This past week Michigan offensive lineman and two-year starter Justin Boren left the Michigan football program claiming, “Michigan football was a family, built on mutual respect and support for each other from [former] coach [Lloyd] Carr on down. We knew it took the entire family, a team effort, and we all worked together. I have great trouble accept[ing] that those family values have eroded in just a few months.” We are guessing that a lot of Michigan fans, and football fans for that matter, are scratching their heads over why a proven player like Boren, whose father had played football at Michigan would leave the school and make such an stunning statement on the way out the door. What a lot of college football fans do not realize is that there are dramatic differences in the way that coaches handle their football teams, and Michigan just happens to be in one of the most dramatic coaching changes situations in recent memory. Before we deal directly with the changes that are going on at Michigan, lets look back into history a few decades and see how we got to where we are today.
Anyone that is older than 40 years of age and played high school football can probably identify with a very particular style of coaching. That style of coaching can be summed up in one word: FEAR! Most high school coaches in the post World War II era took their cues from the leading coaches of the day, Paul Bryant, Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal, Bo Schembechler, and others, and those coaches style of was based on the idea that you had better damn well perform or I am going to put you through a living hell. Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, and of course Bobby Knight at Indiana imposed this “Fear” style of coaching as well on their players, and it was generally accepted that only if one’s players feared the consequences of not performing, would they perform at their highest level. Fear of course stirs all kinds of emotions in people, and most people are willing to accept the fear of not performing and accept the consequences, if they believe that their bosses, coaches in this case, really care about them and their futures. It doesn’t take one long when istening to former players of Bryant’s, Hayes’, Schembechler’s, and the other great coaches of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, to understand that they not only respected those coaches, but that they also loved them for asking so much of them when they were in college playing football. Football began to change though in the early 1970s with first John McKay at Southern Cal, and then Tom Osborne at Nebraska, who still demanded a lot of their players, but coached with a style that was not based on “Fear.” McKay and Osborne asked a lot of their players, but they also treated their players more like adults, expecting that not only that they would act like adults in all phases of their lives, but that as adults they will perform at a high-level when playing football, because that is what adults do in life. We really doubt that the practices at Southern Cal and Nebraska were that much different than what was going on at Alabama and Ohio State in the decade of the 70s, but there was certainly a different tone and approach by the teams respective head coaches, and that difference was obvious for anyone that bothered to pay attention and see what was really going on.
By the time the early 1980s rolled around, Paul Bryant was telling his friends and fellow coaches that, “I just can’t coach them anymore.” Woody Hayes removed himself from the coaching world by punching a player at the Gator Bowl, and the rise of the Miami Hurricanes, first led by Howard Schellenberger (a Paul Bryant protege’, but with a much different approach to coaching the game), and then Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson won a boatload of National Championships, which dramatically changed the game of college football. Clearly, there was a new style of coaching and a different type of player on college campuses, and some head football coaches changed their coaching styles with the times. Some coaches did not, Pat Dye, Jackie Sherrill, Charley Pell, Woody Hayes, and John Mackovic come to mind, and they paid for their lack of ability to change with the loss of their jobs. To understand a coach that was trained in the “old school” method, but adapted very well to the new age, look no further than Gene Stallings and his 7 year tenure at Alabama in the 1990s. Stallings was one of the “Junction Boys” at Texas A&M under Bryant, but after failing in head coaching jobs at Texas A&M and with the NFL St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals, Stallings arrived at Alabama in 1990 realizing that the old ways would just not work with the players of this generation. That is not to say that Gene Stallings asked any less of his players at Alabama, but that he went about demanding a lot, but always stressing that the underlying idea that made Paul Bryant a great football coach. Coach Stallings would probably describe it as something like, “We are demanding a lot of you (the players), because we think you have a lot in you, and if you are going to wear an Alabama football uniform then we expect you to play at the highest level possible. Just because we yell at you doesn’t mean we don’t love you, but it does mean you are not performing at your highest level. We are not going to ask anything of you that you cannot do, and if you trust us as coaches, then we will trust you as players. Now lets go win some football games.” Stallings overall approach to the game is not much different than Bryant’s, but the tone is much different, and that brings us back to the arrival of Rich Rodriguez at Michigan.
