Ryan Kartje: It's time for the Rich Rodriguez era to come to a close
COLUMBUS — About midway through Saturday’s game that wasn’t a game, it became painfully clear that the writing was on the wall.
Or rather, the writing was on the Twitter feed.
@jayfeely: Kills me watching Michigan struggle like they have the last three years!! Not even competitive in Big Ten games. Time for a change
@jayfeely: @SBreaston15, (Alan) Branch, Gabe Watson all (of) us are beside ourselves watching this shell of what Michigan used to be.
@SBreaston15: Yikes! Smh (shaking my head)
The same debate has gone on for months, almost years now, but never had Michigan football alumni like Jay Feely or Steve Breaston so openly discussed their dismay. And as Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez sat uncomfortably in his press conference after the Wolverines’ seventh straight loss to Ohio State — this time a 37-7 shellacking — that debate had finally reached its breaking point.
So there he sat, on edge like we’d never seen him before, furiously insisting that he could do what he’s been saying he would do for three years.
“I took this job to make us the best program in America, and sometimes it takes a little longer to mold the program the way you want to mold it,” Rodriguez said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I’m not deterred one bit.
“I think the worst is behind us. I know it is.”
But after an utter embarrassment like Saturday — which, he’s right, was the worst of his tenure — that plea doesn’t mean quite as much as it did after his slew of previous disappointments.
Since his hiring, since 3-9, since 5-7, I have remained firmly in Rodriguez’s camp. The cupboard had been bare, injuries had decimated his team, he didn’t have the right staff: I used all of those excuses to justify keeping him. One more year. That’s all he needed, I thought.
But even I underestimated how much a game like Saturday’s meant. It might as well have been 2008 again — when Michigan lost 42-7 to Buckeyes — as the Wolverines couldn’t produce any offense, the defense got run over and there were no special teams.
Simply put, they just aren’t a 7-5-caliber team. And sure, for the first time in three years, Michigan is going to a bowl. But really, has Michigan played like a 7-5 team at any point this season?
The Wolverines barely hung on to beat depleted Purdue and FCS Massachusetts teams; they needed a final drive to beat Indiana and Notre Dame, triple overtime to beat Illinois, and they blew out a bad MAC team in Bowling Green. Those are teams with a combined record of 26-32.
Michigan’s one win to hang its hat on came in the season’s first game against Connecticut. But when it comes down to it, a marquee win in your third season should come against a team more impressive than an 8-4 squad from the Big East.
And maybe that’s the sad reality of this whole three-year debacle. That, all along, Rich Rodriguez was never going to take a less-talented team in a tough conference and coach them to big-time wins. He was never going to beat Ohio State on Saturday or Michigan State in October, simply because this Michigan team never had a chance at being that much more talented than the rest of its conference, like his West Virginia team was in the Big East.
That’s not because the spread offense won’t work in the Big Ten — it will and has. But for all the bells and whistles of Rodriguez’s and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s schemes, the Wolverines forgot to do one important thing the past three years — just execute and play fundamental football. That’s what Big Ten and Michigan football were built on from the beginning. It’s what we’ve seen from Mark Dantonio this season, 63 miles away in East Lansing.
It’s also what we’ve seen out of Jim Harbaugh, a guy many fans would love to see return to Ann Arbor. After all, in his first year at Stanford, Harbaugh’s 4-8 squad beat then-No. 2 USC in a game that the visiting Cardinal had no business winning. Now, Stanford is 11-1 and a top-5 team.
But Dave Brandon’s decision — which he said will come after the bowl game — should be much less about whether Michigan could get Harbaugh and much more about whether Rich Rodriguez has made progress and deserves to stay in Ann Arbor.
It’s a decision he’s had five months to think about, a question he should already know the answer to.
“Sometimes people see what they want to see,” Rodriguez said. "We’ve made progress. But not as much as a lot of folks want, not as much as I want.”
But on the field against Ohio State, there was nothing to see. There was no progress. There was just a team lacking any semblance of execution, a team that has beat itself more than its beat good Big Ten teams, a team moving in the wrong direction.
It was finally clear to me. Maybe Rich Rodriguez was never the right fit for Michigan and Michigan was never the right fit for Rich Rodriguez.
“Michigan will be back,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said after the game.
And it will, no doubt. But it’s clear as day now, after three of the worst years in Michigan football history, that it won’t be back with Rich Rodriguez as its coach.
-Kartje can be reached at email@example.com