The unbeatable team has been beat. Cue the jokes about whether Texas A&M could beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. Maybe now we’ll stop crowning champions at midseason? Probably not, but don’t blame Alabama for being the recipient of all that love. In fact, Nick Saban was telling anyone who would listen that he was terribly afraid of the Aggies. The problem was, few were listening. Saban’s pre-game comments on A&M’s up-tempo offensive attack bordered on paranoia and for much of the first half it looked like the Tide had no confidence against quarterback Johnny Manziel. Alabama settled in but it wasn’t enough; A&M won 29-24.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’ve been down this road before, recently, with the Michigan football team. They were 4-0 in 2009 and won just one game after that and started 5-0 last year before stumbling to a 7-6 record. Michigan is once again 5-0, with its highest ranking (No. 12, AP/No. 11, Coaches) since it was No. 5 in the 2007 preseason polls.
There is no reason to think the Wolverines will or won’t go into a tailspin just because they did the last two years. Unless you think these players are conditioned to play poorly in the second half of the season or Michigan is cursed in some way, I see no reason why the last two seasons would have an effect on this one. There is a new coaching staff. There is an upperclassman quarterback. The schedule is different. Michigan could keep rolling, or they could fall apart, but it won’t have anything to do with the past two years.
Michigan is scoring 37.2 points per game, tied for 25th best in the country. They are tallying 440 yards a game (33rd best). The running game is one of the best in the nation, and it was at its most dangerous this past Saturday in a 58-0 rout of Minnesota, as Michigan got 312 yards of rushing from players other than Denard Robinson.
Despite 48 rushing attempts, Michigan did not fumble against Minnesota, and has lost just two fumbles all season (both against San Diego State). Robinson has only fumbled once, and Michigan recovered. (So for every one of his own fumbles, Robinson has picked up a teammate’s fumble and taken it in for a score, which is nice.) This is part of the reason why the Wolverines are 12th in the country in turnover margin.
The other reason is that Michigan’s defense has forced 15 turnovers, sixth best in the country. The unit has allowed 15 plays of 20 yards or more, an average of three per game (eight came against Notre Dame, three on passes to Michael Floyd). Last year Michigan allowed 4.3 of these big gainers per game. By not giving up as many huge chunks of yardage they are giving themselves more opportunities to create turnovers. The result is a defense ranked 31st in yardage allowed and tied for second in points per game allowed (10.2).
|Denard Robinson (with ball) and the Michigan offense has looked good.|
The schedule has not been a murderer’s row but Notre Dame is 29th in total offense and San Diego State is 50th. Getting stops against even subpar offenses is something Michigan fans haven’t seen in a few years.
After going 4-for-14 on field goals last season (worst in the country), Michigan has converted 4-of-5 this year, missing from 40 yards but making from distances of 32 and 38. A competent kicking game will only help this offense become even more potent. Michigan is a perfect 21-for-21 in the red zone, with 17 touchdowns (the official stats say 21-for-22, but the only “failure” came in the last drive against Minnesota, when Michigan took a knee to end the game one play after getting inside the 20).
Michigan has also excelled in the penalty department. Their 3.8 for fewer than 31 yards per game put them in the top 10 in the country in both categories.
As you can see, Michigan is doing well in all phases of the game. That is not to suggest they are among the best teams in the country. The thing is, neither are Michigan’s opponents. The schedule gets tougher, sure, but Michigan avoids the dominant Big Ten team, Wisconsin. None of the remaining games save a home date with Purdue are locks, but Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State look worse than most expected at the beginning of the season.
I have been impressed with Brady Hoke and the Michigan coaching staff so far. In my season preview I said the season would hinge on Hoke and company’s willingness to adapt to their personnel, which I think they’ve shown. Most of the play calling has been very logical. It was clear that Robinson needed some short, relatively easy passes to regain his confidence, and that’s exactly how the Minnesota game began (Robinson finished 15-of-19 for 169 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions).
This team has its flaws: Even with Robinson’s stellar day against Minnesota, he is completing just 55 percent of his passes, and it is still unclear whether a running back can consistently take pressure off of Robinson in the ground game. If the high turnover rate doesn’t keep up can Michigan still keep the opponent off the board?
These are questions Michigan fans can be concerned about, but as far as the eventual record of this team goes, the good news is that Wolverines have looked better each week, the schedule is not overly difficult, and of course, they have started 5-0. Now it’s time to leave the last two years in the past, where they belong.