Monday, January 03, 2011

Elegy Written in a Ford Escape

In the end, it's the strangest, the littlest things that end up striking you about the end of something, be it a relationship, an era, or a job. In this case, it was Frank Beckmann's pre-game interview with Rich Rodriguez on the radio side of the 2011 Gator Bowl broadcast; something that I only heard because I was driving home from Pittsburgh, trying very hard to get home before the game started. (I regret nothing!)

Beckmann's interview was formulaic, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. People have expectations for a pre-game show, particularly one before a bowl game. Beckmann asked questions like "How were the practices?" and "How do the younger players look" and "How has this week in Jacksonville been?" and Rodriguez answered them with some standard coachspeak. Anyone dying for a cutting insight into the state of the Michigan football program was going to be sorely disappointed. After a commercial break, Beckmann's interview shifted to the game itself, the opponent in Mississippi State, and what the Bulldogs brought to the table. Rodriguez's answers were what you would expect, not tipping the hand too much, but clearly someone who had watched a lot of film and knew what his team needed to do to be successful. But what struck me was the change in tone and tenor of Rodriguez's voice. It was confident; it was almost, if not giddy, certainly quite pleased.

The first half of the interview was perfunctory and it seemed to me that Rodriguez couldn't even bring himself to feign the enthusiasm one is supposed to bring to this kind of thing. The second half of the interview was technical, and genuinely, it was a little wonky to the point where I felt like I was only getting tremendous insight because I had just finished reading Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat, and Chalk (where Rodriguez's birth of the read option gets some love) and Ron Jaworski's The Games That Changed The Game if only because I now felt like I understood scheme, gap responsibility, and exploiting what the opposition gives you. The entire thing reinforced what I genuinely and fully believe. Rich Rodriguez is a great football coach, he is an offensive genius, but he is not a great head coach. Head coaches have to do more than just game plan. They are CEOs, they are spokesmen, they are the face of the brand. It feels now, and perhaps should have been obvious to us sooner that Rich Rodriguez accepted those additional roles but never embraced them.

It's like the story of Ted Williams, while managing the Senators/Rangers who, when told about the development struggles of his young pitching staff said "Aww hell, let's go hit." Williams knew how to hit as well as any person on the planet, it's what he cared about and it helped him make his hitters better. But hitting is but one aspect of being a manager, just like offense is but one aspect of being a head coach. You need to care about everything, or delegate to capable, responsible parties to do so and hold them accountable when they do not live up to expectations. Rodriguez is at his best when he is talking about scheme, about plays, as you might expect of someone who has been a successful offensive coordinator. But his lack of success at Michigan can be traced to many reasons, but one cause, he was not able to successfully juggle all of the facets of being a head coach in a way that translated to long-term success. This likely means the end of the Rodriguez era at Michigan and the start of something else. But that is where we begin to stare through a glass darkly, because it is a murky, unwritten future.

6 comments:

Becky said...

Rich Rodriguez is a great football coach, he is an offensive genius, but he is not a great head coach. Head coaches have to do more than just game plan. They are CEOs, they are spokesmen, they are the face of the brand. It feels now, and perhaps should have been obvious to us sooner that Rich Rodriguez accepted those additional roles but never embraced them.

I think this is so true. I know you're at a lot of the games, so maybe you don't see this. But many times, when the camera pans to the Michigan sideline, the coaches are yelling at each other or arguing or SOMETHING. It's clear that it's just mass chaos on the sideline, all the time. How can you be a head football coach if you can't even work with half a dozen other coaches?

Steve Mancuso said...

If your conclusion about RR not being a capable head coach is true, how do you explain his success in that role at previous stops, especially WVU?

I think it's more likely that he just needs more time. Events beyond his control have conspired to place large obstacles in his path.

Yes, he's made his share of mistakes, but who doesn't? This trendy narrative of "great OC, can't be a HC" is too simplistic and easy.

Craig said...

Steve,

I think it's the difference between being "adequate", "good", and "great". As an adequate head coach, you can do the job, and from time to time, you can do it quite well. A good head coach, you can put together a good season, but you're not in the thick of things every year. A great head coach is one who is able to do all of the little things to keep his team at the highest level every year.

Rodriguez was successful at West Virginia, a place where expectations were lower, the media was far more supportive, and he was an alumnus. Moving to a bigger stage has not worked well for him. Again, great is a qualifier in my mind, and part of being great is not only bringing it every day, but committing yourself to improving in the areas where you know you are weak, even when it is not fun.

Steve, I am wholly willing to concede I could be wrong. If coaching "searches" prove anything to me time and again, it is simply that nobody really knows anything, but they're more than happy to tell you what you don't know.

James said...

Steve: I think Jeff Casteel played a major role in RR's success at WVU. Not landing him was a back-breaker.

Unofficial Hoya Game Watch Site said...

West Virginia, save for a loss at Pitt in its final game, would have played for the national championship. Dinging the school by saying that it's a smaller school with a smaller fan base seems odd - not to be snarky, but, over the past decade, they've been closer to a national championship than Michigan has. The Big Ten may be better than the Big East, but they're not THAT much better.

RichRod was great - by your own definition, keeping his team at championship caliber every year - at West Virginia. He was far from great at Michigan. Few coaches are able to be successful at many different schools - the differences between each program are so significant that it's hard to be successful everywhere. It means that RichRod isn't legendary - at least right now - but it doesn't diminish what he did at WVU.

Craig said...

Game Watch,

I did not intend to diminish what Rodriguez had done at West Virginia and I realize that it appears that was what I did. The circumstances at West Virginia were different, but he did a great job, yes, by the definition I set forth. My apologies for any unintentional snark for diminishing of accomplishment.