It's January 2008 and new Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez has officially taken the reigns from former coach Lloyd Carr. Rodriguez plans to drastically overhaul the Michigan program and implement his vaunted spread offense in Ann Arbor.
Step one: get a quarterback that can run the spread.
At the top of that list is Pennsylvania quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is a beast on the field and is not only the top rated spread quarterback, but the top rated overall quarterback in the nation. Though Rodriguez gets a late start in the process, Michigan jumps to the top of his list along with Ohio State and Penn State.
After a lot of back and forth between the three schools, Pryor picks Ohio State in March. For Ohio State, it's the first of many big wins over Rodriguez.
Rodriguez never got on track at Michigan after that first defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes. He was forced to run his offense with non-spread quarterbacks Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet in his first year; the result was a disastrous 3-9 campaign that already had the Michigan faithful screaming for his head. Successive seasons of 5-7 and 7-6 records did not help quell his detractors. Rodriguez is now gone three years later, leaving behind the crumbled remains of a once-proud program.
But maybe that first defeat was actually a big win for Michigan.
With the news about Pryor's seemingly endless list of NCAA violations now out, one can only wonder what would have happened had Rodriguez landed the prized quarterback. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was forced resign after it was clear he had covered up the whole fiasco. Ohio State faces an NCAA investigation which could lead to many things, among the least of which are a loss of scholarships, vacating wins and possibly a bowl ban.
Before Rodriguez, Michigan football had a spotless record with the NCAA. The football program could do no wrong and had done no wrong in its 130-plus years of existence. If Pryor becomes a Wolverine, does he still break the rules as vigorously as he did in Columbus? Does the Michigan atmosphere change his tone?
That brings us back to Rodriguez. In 2009, just his second season at the helm, Rodriguez is found to be violating NCAA practice time rules by the Detroit Free Press. Michigan is charged with five major violations, four of which Michigan admits to and places sanctions on itself. The NCAA accepts the Michigan sanctions and tacks on a third year of probation to the program, also dropping the last major charge (that Rodriguez failed to promote an "atmosphere" of compliance).
Michigan football on probation? What is this, Bizzaro World?
While the Wolverines didn't fire Rodriguez outright then, the investigation didn't help his cause. The whole debacle brought back bad memories of the 1990s Michigan basketball scandal when Chris Webber, Robert Traylor and others took hundreds of thousands of dollars from booster Ed Martin. The ensuing sanctions and postseason bans destroyed the program for nearly a decade.
The football violations took a physical and mental (see: Josh Groban incident) toll on Rodriguez and after the Wolverines got blown out in the Gator Bowl he was as good as done.
It wasn't just at Michigan that Rodriguez had left a stain on a program. West Virginia went under investigation as well in 2010 for violations committed under the Rodriguez administration.
The reason I mention all of this is that under Rodriguez the adherence to the rules seemed to loosen quite a bit. Coach Carr had a reputation as a no-nonsense guy. If you got in Carr's doghouse, you had a hard time getting out (just ask ABC sideline reporter Todd Harris). Had Pryor signed with Michigan and played under Rodriguez for the last three years, there's a strong possibility that Rodriguez looks the other way, much like Tressel did.
And maybe that is why so many players initially left the program when Rodriguez arrived on the scene. Offensive lineman Justin Boren famously left the team for Ohio State, citing a lack of family values. Quarterback Ryan Mallett, who was the No. 2 quarterback in the country when he was recruited, was told he had no place on the team because he wasn't a spread quarterback. Really? You're going to go with Steven Threet over Ryan Mallet? Yeah, THAT will work out.
Under Carr, there's no way Pryor gets away with the things he got away with. A former Bo Schembechler protégé, Carr would never place a player above the program he held so dear. With Rodriguez, it's not so cut and dry.
When the school responds to player violations the NCAA usually doesn't come knocking. It's when they cover it up that the NCAA brings the hammer down.
The practice violations by Michigan would have happened whether Pryor came here or not. That was a coaching staff issue and there's nothing that a single recruit could have changed. The probation of the program was inevitable. But if Pryor had indeed come to Michigan and was as reckless as he was at Ohio State, Michigan could be facing more than just probation right now. The practice violations seem insignificant compared to other scandals at Auburn and Oregon, but with Pryor's little merchandising racket piled on top it could have been disastrous for the Michigan program.
By now, we all know the story. Pryor signs with Ohio State and proceeds to destroy arch-rival Michigan over the next three years. It's the main reason why Rodriguez is now gone from the program.
But by not signing Pryor, Michigan avoided a possible landslide of NCAA sanctions. By not signing Pryor, Rodriguez fails miserably in Ann Arbor. By not signing Pryor, Michigan lands Brady Hoke as its next head coach, who has already accumulated one of the best recruiting classes in the country for 2012.
By not signing Pryor, Michigan football looks like its back on the right track while Ohio State looks like it's about to hit rock bottom.
Michigan should be thanking Pryor for not choosing them. Ohio State is probably wishing the same right now.