"Three and Out": Rich Rodriguez's tenure at the University of Michigan

Oct 28, 2011

In the summer of 2008, Rich Rodriguez granted me unfettered access to the Michigan football program so I could write a book.

Three years later the book is finished, and not with a happy ending.

Similar to just about everybody else connected to Michigan football these past three years, I had no idea what I was getting into. 

During my three years following the Michigan football team, the working title of the book changed from “All or Nothing,” to “All In,” to “Third and Long,” before Rodriguez’s last season, and after he was fired, to “Three and Out.”

At first, I thought I was watching the football version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Then, maybe “Shawshank Redemption.”  Guy gets dumped on, but comes through.

Then, I finally realized I was watching “Titanic.”  The unsinkable ship goes down.

The hottest coach in America takes over the winningest program in the nation – and the marriage seemingly made in heaven ends in an ugly divorce.

While the target moved many times, the central goal of the book did not: show what it’s really like to be a college football player and coach. Both are a lot harder than I ever imagined. The players put in 16-hour days – and the coaches put in more.

In college football, the best thing to be is not a coach or a player, but a fan.  Enjoy your Saturdays. 

But those fans want to know who’s to blame for the three most tumultuous years in the history of Michigan football.  To answer that, I’ll quote Oscar Wilde, who was probably not discussing the Rodriguez Era when he wrote, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple,” but he nailed it.

If I had to boil it down, the Rodriguez era failed for four reasons:

  • First, a sloppy search that created a lot of bad blood in the Michigan family.
  • Second, the damage done by detractors inside and outside the program.
  • Third, the impact of the Detroit Free Press and NCAA investigations, which took a lot more out of the coaches and the players than outsiders realized.
  • And fourth, Rodriguez’s missed opportunities, from PR missteps to several crucial losses, due largely to an historically horrible defense. 

You can weigh those four factors how you like.  But on the most important point, there is no shade of gray whatsoever.  Rodriguez, his staff, and his players worked extraordinarily hard to win every game.  But some powerful insiders worked just as hard to see them fail.

That is not a matter of degree.  It’s a clear-cut, black-and-white difference  – something I have never seen in all my years researching Michigan’s long and proud history.

Ultimately, who deserves how much blame can be debated.  But who suffered the most cannot be: the players.

When a reporter asked one of them how it felt to see hundreds of former players returning to support new Michigan football coach Brady Hoke, he said, “You know, it’s kind of unsettling.  It’s great they’re back, but where have they been the last two or three years?  We’re still be wearing the same helmets since they were here.”

This book will probably sting Michigan in the short run, but not in the long run.  After all, great institutions can only be built on the truth – something the world-class professors at the University of Michigan teach their students to pursue wherever it leads, without fear.  

For those who say this book will hurt Michigan, I can only respond: not the Michigan I know.