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Michigan Burned Itself By Delaying Decision On Rich Rodriguez

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon decided to wait until after the Gator Bowl to decide Rich Rodriguez's fate. After yesterday's media storm, one has to wonder why he did.

Is he fired? Does he still have a job? Are our trusted regional media outlets just making things up to mess with us?

All of these questions are currently swirling out of Ann Arbor after a tumultuous day where we ended up knowing as much about Rich Rodriguez's future as Michigan's head football coach as when it began: nothing. 

The only certain things that we've been able to gather from this entire mess is that athletic director David Brandon and Rodriguez met Tuesday afternoon for a lengthy period of time. When the meeting ended, nothing had been decided other than they would meet again today. The school denied all the reports that Rodriguez had been canned. The rest of us were left hanging like at the end of The Dark Knight. 

Is Two-Face really dead? What's going to happen to the Joker? Is there even going to be a third movie? Come on, you can't leave us like this!

When the dust settles, the general consensus seems to be that Rodriguez will be joining many fellow Michiganders in the unemployment line. The Detroit Free Press is sticking by its original assertion that the decision has been made and Rodriguez has been a lame duck the last month; the bowl fiasco against Mississippi State just sealed the deal. 

If that is indeed the case, the question now becomes this: why the hell did Brandon wait this long?

Even if Michigan had played better than they did--or even won--in the Gator Bowl, is an 8-5 record and a meaningless bowl win really the new goal at Michigan? Many Michigan fans certainly would say no.

In reality, there wasn't much expectation that Michigan would make enough of an improvement from the end of the Ohio State game to the Gator Bowl. The Michigan players talked a big talk about how the defense would play better because of the extra preparation time, but in the end this was the same record-setting defense that allowed the most points and yards in Michigan's illustrious history. Was there really a hope that they'd be able to turn this thing around in a month?

The logical answer is that Brandon wanted to wait until after the Orange Bowl to pursue Stanford coach and Michigan alum Jim Harbaugh. But now it appears that Harbaugh is no longer an option in Ann Arbor, as he's likely to stay at Stanford and continue to build his program or make the leap to the NFL. Reports leaked out Monday that Harbaugh to Michigan broke down over the weekend.

Waiting until after the Orange bowl--a full month after Michigan's final regular season game--seems to have been a serious miscalculation if that was indeed Brandon's vision for wooing Harbaugh. Instead of canning Rodriguez after the OSU debacle, Brandon waited until the Gator Bowl shellacking was over, giving Harbaugh a full month to think and rethink his career plans. 

Despite Michigan being his supposed dream job, it appears that returning to his beloved alma mater is no longer in those plans.

Had Michigan fired Rodriguez right away, they could have immediately started persuading Harbaugh and other potential suitors. The San Francisco 49ers, considered the leading NFL candidate to lure Harbaugh from Michigan, had not yet fired head coach Mike Singletary at the time the Ohio State game had concluded. If Michigan had contacted Harbaugh then, they would not have had to compete with the allure of an NFL team that Harbaugh can coach from his back porch in Palo Alto.

Now with Singletary out of the picture and Harbaugh still on the market, the 49ers have become a more attractive option than Michigan.

Other NFL teams are pouncing at the opportunity to land the Stanford coach as well. New Denver Broncos executive and Mr. Stanford himself John Elway was at the Orange Bowl on the Cardinal sideline, and it's widely speculated that he is also trying to acquire Harbaugh's services. The Carolina Panthers, who hold the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, are projected to take Stanford's Andrew Luck with the first pick. There's a thought that Harbaugh, who recruited and molded Luck, could follow him there. Vacancies in Oakland and possibly Miami are swirling as well.

By waiting, Brandon has opened up a vortex of NFL teams looking for the next big thing. It's a colossal mistake that may shorten his already short term as athletic director.

Not only has the waiting game doomed the chance of landing the most coveted coach on the market, but it's also damaged the incoming recruiting class. Hyped all-purpose tailback Dee Hart already switched his allegiances from Michigan to Alabama, citing the uncertain coaching situation in Ann Arbor. There's a good chance Hart would have decommitted if Rodriguez had been fired a month ago, but the new coach, whoever that may be, would've had that month to start working on his own recruiting class.

Now as we near the second week of January, more recruits are likely to follow suit if Brandon announces Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan is over. Rodriguez has spent his entire time at Michigan recruiting undersized, speedy players that fit his spread-option offense. A return to the old pro-style offense, which is what Michigan is expected to do, is sure to scare off whatever remained from the already diminished class. 

The expectations for the new coach are already going to be ridiculously high regardless of who it is. There's no way that person is going to be able to scrap together a Michigan-worthy recruiting class on such short notice--even with a miracle worker like Harbaugh.

That also leaves a question for the current players on the team. Quarterback Denard Robinson flourished this season under Rodriguez, but he is by no means your prototypical pocket quarterback. Perhaps he could make it under a new coach--at a different position such as running back--but Robinson wants to be a quarterback. When asked if he would leave if Rodriguez is let go, Robinson declined comment. Not a very reassuring response.

In the end, a switch to the pro-style offense means he would surely consider leaving school. His backup, Tate Forcier, already almost left earlier this season after he lost his starting job. Freshman quarterback Devin Gardner is also a prized Rodriguez recruit, but there's no telling what he's thinking at this moment.

And let's say by some stroke of luck Rodriguez talked his way into keeping his job. How many coveted recruits do you think he'll land for 2012 when's he's most likely going to be on the hot seat again next year? Unless Rodriguez is 12-0 and playing in the new Big Ten championship game, no highly regarded spread-option player is going to touch the program with a ten foot pole.

Maybe Michigan can still make a pitch for a plan B, such as San Diego State's Brady Hoke or Louisiana State's Les Miles. But to Michigan fans, anything less than Harbaugh in Maize and Blue is going to be a failure on almost every level.

Brandon maintained throughout this entire process that he would evaluate the entire program after the season was over. He never wavered from that plan. But delaying the decision to fire (or keep) Rodriguez has seriously hampered the football program.

Michigan will rebound from this fiasco, but it could be another two or three years before it does because of Brandon's choice to stick to his guns.