A couple of weeks ago, I planted my flag on the Jim Harbaugh side of the Michigan football coaching divide that currently splits the Maize and Blue fanbase. As expected, that ticked off those who stand on the Rich Rodriguez side of the debate.
What was interesting to me, however, is that a few readers told me through e-mail and Twitter that it wasn't so much that I chose Team Harbaugh. They felt that I bought into the "Michigan man" groupthink so many have bought into as a reason to fire Rodriguez.
(I thought that was a reductive interpretation, but I did use the words "Michigan man" while touting Harbaugh's bona fides, so it's a fair criticism.)
So I began wondering whether or not so many would be pounding the drum for Harbaugh if he wasn't a former Michigan player. Probably not. But that's also kind of the point, isn't it? Those who want Harbaugh back in Ann Arbor prefer someone with ties to Michigan's football history, who is already familiar with the program's many traditions, and reminds them of the team's best days.
Believe me, I get all that. There's a romance in seeing a former player or coach come back to where they grew up and follow in the footsteps of those who came before him. And I generally feel the same way.
However, back in 2007, when then-athletic director Bill Martin was looking for Lloyd Carr's successor, I was among those asking why it was being a former Michigan player or assistant coach was such an important qualification.
What if the best candidate for the job had no previous association with the program? Should he be scratched off the list simply because he hadn't grown on the Bo Schembechler tree? Why limit the search for what would surely be one of the most sought-after jobs in college football?
Rumors that Martin was interested in hiring Iowa's Kirk Ferentz or Rutgers' Greg Schiano seemed to indicate that Martin was thinking along the same lines. He also may have been considering his legacy. This was a chance to create a new era for Michigan football, to break from the Schembechler tree that had its limbs wrapped around the program since 1969.
But LSU's Les Miles was also out there. And many fans wanted him to get the job, as he fulfilled all the "Michigan man" criteria. He played for Bo in the '70s. He coached under Bo in the '80s (first as a grad assistant, then offensive line coach). And he was in the midst of a national championship run that culminated in a victory over Ohio State in the BCS title game.
As we know, it never worked out between Miles and Michigan. Maybe Martin botched the search and interview proceedings. Maybe Miles just couldn't leave LSU with his team playing for a national title. Maybe hasty media reports that Miles was ready to leave for Michigan poisoned the entire process.
Regardless of the reason, Martin ended up making a bigger splash by snatching Rodriguez from West Virginia. Rodriguez was just the guy for those who wanted a break from the past. (I could probably include myself in that group.) He had no previous ties to the program. And his spread option offense was nowhere near the traditional power football and pro-style offense that Michigan had become accustomed to.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez and Michigan looked like a clumsy fit from the start. Misunderstandings such as naming team captains each week, rather for the season, or giving the No. 1 jersey to a player other than a wide receiver gave the "Michigan man" crowd more gasoline to soak their torches in.
Of course, these were small matters in the bigger picture. Change is never easy, and new traditions can be established. But little things take on far greater significance when expected success hasn't been achieved.
Ultimately, it's not about whether or not Rodriguez knew the words to "Hail to the Victors" or realized the significance of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. It's about winning games. Rodriguez hasn't met those expectations (especially as quickly as so many wanted), so the furor for his dismissal has gotten extremely loud.
And for the segment of the fanbase that feels Michigan football lost its way under a supposed outsider, the opportunity has now presented itself to get back on the right path.
Never mind that the history of the program includes coaches who were hired without previous association with the school. Yes, Bennie Oosterbaan and Bump Elliott played and coached at Michigan. But Fielding Yost played at West Virginia and Lafayette, and coached at five other schools. Fritz Crisler played at the University of Chicago and coached at Minnesota and Princeton. And, of course, Bo Schembechler came from Miami of Ohio (with coaching ties to Ohio State).
So when exactly did being a "Michigan man" become the primary qualification to be a coach in Ann Arbor?
Was it when Bo famously dismissed basketball coach Bill Frieder, who agreed to take the job at Arizona State after the 1989 season, and said "a Michigan man is going to coach a Michigan team"? Of course, Michigan fans ate that up. I was one of the people who said, "Hell, yes!" (My father, a lifelong Michigan man himself, loved it.) Frieder was walking out on his team. The school felt betrayed. And Bo drew a line in the sand, giving Michigan a mantra that lives on to this day.
Rodriguez obviously knows it's a knock against him in Ann Arbor. During his now-infamous speech at this year's football banquet, he pleaded for people (fans, administrators, boosters) to believe that he wanted to be a Michigan man. That's what Rodriguez thinks everyone wants to hear, especially those that hope Harbaugh gets his job after the new year.
I just wonder when the Michigan football community became so provincial. Or maybe it's always been this way, and it didn't become so apparent until someone outside the program was hired.
But let's say Harbaugh does indeed become the next football coach at Michigan, whether it happens after this season or next. There are several indications that Harbaugh's ultimate ambition is to coach in the NFL. What if he decides to chase that dream in five years and leaves Michigan looking for a new head coach?
Let's get even more hypothetical with this. What if Urban Meyer is out there waiting to get back into coaching after a few years of rest and recharging (assuming his health problems are no longer a concern)? Wouldn't he be considered a top candidate in any search? Or would Meyer somehow be disregarded because he's not a "Michigan man"?
The idea seems silly, doesn't it? Meyer is a great coach, and he's had his eye on Michigan before. Would getting a "Michigan man" be as important in the future as it seems to be now?