Michigan football is being held hostage.
And a large portion of Wolverine Nation is absolutely thrilled.
If you don't believe there is a crisis, then ask the recruits whose decisions to sign with Michigan are hanging on the decision of AD Dave Brandon, who awaits the decision of Stanford's Jim Harbaugh. The program wouldn't have a gun in its back if Rich Rodriguez had some sort of vote of confidence. Instead Brandon has said he won't make a decision on his coach's future until after Saturday's Gator Bowl.
|The top candidate for Michigan's head coaching job, Jim Harbaugh has yet to sign a contract extension with Stanford. (Getty Images)|
Then? Well, seldom has a coach in a Jan. 1 bowl been hung out to dry like a piece of jerky. But Rodriguez should be used to a hard-bitten coaching life. He left West Virginia months after signing an extension and weeks before the Mountaineers played in the Fiesta Bowl. Then there was a bitter battle over his buyout.
So any sympathy has to be tempered with the idea that all of this has some sort of karma behind it. But before you toss him aside, Michigan, there is a bit of hypocrisy here. You wanted Rodriguez. You wanted him bad after Lloyd Carr's energy level (recruiting, ahem, ability) was perceived to have waned. RichRod's spread option was the offense du jour, one that was needed to catch up with the times.
It just hasn't worked out. Not to this point. Rodriguez is still a hell of a coach, and Michigan is still a hell of a program. Sometimes relationships don't work out. Rodriguez's third regular season in Ann Arbor ended 33 days ago with halting progress, a 7-5 campaign that included some defensive liabilities.
Thirty-three days. That's a long time for a coach to run his program with a noose around his neck, waiting for the chair to be kicked out from under him. RichRod speculation overwhelmed bowl anticipation from the get-go.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez can't answer the question recruits are asking: "How long are you going to be there?" Still, recruits and their parents know the answer before they ask it -- not for long, if it's up to Brandon, who is channeling the majority of his constituents at this point.
It's obvious Brandon is willing to trade short-term damage to recruiting for a shot at Stanford's coach. And if not Harbaugh, then Brady Hoke. If not Hoke, then Les Miles.
But what if none of the former Michigan men are available? After all, at least a couple of NFL teams (San Francisco, Carolina) could take a run at Harbaugh. Miles has indicated he's happy at LSU, but that could change the next time he fails to convert on fourth down. He has been ticked in the past for not being appreciated more in Baton Rouge. Hoke, at San Diego State, has made it known he would crawl to Ann Arbor. But the former Michigan defensive line coach (he actually played at Ball State) has been a head coach for eight seasons, none at the BCS level.
The fallback position might be Urban Meyer now that the Florida coach is showing signs of that burnout being B.S. Keep Rodriguez for another season and make him revamp the defensive staff while Meyer recharges his batteries doing color commentary. The year-long deep breath has been done before. Ask Tommy Tuberville.
The ideal choice is in South Florida this week leading the Cardinal to a BCS bowl. For a guy who has been a I-A head coach for only four years, Harbaugh is seen as the next schematic and motivational savant. His quirky nature aside, he gets results. His quarterback, Andrew Luck, could be the first player taken in the draft. Harbaugh's style fits the Michigan profile -- or at least what Michigan used to be. He runs a pro-style offense. His teams are physical. He keeps close a CD recording of Bo Schembechler's pregame speech before the 1988 Notre Dame game. He has accomplished all this within the academic strictures of Stanford.
"The way he runs practices, the way [weight] lifts are set up, the way team runs are set up, you're going to go through some adversity at some point," Luck said. "It's not just going to be a game [when] you're going to have a tough time. A big part of his philosophy is making it competitive and tough on guys during practice, during a run, during a lift."
Part of that philosophy is that quirkiness. When his wife, Sarah, was pregnant with their first child, Luck said the coach had a baby-naming contest one day in the quarterback room.
"The name we came up with was 'Pick,' " Luck said.
Harbaugh isn't that quirky. That's why by now Michigan fans have overlooked their former quarterback's dissing of his alma mater 3½ years ago. "Michigan is a good school and I got a good education there, but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in ...."
They're also willing to overlook a five-year-old bust for driving under the influence while with the University of San Diego. Harbaugh eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving.
Even if Harbaugh is Michigan's coach by next week, there remains something unsavory about the whole process. This has been the month of ADs behaving badly. Ralph Friedgen was fired at Maryland when he wouldn't quit after becoming ACC Coach of the Year. Bill Stewart has been a witness to his own professional demise at West Virginia, actually participating in the hiring of coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen, who will replace him in 2012.
There is speculation that Brandon has waited so as to fire Rodriguez on the cheap, delaying until after Jan. 1 to make a decision because the coach's buyout decreases from $4 million to $2.5 million. Michigan already paid $2.5 million of Rodriguez's West Virginia buyout to get him to Ann Arbor, so money shouldn't be a consideration.
The Rodriguez camp isn't pleased. If the coach stays, recruiting will suffer because of the drawn-out process. According to research compiled by Rodriguez's camp and obtained by CBSSports.com, "Rich Rodriguez was right when he said not even Vince Lombardi could solve the current problems [at Michigan]. At least Lombardi was able to send men to battle men; Rodriguez has had to send teenagers to battle men."
Rodriguez's supporters say the blame should be on Carr because of his final two recruiting classes in 2006 and 2007. In Michigan's five losses this season, the winning team had an average of 11.95 more starting fourth-year seniors than the Wolverines, according to the stats. If Michigan doesn't have a player drafted in 2011, only five will have been drafted in Rodriguez's first three seasons. The previous Michigan low over a three-year period was nine from 1984-86. Again, this is being blamed on Carr.
In the meantime, Brandon and those fans are drooling at the prospect of landing Harbaugh -- the quarterback who happened to be drafted the next year in 1987. Almost a quarter-century later, there is a hostage crisis that goes two ways.
"We got used to it [Harbaugh's job speculation] after my freshman year," said Luck, now a junior. "Whenever we saw his name ... we were all freaking out, 'Who is going to replace him? Are they going to go in-house, out-house?'
"We're just used to it now."