going to get in as many fights as I could the first week, just so they would know my name! They put me at defensive back, and I was getting in everyone's face, especially the offensive linemen, because they were all taped up and couldn't really get you. The other guys might not have liked me too much, but the coaches remembered my name!
"I played hard—every play, every practice and every game. No exceptions. I played desperate—because I was. If I didn't get a full ride by the end of the year, my college days were over."
At the end of Rodriguez's freshman year, Coach Don Nehlen offered him a full ride. He'd made it. His gamble had paid off.
Since then, Rodriguez has repeated the formula at every stop: Turn down the sure thing, bet on himself—then work to make it come true.
In his first season as Glenville State's head coach, his team posted an anemic 1-7-1 mark. "We were so bad, the crowd would literally give us a standing ovation if we got a first down," he says. "Trust me, just to keep that team together, that was the best coaching job I've ever done!"
The next year he knew he had to shake things up to get his offense going. "I started thinking about what was the toughest thing to defend when I played defensive back. To me, it was the two minute drill. Well, let's see if we can do that the whole game."
From that point on, Rodriguez's team skipped the huddle, went to a shotgun snap, spread the receivers out and started taking chances to get some points on the board—and kept it up for the entire game, every game.
It worked. Glenville State's radical offense left opponents chasing their tails and gasping for air. His revamped squad started rising up the ranks, and finally won the first of four league titles in just his fourth season. For good measure, they also won the Division II national semifinal game.
As an offensive coordinator, Rodriguez worked the same magic for Tulane and Clemson before becoming the head coach at his alma mater in 2001—where he did it again, taking a 3-8 squad his first year and transforming them into a national contender.
Coach Rodriguez's invention, the spread offense, the very scheme that was once considered the last resort for desperate Division II teams, has now taken over the college game. You might argue it's worked too well, because many of the teams Michigan faces every year now employ Rodriguez's stratagem—and it works for them, too.
This season has tested Rodriguez in every way imaginable, on and off the field. After Michigan's 48-42 loss to Purdue left the hopes of a winning record—and with it, a bowl game—in the dust, Rodriguez faced one of the greatest challenges of his career. How do you motivate a team to keep playing hard the remaining three games of the season when you have virtually nothing to play for? It was a new problem for a Michigan coach.
When he addressed the team the night before the Minnesota game, he said, "You seniors can make a statement about your careers in the last three games, and you freshmen can make a statement about the future. Like the movie says, we need to get busy living, or get busy dying."
Instead of packing it in, the Wolverines packed a punch, dominating heavily favored Minnesota 29-6, to keep the Brown Jug, their confidence up and their hopes alive for the games—and the seasons—ahead. It's difficult to remember a Michigan team so happy to hoist the Jug.
"People say it's harder to be at the top than the bottom," he says. "But I guarantee you, anyone who says that has never been at the bottom.
"We're going to get there. It won't be tomorrow, and it won't be easy, but we're going to get there."
Bo's Lasting Lessons, with the late Coach Schembechler. He also teaches at U-M, gives weekly commentary on Michigan Public Radio, and delivers speeches across the country. His website is www.johnubacon.com.is Michigan Today's sports columnist. He has written for Time, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, among others, earning national honors for his work. He coauthored his fifth book, the national bestseller