It might be true that not a lot of people would rush to buy the notion that coaching football at the State University of Iowa is a more desirable job today than coaching football at the University of Michigan. It's a shame they think that too, because just as past and future collide into this thing called the present, so too does fantasy and reality collide, and that thing is called Michigan Football.
Michigan fired Richard Rodriguez today, and it was a reasonable act, but while the awkward West Virginian is gone from the Michigan program, the troubles are not. Fantasy is fading from Old Blue and reality is quickly rearranging the furniture. Expect, in other words, a long stay. The world of college football is not immune to the forces that affect culture more broadly, and when heart of your business centers on the whims of college-aged kids, those forces become downright volatile. It is a well worn truth that football coaches don't like the new fangled world. They'll tell you they wouldn't know a facebook from a twitter while holding court on the pageantry and majesty of their program's history and reputation behind a podium while guys with no-iron pants scribble in lined notepads and swap out cassettes from their tape recorders. It makes sense really because social media is unforgivingly immediate and thus uncontrollable. But that stuff is the air the typical recruit breathes.
The youth of America have always had short attention spans, but it is ever-shortening and will continue to get shorter by the technological revolutionary nanosecond. College coaches and athletic directors try to turn away from the phenomenon, as if shielding their eyes from the sun, but they do so at their peril. Relevancy with today's high school football savant is measured not in how many wins you have all-time or in how many of your coaches are in the College Football Hall of Fame, or how big your stadium is (to a 17-year old, a television audience is the real audience anyway) or what conference you play in and how many of its titles you own and so forth. To use a cliché, college football is a shotgun wedding where the exchange of vows asks what have you done for me lately.
To a high school football player the next great football powerhouse, check that, the current college football powerhouse is Oregon. Why? It's not because they are intertwined with and funded by an "it" company that has probably sold an athletic product to every high school players alive, nor is it because they play a fashion-forward style of football that appeals to the hyper-hormonal up and comer. Nope, it's because they win. The other stuff is recognized because of that fact, and without that fact they're just a school in a rainy town with cool uniforms.
The mistake Michigan made is that tripped and fell over its feelings of inadequacy, and they may not be able to get back up until they get back to the future on some things. They were humming along near the top of the Big Ten as recently as four years ago, flanking but slightly and securely behind Ohio State. They were going to BCS games, recruiting NFL bound quarterbacks, winning hearts and minds, and firmly situated in every discussion by the media as one of the elite teams. Then they ignored their manicured privilege, built up over years and years, and instead focused on their recent slide into the shadows of Columbus, Ohio and panicked. We're Michigan they thought, we deserve better and that somehow led them to Rich Rodriguez. Well, it has failed; in fact, it failed before it even got started. That's what the Athletic Director said today. "I don't think Rich Rodriguez has had a peaceful night sleep since he arrived in Ann Arbor," said Brandon. "I think that his three years here ... can somewhat be defined as three years of turmoil. It seems like it was one thing after another." Now they have a program in tatters, easily years away from winning big.
I would guess the average high school recruit looks at Michigan football in much the same way the average high school basketball player looks at the Fab Five: they don't. Okay, maybe that's hyperbole. Maybe. But just as Michigan's relevancy in basketball disappeared in a haze of smoke, called Brian Ellerbe, their football program is doing the same. It may not last forever but it will last for a while at least.
If you held the Iowa football program up to the light next to the Michigan program of today you will see a program that, I believe, and I believe most prospective coaches would believe, is a more desirable place to coach. I won't drone on about the irony of that given that the typical U of M fan was appalled at the notion of Kirk Ferentz being a candidate for their precious head coaching vacancy after they flushed Lloyd Carr. Coaches know though. They know where a good jobs are and where the good jobs were but are no longer. Fans and old media might think Michigan is hallowed ground, but today it's no more hallowed than those of Mississippi State to a high school senior.
We all know that Iowa can match any salary that Michigan can offer. So money, which used to be a major point of differentiation when it came to wooing a coach, is a non-factor. Facilities, which are basic requirements in luring a quality coach, at Iowa are already good and dramatically improving and will in all likelihood be superior to Michigan's facilities within 2 or 3 years.
But, really, coaching at Iowa can compare with being head man at Michigan? Think about it, If you are a hot coach you take a new job because you can win there of course, but at a greater level than where you are presently I would think. You also want to go to a program where you can win fairly soon, because new coaches are always on a short leash no matter how well received they were when hired. This reveals another problem that the once mighty Wolverines have right now.
Michigan is saddled with mediocre, if not awkward, personnel. The players on Michigan's roster, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, do not seem obviously translatable to any other scheme than they were recruited to play. In most cases, a new coach would require a new scheme. A roster overhaul would then be required for almost any new coach who takes over that program. Whereas Iowa has a roster that is filled with players that can best be described as malleable. As an example, if a coach were to want to install the ever-popular pass-spread offense at Iowa tomorrow he would have immediately, a QB that was one of the more highly prized QB recruits for that style of offense from two years ago in A.J. Derby. That is a small, but meaningful example.
Michigan is apparently bullied by a rotund, impatient, fickle alumni and fan base that will always be less controllable or mollifiable than the Iowa fan base. Any fan base that calls for the head of a coach the minute he goes 9-4 and wins the Capital One Bowl against an SEC power, and this following an 11-2 season that included a BCS bid to the Rose Bowl, is delusional. That was Lloyd Carr's most recent accomplishments, and he had just recruited Ryan Mallet, a hot prospect, but that still was not adequate proof that he was leveraging Michigan's national brand. So, alas, it did not matter that he also coached the team to a National Championship in his tenure. He was just not good, enough.
After running Lloyd Carr out of town, they found out that coaching prospects were not in such a hurry to follow -up his record. If Lloyd Carr and his Rose Bowl/BCS bid and hot recruiting and fresh bowl victory over the SEC were not good enough then just maybe nothing would ever be good enough. Well, short of winning National Championships. Wait, Lloyd did that too. Remember this, Greg Schiano, let me repeat that, Greg Schiano decided that Rutgers offered more long-term promise than did Michigan. He turned them down, with Ryan Mallet on the roster. Alum Les "LSU Fans Wish I Were Nick Saban" Miles decided he had more long-term promise in the vacillating confines of Baton Rouge than in Ann Arbor. Not good. Yes, Rich Rod was not in the original plans. But we're Michigan!
Today things are tough for Michigan. They are coachless and may not have an exit strategy. Reports are that hot coaches still are not dropping everything to interview. The truth is that Michigan is no better destination than Iowa. In fact, it might be worse than Iowa. It is a "once was" program that believes in all its heart it is a "now" program. But thousands of high school recruits know better. They just saw Mississippi State bury the Wolverines on national television without the use kryptonite or even a complex offensive scheme, just better players playing better football. Recruits know what's what; they know they don't need to go to Michigan to play on national TV or to be drafted into the NFL. They don't need to go to Michigan to play live in front of thousands of people either. And they know that they don't need to go to Michigan to play at a school that has a great reputation for academics.
Hell, they can do all that at Stanford, or even Iowa.