We have never seen Michigan practice under Rodriguez, but we have seen Rodriguez’s practices at West Virginia and we have talked to players that played for Rodriguez. Before we describe what we have been told about Rodriguez’s coaching style, let us first look at where Rodriguez learned how to coach and the impact of people he has worked for influences how he coaches today. First of all, a very clear line can be drawn between Paul Bryant and Rich Rodriguez, and that line runs through Bobby Bowden who counted Paul Bryant as one of his best friends, down through Tommy Bowden, who Rodriguez worked for at Tulane and Clemson. In total, Rodriguez worked for Tommy Bowden for 4 years (Tulane and Clemson), before taking the head coaching job at West Virginia, and no doubt Rodriguez’s general approach to conditioning and practicing comes from Tommy Bowden, which is straight out of what Bobby Bowden has done during his career. Another very important ingredient into Rodriguez’s approach to coaching that cannot be discounted was the time that Rick Trickett spent on the staff at West Virginia. Rick Trickett is now the offensive line coach at FSU, arriving with Jimbo Fisher before last season, but for 6 years at West Virginia Trickett was a key cog in helping to build the spread offense that Rodriguez ran in Morgantown. Now, we have not seen the current Michigan offensive line coach, Jeff Frey at practice, but we have seen Rick Trickett in action, and although we could launch into a long analysis of how Coach Trickett handles his linemen, lets just say that a few of us here at Coaches Hot Seat that have been through combat in the US military, would probably not last for more than half-a-day with Trickett coaching us. If you talk to former players that played for Trickett, the gamut of emotions runs from hate to grudging respect, but the one theme that runs through many conversations is how “personal” Trickett was towards the players and their ability to either play or not play the game of football. Since Trickett is not on the Michigan staff and we have never seen Jeff Frey coach, we have no idea what is going on at the Michigan spring practices, but if you read the entire statement by the former Michigan offensive lineman Justin Boren, it is easy to understand from our point of view exactly what he is talking about. Rodriguez’s style of coaching, which is a lot closer to Paul Bryant than Lloyd Carr, surely must be quite a shock to the Michigan players who have been accustomed to a far different style of coaching in recent years. Although we are not extremely familiar with Carr’s style, we would certainly place him in a camp similar to Gene Stallings tenure at Alabama, where a lot was asked of his players, but that there was a very clear line between demanding a lot and personal attacks when a player is not getting the job done. Of course, one doesn’t have to look hard to see the major difference between West Virginia under Rodriguez in recent years, and the West Virginia team that Bill Stewart took to the Fiesta Bowl and beat Oklahoma. The quotes in the papers by the West Virginia players at the Fiesta Bowl that they “were having fun” for the first time during their careers were fascinating, and the general feeling around the WVU program at the Pittsburgh game last season and the Fiesta Bowl was like night and day.
We were not surprised at all with the departure of Justin Boren from the Michigan program, and in fact we have been expecting a few players to depart Ann Arbor once spring practice began. Rodriguez has a very direct and specific way he is going to run his football program, and the type of players he wants to play at Michigan. Much like Nick Saban at Alabama, Rodriguez has very little patience for players that do not buy into his system, and the change from Mike Shula to Nick Saban was certainly as large as the change at Michigan from Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez. Getting to the bottom line of what Boren’s departure from the Michigan program really means, we fully expected a handful of players to not adapt well to the Rodriguez style of coaching, and Boren is just one of the guys that thrives under a different style than what Rich Rod has brought to Ann Arbor. Certainly, Boren will probably find Jim Tressel’s style of coaching at Ohio State to be a lot closer to what he expects in a head coach, and we would not be surprised to see Boren end up in Columbus. We have no doubt that Rodriguez, who has already been through two major coaching changes, first when he arrived with Tommy Bowden at Clemson, and when he took over at West Virginia, believed that a handful of players would not react well to his style of coaching, and that it would take a few years to implement his system at Michigan. That is to be expected, but lets hope that the people doing the hiring and firing of football coaches at Michigan realize that by hiring Rich Rodriguez they have departed down a path that is much different than Michigan has traveled on since the very earliest days of Bo Schembechler’s arrival at Ann Arbor. We believe Rodriguez will win at Michigan, but the path between today and the winning program that all Michigan fans want and demand is going to be a lengthy one, and it is not going to be wine and roses along the way.
From a more personal point of view, we here at Coaches Hot Seat debated recently on who we would want our sons to play for if they were hot shot high school football players and had the choice to attend any school in the country on a football scholarship. After seeing most of the major football programs play and practice in the last 18 months, there are some very clear coaches and schools that stand out from the others, and after a vote from the group, here are the top 12 coaches/schools that we would recommend that our sons play for, that is they would listen to us at all! We picked these coaches on two main issues: 1. The head football coach and 2. The opportunity to win championships.
1. Pete Carroll/Southern Cal
2. Jim Tressel/Ohio State
3. Mark Richt/Georgia
4. Bob Stoops/Oklahoma
5. Mack Brown/Texas
6. Frank Beamer/Virginia Tech
7. Nick Saban/Alabama
8. Urban Meyer/Florida
9. Gary Pinkel/Missouri
10. Jeff Tedford/Cal
11. Ron Zook/Illinois
12. Jim Grobe/Wake Forest
We will be watching the Rich Rodriguez situation at Michigan closely, not only to see how the transition is going, but also how this lawsuit over Rodriguez’s buyout at West Virginia shakes out. Just in this last week lawyers for Rodriguez and West Virginia have been accusing each other of acting in bad faith, and as we have said from the start, it is in the best interests of both sides, but especially Rich Rodriguez to settle this issue out of court. The contract that Rich Rodriguez signed is very clear, and in the end whatever West Virginia told or promised Rodriguez is going to be irrelevant in the court of public opinion, and even more importantly in the minds’ of potential Michigan recruits and their parents for that matter. The damage that is being done to Rodriguez over this buyout issue with West Virginia is incalculable, and for what, a few million dollars? If we were advising Rodriguez, and we certainly don’t imagine he would take our advice, we would tell him to personally call the president at West Virginia and settle this entire matter, which could probably be done in about 15 minutes. There has got to be an amount between $1.5 million and $4.0 million where this buyout issue can be settled, but a settlement assumes that their are mature adults handling this problem, and that is most certainly not the case here.
Now back to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and what a joy it is to watch a tournament that determines a legitimate National Champion!