Tag Archives: Big Ten football

Three and Out by John U. Bacon: Book Review

On the copyright page of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), there is a note that reads: “This book has not been approved, endorsed, or sponsored by any person or entity involved with the University of Michigan.”

No kidding.

Bacon’s inside look at the University of Michigan football program has reportedly angered many of the key characters—former coaches and players, athletic directors, the University president, Rodriguez—and Wolverine fans will revel in the details of how Rodriguez was hired and what eventually led to his demise. The greater value of this book, however, is the picture it paints of big-time college coaches and athletes on and off the field. And what a fascinating picture that is.

Through a friend of a friend, Bacon—a freelance journalist, author, and a teacher at the University of Michigan—was granted unrestricted access to the Michigan football program during Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Ann Arbor, in 2008. When that season ended with a 3-9 record, Bacon realized the story was far from over, and he and Rodriguez extended the deal for another two years.

I’m not sure whether any reporter has ever had Bacon’s level of access to a major college football program or if any will in the future. Bacon exploits this opportunity, reporting from the sidelines, the locker room, practices, meetings, and just about anywhere else Rodriguez or his players might go. The demands on the coaches and athletes are startling. Sure, there is a lot of glory that can come from being in the limelight that Michigan football offers, but I doubt too many college students would want to switch places with quarterback Denard Robinson or many wanna-be coaches would like to fill Rodriguez’s shoes after reading this book.

Rodriguez’s stresses went beyond that of a typical coach. Bacon traces the fracturing of the Michigan football family to the death of its “godfather,” legendary coach Bo Schembechler (with whom Bacon co-authored a book), in November 2006. The following year was the last for head coach Lloyd Carr, and Bacon depicts athletic director Bill Martin’s sloppy search for a replacement. Going down a list that seemed to change by the day (Kirk Ferentz, Tony Dungy, Greg Schiano, Les Miles), Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez, considered one of the top minds in his profession.

Rodriguez’s last three West Virginia teams posted 11-win seasons with two BCS bowl victories (though Rodriguez had been hired by Michigan and did not coach the last one), with Rodriguez’s innovative spread offense breaking all sorts of records along the way. With all the tradition and resources Michigan has to offer, it was reasonable to expect Rodriguez and the Wolverines would do great things.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and Bacon was there to witness everything. He chronicles the missteps before Rodriguez had even coached a game in the Big House, such as the West Virginia buyout fiasco and fumbled introductory press conference. The Detroit Free Press report on Michigan’s practice violations receives a thorough examination as well.

Undoubtedly the biggest off-field problem during the Rodriguez tenure, however, was the powerful faction that wanted someone else leading the winningest program in college football history. Bacon explores this throughout, but was unable to get an interview with Lloyd Carr. Without getting Carr’s side, Bacon couldn’t reconcile why the same person who first recommended Rodriguez to Martin may have undermined Rodriguez behind the scenes.

Winning solves a lot of problems, though, and Rodriguez could have quieted most of his critics by avoiding a three-win debut season and second-half collapses in the next two. Bacon doesn’t try to sugarcoat the losses and doesn’t shy away from criticizing some of Rodriguez’s questionable off-field decisions—in addition to the press conference gaffes Michigan fans are familiar with, Rodriguez didn’t show his face enough in public, costing him the chance at gaining supporters he could have used when things went bad.

Three and Out readers will learn that despite the PR blunders and constant questions about whether he was a “Michigan Man,” Rodriguez came off as a seasoned orator when addressing his team, always direct and confident and regularly referencing the Michigan tradition that many former Wolverines thought he failed to grasp.

Throughout the 438 pages, Bacon contrasts how Michigan handled the transition from Carr to Rodriguez to how it dealt with the last time an “outsider” was hired to the position: when Schembechler took over after the 1968 season. The flaws of both Rodriguez and the athletic department are apparent, and by the end of the book it’s clear the latter has learned from some of its mistakes.

If they’re anything like me, Michigan fans will speed through this book and reach out to fellow fans to discuss it. They’ll also—and I didn’t think this was possible—appreciate Denard Robinson even more. College football fans in general will savor an unprecedented look inside a major program, which recounts the excitement on the field and the drama off of it.

I look forward to hearing from Three and Out readers in the coming months (it comes out tomorrow). As always, post your comments here and/or email me at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

Ohio State Players, Including Terrelle Pryor, Suspended

Perhaps the NCAA officials who came up with the punishment for the Ohio State football players had selected the Buckeyes in their bowl pick ’em contests.

That’s as good an explanation as any for why quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, tackle Mike Adams, and reserve defensive end Solomon Thomas have been suspended for the first five games of next season but not the January 4 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas.

The players were punished for selling championship rings, jerseys, and other awards, in addition to receiving free or discounted tattoos at a Columbus tattoo parlor. Pryor netted $2,500 for selling his 2008 Big Ten championship ring, 2009 Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award, and, perhaps worst of all, his 2008 “gold pants,” awarded to Ohio State players who beat Michigan. The other players received between $1,000 and $1,505 each.

