John U. Bacon has spent years writing about University of Michigan athletics. A few months ago, Bacon released his book "Three and Out," which he wrote after spending three seasons around the Wolverines football program under Rich Rodriguez. Recently, I caught up with Bacon to talk about Michigan football, the dynamic between Lloyd Carr and Rodriguez and the climate around the program between "old" and "new" media.
Feldman: What do you think is the biggest misconception most folks had about Rodriguez in his time at Michigan?
Bacon: That he was a bad guy who didn’t care about tradition, the rules or his players. From everything I saw, that was far from the case – and I believe his players would agree. Rodriguez took too long to learn Michigan’s gospel, and preached it too rarely from the pulpit, but privately he hammered home the value of Michigan tradition with his team every chance he had. The contrast was striking – and puzzling. Why not say all that when the cameras are rolling? Before his noon work out, he called down every day to make sure no players remained in the room, lest his presence be interpreted as “coaching.” And as for caring about his players, just ask Brock Mealer, Elliott’s brother, whom Rodriguez invited to work out with the strength staff to learn to walk again after his car accident, then asked to be the first man to touch the banner when they rededicated the stadium in 2010. Part of this problem was Rodriguez’s, however, who displayed little knack for public relations.
Feldman: If Michigan had given Rodriguez one more season, how do you think the 2011 year would've gone on the field for the Wolverines?
Bacon: I can imagine two scenarios. The first goes like this: Rodriguez lets his defensive staff go, and A.D. Dave Brandon gives him the same checkbook he gave Brady Hoke to get the best coaches out there. (Hoke’s defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, will make $900,000 this season, more than three times the salaries of Rodriguez’s two DC’s.) With an easier schedule, Ohio State in trouble, Denard Robinson entering his second season leading Rodriguez’s spread offense, and 19 of 22 starters returning, it’s not hard to think they would go 10-2 or even better this year, and be poised to build on that for Robinson’s senior season.
The other scenario goes like this: After the team finally caved in at the Gator Bowl, everyone had had enough of the endless pressure and debate over their coach’s tenure, and the team tanks after losing to Notre Dame. For the first scenario to occur, Dave Brandon would have to commit publicly to Rodriguez for another 2-3 years, and he obviously was not prepared to do that. Perhaps few AD’s would have been. But, obviously, we’ll never know.
Feldman: Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr does not come across well in your book. I feel like in many cases coaches often have a tense relationship with the guy who they just followed or the guy who is just following them. What was the most surprising thing that Carr did?
Bacon: Transitions are hard for every organization, and harder still for established college football programs, where tradition is sacrosanct and coaches become icons. Handling this well is the rare exception, not the rule. The coach who follows you is going to do things differently, like it or not, and if he succeeds, your critics will say he’s better than you were, and if he fails, they will say you set him up for failure. It is truly a no-win situation. On the rare occasions when it does work well, the former coach helps the new guy every way he can – including staying out of the way at important times – and the new coach pays homage to his predecessor every chance he gets. Bump Elliott and Bo Schembechler handled it almost perfectly, as did Darrell Royal and Mack Brown. (Although Texas hired three coaches between the two, Royal is still the icon in Austin.) Coach Carr and Rodriguez, to understate the case considerably, did not.
The most surprising thing Carr did – and it took me a while to appreciate the significance of this – was call Rodriguez on December 10, 2007, to sell him on the job, pitch Rodriguez to then-AD Bill Martin the next day, and then, right after Rodriguez was named Michigan’s next head coach on December 17, 2007, call an unexpected meeting to let his players know if they wanted to transfer, he would sign the release form – a stunning, pre-emptive vote of no-confidence. The reporting on all these events comes directly from eyewitnesses – but I still can’t explain it. Their relationship started off badly, and only got worse.
Feldman: Have you heard from Carr or people close to him since the book came out trying to explain some of the things your wrote about that he did?
Bacon: No. And the silence, even for the taciturn Carr, has been striking. When Coach Carr had been accused by former Michigan All-American quarterback Rick Leach, among others, of not supporting Rich Rodriguez, Carr readily found a friendly reporter that same week to send a message, on the record, in support of Rich Rodriguez. He has not responded to anything inThree and Out, nor have Dave Brandon or the Detroit Free Press reporters, who have not normally been noted for their passivity.
Feldman: You detailed a very interesting scene in the wake of Countable Hours controversy there between members of the local media there between "old media" and "new media." I know it's often odd when media becomes part of the story. Was that dynamic brewing there for a while and how do you think that has affected coverage of a college program?
Bacon: Good catch, Bruce. First, as you point out, few journalists like to report on other journalists. But when we considered downplaying or even omitting the Detroit Free Press front page story, which claimed Rodriguez had wildly and willfully exceeded the limits on practice time, it was clear that was impossible, as it had become a central part of the Rodriguez saga – and by design, it should be noted.
This set up the conflict you describe, which occurred the day after the story came out, when Rodriguez addressed it at a press conference. Brian Cook, who founded MGoBlog, a powerful website, approached Mark Snyder and Michael Rosenberg of the Free Press to ask if they knew the difference between “countable’ and “uncountable” hours – the very distinction on which the rule pivots, but one never mentioned in their piece. The argument itself didn’t amount to much, except how it underscored the growing chasm between traditional print reporting and untraditional journalists. As someone who works on both sides, I can say both have their strengths, but during the three years I was inside the program, you could see the balance of power shift to the new guys. They usually lack the level of access and sources traditional reporters have, but, perhaps as a result, they worry less about whom they might offend.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the book has been hashed out in great detail by the writers and readers of the websites devoted to sports in general and Michigan football in particular, yet in both Detroit papers only one story even addressed it, and still left out the information above. Perhaps that proves your point. For good or ill – and perhaps plenty of both -- we are already well into a new era.
Of course, what we need are reporters with both access and the courage to report what they’ve found – but those seem to be in short supply these days. I was not surprised to see the person who broke the Penn State story was not a beat reporter for a TV or radio station or the sports sections in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or State College, but a 24-year-old crime reporter from the Patriot-News in Harrisburg named Sara Ganim. Kudos to Ms. Ganim – and shame on the rest of us. We need to do better.