During the Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr eras of Michigan football, it would often irritate me when a contingent of Wolverines fans thought a 9-3 or 8-4 record wasn't good enough. They wanted a new coach who could supposedly win more games and compete on a national level with the talent that Michigan brought in.
Maybe that didn't represent the majority of Michigan fans. Perhaps I let the more vocal wing of the fanbase -- the one that calls into local sports talk radio and posts on message boards -- color my perception.
But I always thought this was crazy talk. These fans didn't know how good they had it. No, Michigan didn't always have that breakout year (1997 being an obvious exception), but you could count on it being consistent. The program never took the dip that so many other celebrated schools -- such as Oklahoma, Alabama, USC and Notre Dame -- suffered.
That is, until 2008 when Rich Rodriguez took over as head coach. Though a step back seemed inevitable, given the drastic change in offensive philosophies and overhaul of the roster that required, it was surprising just how far Michigan fell under its new coach. Welcome to the dip.
As jolting as it was to see Michigan win only three games after going 40 years without a losing record, patience seemed to be in order. Rodriguez had a track record of success at his previous stops, turning Glenville State and West Virginia around within a season or two after that initial upheaval. He's arguably made the same progress in his three years at Michigan, going from three wins to five. Then to seven wins and a Gator Bowl berth this season.
That looks like improvement. But it also feels like the bar has been lowered. I can't help but think about how many Michigan fans would have been stomping up and down at a seven-win season before Rodriguez took over. Now I'm among those wondering if this is really good enough. Oh, so much has changed.
It's not just that Michigan is losing games they used to win. On some level, I can handle that (though I'm certainly not used to the Wolverines being in the upper tier of the Big Ten). It's watching them get pushed around on the football field that truly bothers me. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema saying that a Michigan team "can't stop [our] running game" isn't acceptable.
It doesn't matter how dazzling Rodriguez's spread offense is and how many points it scores. Getting bulldozed by opposing offensive linemen and running backs (with their coaches basically laughing at how easy it is) can't happen if Michigan is to compete in the Big Ten. And even if that spread offense and Rodriguez's philosophy of smaller, quicker players might perform well against teams on a national level (which we haven't seen yet), contending for a national championship is out of the question if Michigan can't win its own conference.
There's unhappiness and tension in Ann Arbor now. The fanbase is divided. One side thinks Rodriguez deserves at least one more season to build on the progress he's made. While others -- a vocal majority, perhaps? -- feel that a three-year run that includes a 6-18 record in the Big Ten, a defense that has surrendered 1,083 points, and NCAA violations is enough to justify moving on. (And even if those were trumped-up charges, the words "NCAA violations" and "Michigan football" had never before been in the same sentence.)
Escalating matters, of course, is the presumed availability of Jim Harbaugh. Rodriguez would likely be receiving far more patience and understanding if such a beloved former player wasn't looming over the program.
Not only is Harbaugh a "Michigan man," one of the school's best quarterbacks and leaders in recent memory, and a disciple of Bo Schembechler. But Harbaugh would also bring back a familiar brand of football. Stanford plays power football, and succeeds with it in the Pac-10, where speed is often believed to be superior over strength and size.
And Harbaugh has accomplished this without compromising the principles that so many Michigan fans claim to hold true. You might recall he caused a major uproar in Ann Arbor three years ago when he criticized the athletic department for not maintaining the standards it promoted. Some viewed that as a betrayal, an attempt to make himself and Stanford look better. But what Harbaugh said was true, and he was right to call his alma mater out for not living up to its reputation.
Harbaugh isn't afraid to shake things up. When he took over at Stanford, he stood up to Pete Carroll and refused to meekly accept USC's dominance in the Pac-10. He wasn't pleading for patience or talking about how many underclassmen were on the field for him. Do you think Harbaugh would stand for Bielema talking about how fun it was to run up 48 points on a Michigan defense? Might he be a bit bolder about the Wolverines regaining their status in the Big Ten and competing with Ohio State for conference championships?
Perhaps most importantly, Harbaugh likely wouldn't take a moment meant for his players and make it about himself. That's essentially what Rodriguez did last week at the Michigan football banquet when he talked about the toll that his uncertain job status has taken on his family, asked fans to believe that he wants to be a Michigan man, quoted Josh Groban lyrics and asked everyone to join him in a sing-along.
Maybe Rodriguez is a good man who's been pushed to desperate measures by heavy criticism. Certainly, no one wants to be fired. And this was the behavior of a man who hopes to keep his job. Rodriguez might want to raise Michigan up, but that kind of conduct just lets the school and its supporters down.
Given more time, perhaps Rodriguez would succeed at Michigan. But he may also just be a good coach who's a bad fit in Ann Arbor. Athletic director Dave Brandon presumably has an objective view of this, since he didn't hire Rodriguez. As a former player and experienced corporate executive, these are the sorts of concerns Brandon has to be mulling over right now while a coach, players and fanbase are left to wonder what decision he'll make.
But if Brandon really wanted to keep Rodriguez, why is he waiting? Is there really something he'll learn over the next month that might change his mind? Does he want to see how Rodriguez handles himself and goes about his business during the 15 practices the team will have in preparation for the Gator Bowl? Is he just trying to be fair, letting a coach and players enjoy the rewards of a tough season?
Or is he trying to do the right thing through this whole process, to avoid looking like the bad guy by disrupting both Michigan and Stanford with a coaching search? Harbaugh surely doesn't want to talk about it now, so why risk any sort of rejection in the press? (Rodriguez's contract might provide another reason to wait. But buyout and notice clauses seem like rather small obstacles, and such matters would surely be negotiated if a dismissal took place.)
Of course, if Rodriguez posts an impressive victory in the Gator Bowl, making a coaching change could be an awkward endeavor. But this was already going to be a hard choice.
If Michigan is going to make a change, and bring in the one coach that might justify replacing Rodriguez, this might be the only opportunity to do so. The San Francisco 49ers might want to keep Harbaugh in the Bay Area. Yes, Stanford has also offered a better contract, but that seems like standard operating procedure for reassuring recruits. (Stanford's AD, Bob Bowlsby, has experience in such matters. He did the same thing with Kirk Ferentz when he ran the Iowa athletic department.)
Five years ago on my old sports blog, I predicted Harbaugh would eventually take over as Michigan football coach. (I presumed, however, that Lloyd Carr would stick around a bit longer and give Harbaugh time to earn his bona fides at Stanford.) Circumstances have created a fit that is too natural to deny, even if it renders Rodriguez an unfortunate (and perhaps undeserving) coaching casualty.
Harbaugh is the right coach for Michigan, Michigan is the right place for him. The time to make that change is now.