While Auburn’s Cam Newton avoided any sort of punishment by passing the blame to his father, the Ohio State players avoided additional penalties by saying they didn’t know the rules. The statement from the NCAA said that the players were not suspended for the bowl game because they “did not receive adequate rules education during the time period the violations occurred.”

If that doesn’t make you scratch your head, well, you’re probably an NCAA employee. If the punishment for the crime is five games, why would it skip over the team’s next game?

Ohio State should probably go ahead and suspend the players for the bowl game. Instead, the university will appeal the suspensions handed out by the NCAA. Athletic director Gene Smith said he thinks the sentence should be reduced because the players were using the money to help support their families. I’m still waiting for Smith to tell us how free tattoos helped the families.

It’s possible Pryor sold this as well. (Credit: Michael Tolzmann)

At the heart of the problem in this case, the Newton scandal, and others like them, is the NCAA rulebook. It is arcane and riddled with loopholes. This holiday season seems like the perfect time to toss the book in a fireplace and start new. This is 2010: The off-field landscape looks a lot different than it once did. There are many more millions of dollars to be made if schools have successful athletics programs.

Clearly the current rulebook isn’t cutting it, and this year’s college football season alone has affirmed that. If the NCAA policy allows players to participate in championship or bowl games if they “were not aware they were committing violations,” then why punish them at all? They are basically saying some penalties warrant suspensions, so long as the games missed aren’t important.

To the NCAA, Coach Tressel, or anyone with the power to take action, I say: Don’t let these players participate in the Sugar Bowl. Then again, I picked Ohio State in my bowl challenge, too.

Michigan vs Penn State 2010 Preview

he question Michigan fans seem to be asking most heading into tomorrow’s showdown with Penn State: Is this a must-win for Rich Rodriguez?

The answer: I really hope not.

I say this not because I think Michigan will lose on Saturday, but because they definitely could lose (the Wolverines are only a three-point favorite) and I don’t want Rodriguez to lose his job if they do.

First of all, let’s go over two assumptions regarding Michigan’s four remaining opponents after Penn State:

Michigan will lose to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Even the most optimistic Michigan fans counted these two games as losses in the preseason. Not enough has changed since then to think otherwise.

Michigan will beat Purdue and Illinois. These two games get a W next to them, but we should write them in pencil, as opposed to the ink used for the L’s. If we’re considering these wins, perhaps we should consider Penn State a win, too, but I still think Penn State on the road is tougher than Illinois at home or Purdue on the road.

With a loss in Happy Valley, Michigan (5-2) gets to 7-5 at best and potentially finishes 6-6, which would mean the 2010 collapse was just as bad as last year. But I don’t think Rodriguez should be fired even if this does happen.

Football, especially college football, is not like the other major sports. A new coach, even a good one, often sets you back three or four years as he implements his system and gets the recruits he needs to make it work. Look at a once-proud program like Notre Dame. Michigan does not want to go down that road.

If Rich Rodriguez looks like this in tomorrow’s press conference, it could spell doom for the Michigan football program. (Credit: Greg Dooley/MVictors.com)

Rodriguez is in Year Three in Ann Arbor; you might argue that is enough time to show meaningful progress and another season without beating a quality opponent should mean he gets fired. I’d argue he has shown meaningful progress. Remember the Wolverine offense in 2008, Rich Rod’s first year? A walk on started games at quarterback and not just because of injuries. The offensive line resembled a group of oversized matadors. Two years later, Michigan has the second best offense in the country as far as yards per game. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.

The defense and special teams have regressed since Lloyd Carr left, but astute Michigan followers know this is not all Rodriguez’s fault. Carr’s defensive recruiting was extremely weak in his final year and there have been an unusually high number of transfers. I’m not making excuses for Rodriguez, and I still think he should be held accountable at the end of the day, but I have reason to believe the defense can be competent next year and more Michigan-esque in 2012 and beyond.

The good news? New athletic director Dave Brandon seems to understand this. He’s repeatedly said there’s not a win quota for Rodriguez to keep his job. I think it will take a truly epic collapse—winless from here on out—for Brandon to replace the head coach. On the other hand, there is pressure on Brandon to get the football program on the right track. Even if it goes against his gut he could feel obligated to axe Rodriguez; I view this is doubtful, however.

Regardless of who starts at quarterback for Penn State tomorrow (it is rumored to be a walk on sophomore; sound familiar?) or how many injuries the Nittany Lions have on defense, a victory in Happy Valley still means something—in this case, it also means a trip to a bowl game (and in my opinion a guaranteed seven wins and really good shot at eight, which would exceed all but the most optimistic preseason projections).

A loss would be bad, no doubt, but if it leads to Rodriguez’s firing it would probably be the program’s most devastating loss in 25 years.