Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ignoring the Red Flags

Maybe winning will change the conversation, but if you’re University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, that can’t be the best way to solve this problem.

The Wolverines football program has been steadily disconnecting from the larger core values of the university since the day head coach Rich Rodriguez showed up on campus. The program may not be on the verge of imploding, but Rodriguez has brought the kind of scrutiny to the program and hence the university that Coleman likely didn’t envision when she approved the hiring.

When Michigan athletic director Bill Martin coerced Rich Rodriguez into breaching his contract with West Virginia University in order to hopefully return the Wolverines to the throes of glory past, it had to occur to him that he wasn’t exactly getting in bed with a virgin. If it didn’t then, he has to know it now and if he doesn’t know it his boss has to be on the verge of figuring this out. In truth, the evidence was there all along.

Rodriguez abandoned a program he built in West Virginia and a program that he had just re-committed to with a multi-million dollar promise, in favor of another program that he felt would fatten his wallet more at the same time it also was fattening his huge need to be recognized as a genius. Rodriguez isn’t the first to do that and he won’t be the last. Basketball has its Larry Browns and college football has its standard-bearer in Nick Saban.

But these kinds of coaches come with built in warts. As an athletic director you have to always keep an eye on them because, frankly, you can never be confident that they are going to be there when you wake up in the morning.

In the case of Martin, he may put on a good public face and may have actually convinced himself that Rodriguez is a decent, hard working, stand up guy who will uphold the values that Michigan stands for, but when he lays down at night his head movies about the direction of his program have to make his eyes rain.

In almost every way you can imagine, Rodriguez was a bad hire. To get him, Martin and the athletic boosters ended up bailing him out of his financial mess with the Mountaineers. It wasn’t the most elegant entry into a program with such a rich and storied history. It merely served as the first red flag Martin will eventually admit he missed.

The second was the inglorious way Rodriguez left Morgantown. Eschewing any loyalty to the players that helped him parlay his status as a coach on the come, Rodriguez first broke the news of his departure to Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State’s starting quarterback now but then the most highly sought after recruit in the country.

That was a pretty damning statement on Rodriguez’s values that Martin had to swallow. But it was nothing compared to the way Rodriguez and his staff literally trashed the Mountaineers facility as they packed their bags. Nearly anything of value to the next coaching staff was tossed out, including the files on the existing Moutaineer players.

Ok, so Martin knew Rodriguez didn’t have much class, but maybe Martin felt in some small way responsible as well. He helped broker the break up and thus maybe felt like the ensuing bad blood was in part attributable to his own underhanded activities.

Martin missed the next set of flags that came in the form of a loss of recruits that Michigan had secured as well as the transfer of players already on campus. Martin ignored them because he was likely busy rationalizing it as the collateral damage that resulted from to the drastic change that Rodriguez’s philosophies were bringing and the notion that the players that left probably didn’t think they were suited for those philosophies.

On that score, Martin may have been mostly correct. But then how did Martin rationalize the transfer of Justin Boren to Ohio State. Boren, an Ohio resident, was a Michigan legacy. He had a family connection to the program. It’s one thing for someone like that to transfer, it’s another to transfer to the enemy. That’s rubbing it in your former team’s face. How could Martin not see that as a problem?

All of which had led to the problems that Rodriguez has visited upon the program in just the last week. A Detroit Free Press investigation uncovered multiple current and former players complaining that Rodriguez and his staff routinely violated NCAA rules regarding workouts. It was a story Martin couldn’t ignore because one of the keys to avoiding serious problems with the NCAA is to self-investigate and then self-report. The Free Press story would make its way to NCAA compliance headquarters in Indianapolis. Martin had no choice but to launch an investigation.

Whether Rodriguez and his staff actually violated NCAA rules is hard to say. Given the nature of these rules and the amount of gray in trying to determine whether a player volunteered for extra work or was coerced, trying to establish an actual violation may be difficult. But that doesn’t obscure a far bigger and overriding problem: the fact that multiple players complained in the first place.

Flash back to the Boren transfer. At the time, he said that he was leaving because he perceived Rodriguez as lacking in family values. On the surface that sounded like the earnest but perhaps uninformed words of a college kid looking to rationalize his actions. Now it looks positively prescient.

Maybe it says something about the mentality of kids, generally, these days, that they don’t want to work as much as their predecessors. But doesn’t it also say something specific about what kind of values underlie Rodriguez’s Michigan program that several current and former players would complain to the media about the way he runs the program? Problems are going to arise between a coach and a player in any program. But the fact that these players, in such a short period of time, felt they couldn’t handle the matter in house does say something about what they must feel is a lack of trust between themselves and their coach. And isn’t that the core family value, trust?

As if that wasn’t enough, word now comes that Rodriguez is being sued for $3.9 million over a default on a loan stemming from a failed real-estate venture in Virginia. And that may not even be the most startling revelation about the issue. That would be the fact that the center of this controversy is a banned Clemson booster with whom Rodriguez became friendly while on the staff at Clemson.

It may be that Rodriguez himself is a victim in this as one of the allegations is that Rodriguez and other investors gave money to the booster and he in turn used it for his own purposes instead of repaying the underlying loan. But to a certain extent Rodriguez brought at least some of this on himself by doing business with someone whom he already knew had been discredited for other reasons, namely providing illegal benefits to Clemson recruits while Rodriguez was on the staff.

Rodriguez took over a Michigan program that was slightly a mess and has made it worse, and that’s without even commenting on the pitiful team he put on the field last year.

While Ohio State fans are undoubtedly finding some glee in Michigan’s on-going problems, the truth of the matter is that this ultimately does not benefit either Ohio State or the rest of the Big Ten. The conference is suffering at the moment in large part because the Michigan program is a mess. Both the Big Ten and Ohio State need Michigan to be good. It’s fun to beat your rival, but it’s more fun to beat them when you know they are a team worth beating.

There’s no doubt that Rodriguez will survive these latest two scandals. Martin is a skilled apologist and has gotten so good at it when it comes to Rodriguez that he probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it any more. But the sad truth is that even if Michigan wins enough games to get to a bowl game this year, it will do nothing to alter the simple fact that no amount of wins is ever going to change the underlying character flaws they bought into when they hired Rodriguez. That will only come when Rodriguez is sent packing.

Martin may never have the courage to pull it off himself, but given the rich tradition of Michigan and all the good things it really does stand for, Coleman or her successor will eventually come to the conclusion that the ends in this case can never justify the means.

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