It's Pac-12 Preview Week and up on the docket of the Crystal Ball Run court today is the case of Rich Rodriguez, the newest head coach of the Arizona Wildcats. This will be his 3rd stop in FBS football as a head coach after a successful stint at West Virginia and a disastrous one at the helm of the Michigan Wolverines.
Rodriguez took last season off and was an analyst for CBS' college football coverage, but is now back in the game and looking to prove himself all over again.
The question at hand for RichRod and ultimately the Arizona Wildcats is this - Was it a case of a good coach in a bad situation, or a mediocre coach finding success in an easier conference?
The Case For Good Coach, Bad Situation:
People forget that RichRod followed up an all-time legend at West Virginia in Don Nehlen, who was Head Coach for 20 seasons and posted a 149-93-4 (.646) record. But the program wasn't exactly in tip-top shape when Nehlen left the program in 2000, having a losing record and all.
Enter Rich Rodriguez, an offensive guru if you've ever seen one, and he led the program to four Big East conference titles in just seven years in charge. There were three double digit win totals in there as well and just one losing season in his time in Morgantown.
He also changed the culture of the program, making his stamp on a team that was modeled a lot after what was going on at Michigan (where Nehlan came from originally). He has the best winning percentage of any coach in West Virginia history (50 + games coached) at .698.
Now, what about Michigan? It's arguable that he was doomed to fail from the very beginning. He came in and clearly wanted to change the culture of the program. He wasn't a "Michigan Man" and that rubbed boosters, season ticket holders, fans, and some players the wrong way.
Also, running against him was the fact that Michigan wasn't exactly Meeechigan if you know what I mean. The end of the Lloyd Carr era saw a record of just 17-11 over the final three seasons, all of that following the 2004 Rose Bowl appearance, and if that wasn't good enough a change the likes of what Rodriguez was looking to make wasn't going to be good enough no matter what time they gave him.
So, the Michigan program was on the "decline" (at least for them) when RichRod took over. He was only given three seasons and each of the three years his teams were getting better, ending in a 7-6 season in 2010. He had the team getting back on the right track, but the off the field stuff and the Meeechigan name not being Meeechigan anymore led to his dismissal. Well, that and a ton of player defections and alienation of the fanbase.
The Case For RichRod Being a Medicore Coach in an Easier Conference:
O.k., we get it, he was a huge success at West Virginia, but the Big East isn't the Big Ten or the Pac-12 my friends. Winning in that league isn't exactly the hardest of things to do.
Don't believe me, just look at what Brian Kelly did at Cincy and what's going on at Notre Dame. He's struggling to bring that program back and he was wildly successful at the lower levels of college football before stepping up to the big time.
As for Rich Rodriguez, can you really say he was a massive success for the Mountaineers? He led them to 6 bowl games, coached in five and went just 2-3 losing all three at the start of his tenure at the helm. Then there's the fact that this program has sustained and repeated the success that was there following his departure. Most of the talent he recruited is gone now, so it's hard to argue that it's because of RichRod.
Speaking of recruiting, it's one thing that he did relatively well at Michigan, but it's also a strike against him being a good coach in a bad situation because Brady Hoke came in to Michigan with virtually all the same offensive talent that RichRod had, changed schemes back to a more pro-style offense and 4-3 defense, and led them to an 11-2 season with a Sugar Bowl victory to boot in year one.
Some argue that the biggest turning point against him at Michigan and perhaps the most damming of him as a coach happened in the 2010 season, his final at the helm of the Maize 'N Blue, when Wisconsin literally ran all over them in a 48-28 victory. The Badgers ran the ball 29 straight times without Michigan ever stopping the Badgers in the second half of that victory and ended any hope of a better season for the Wolverines, who ended the regular season just 6-6.
The Verdict: Mediocre Coach. Why? Well, in the games that could've turned seasons around he showed a complete lack of an ability to figure things out. Honestly, how do you let a team run the ball 29 straight times on you and not stop them once? Good coaches also realize what's around them for talent and figure out a way to work with them to make the team successful and he held so rigidly to his systems on offense and defense that it ultimately cost him his job. Then there's the fact that he was handed the keys to the car of the Michigan program, one that just needed a small spark, and instead blew the thing up. Lastly, there's the fact that the programs he left are just as good if not better after his departure.
At the end of the day, one thing is for certain - the Wildcats are all in for Rodriguez and have really handed him the keys to the whole fleet of vehicles in Tucson. Early indications are that he has been able to hit the recruiting trail hard from the very beginning, if those are indications of where the Wildcats could be headed it may just be a matter of time before we find out if we were right or wrong. Good coaches find ways to win with good recruiting talent, mediocre coaches don't get the best out of their players. Only time will tell in Tucson though.