Les Miles was prepared to come home and all Michigan had to do was wait a few weeks.
But in a bungled coaching search that included unexplained and inconsistent behavior by former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, a "very un-Michigan like" hiring process finally set Rich Rodriguez up to fail.
That's the takeaway from "Three And Out," the new book by John U. Bacon that gives readers an all-access pass to Rodriguez's three cringe-worthy years as leader of the winningest college football program of all time.
The book may surprise Michigan fans, as Bacon is the Michigan professor who wrote a book with legendary coach Bo Schembechler. But here Bacon reports that those left to uphold the coach's legacy chop-blocked Rodriguez so much that Schembechler’s "The Team, The Team, The Team" mantra seems like a punch line.
While the best part of the book -- which will be released Tuesday ($28, Farrar, Straus and Giraux) -- is the access Bacon had to Schembechler Hall once Rodriguez arrived, the drama begins well before "Coach Rod" is introduced. Click here to read an excerpt.
A December 2007 conference call with Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, former Athletic Director Bill Martin and Miles lays the groundwork for the search to replace Carr.
Miles tells the Michigan president he "would never say no to Michigan," but insists he can't jump from LSU until after the Tigers' upcoming bowl game. If Michigan waits and asks in January, Miles says, "I will be your coach."
At that point, instead of entering a holding pattern, the coaching search veers improbably.
Bacon writes that it is Carr -- winner of Michigan's most recent national championship in 1997 -- who first reaches out to Rodriguez. It is Carr who calls Rodriguez to gauge his interest in becoming the Michigan coach. And that call takes place only hours after the conference call with Miles.
"Even if you haven't thought about it," Bacon reports Carr saying, "you should think about it now."
Readers are left to infer that Carr had a big role in picking Rodriguez, who took the job days later without setting foot on the campus. But then Carr, whose strong objections to Miles are documented early in the book, holds a team meeting after Rodriguez is introduced as the Wolverines' new coach, informing players he will sign their transfer papers if they want to leave.
Even in the infancy of Rodriguez's tenure, the outsider seems to be fighting an uphill battle against a tradition left by Schembechler, who ironically liked the West Virginia native quite a bit. Rodriguez's flaws are not hidden by any stretch, but many others' blind spots show up as well.
Indeed, the most chilling quote in a book full of them comes from Schembechler himself, who tells former Wolverines' quarterback John Wangler and running back Jamie Morris before his death in 2006: "When I leave this earth, we are going to see the true Michigan Men come out."
Schembechler proved prophetic, as too many supposed Michigan Men did too little to help the new guy, while the true Michigan Man emerges only toward the end of the book. And we're not talking about Brady Hoke.
The going narrative around Ann Arbor these days is that Rodriguez was a poor fit and more concerned with his own reputation than the success of the team. But that doesn't ring quite true in Bacon's book, as the interloper is painted as far too trusting and lenient in an environment where threats are both obvious and unseen.
Throughout the book, Rodriguez's emotions are put on full display. In private times, he demonstrates his pained desperation to meet expectations, while on other occasions, he grows weary by the mess swirling around him. Hopeful until the time he is fired by Athletic Director Dave Brandon, Rodriguez comes off as far more tone-deaf than selfish. He's clearly in over his head, unable to patch together a serviceable defense or convey his inner leadership skills, but his public drowning is greeted mostly with turned backs. After Rodriguez is fired, and tons of Michigan alums praise Hoke, one Wolverine tells a Detroit News reporter, "Where have they been the last two or three years?"
While Bacon succeeds in earning Rodriguez's trust in delivering behind-the-scenes observations, he fails to fully provide both sides of the story. The perspective of several key figures -- including and especially Carr -- is not included. The former coach didn't reply to any of Bacon's 11 interview requests. That leaves Rodriguez's predecessor looming eerily in every chapter as the proverbial man behind the curtain.
Carr's ubiquitous absence keeps "Three And Out" from being a complete record of undoubtedly the toughest stretch Michigan football has faced in its 132 years. We may never know if Carr, who has an incredible philanthropic legacy in Ann Arbor, was vindictive or simply heartbroken that the program he loves with all his heart was no longer the way he wanted it. But in a way, the omission is fitting, as readers will surely wonder what certain high-profile Michigan Men could possibly have been thinking. (A representative of the Michigan athletic department, reached by email Monday morning, declined to comment on the book.)
That includes Brandon, the A.D. who considered both Jim and John Harbaugh for the Michigan job in 2010 but is indirectly quoted as saying Miles would get the position "over my dead body." Brandon, a visionary at Domino's Pizza, ends up looking myopic in an awkward interaction with quarterback Denard Robinson after Rodriguez is fired. The climactic scene reveals that it is actually Robinson, Michigan's most electric offense-only player since Bo recruited Anthony Carter from the same South Florida region, who is most able to lead a bruised program forward.
Schembechler was right: A Michigan Man did show up. But it turned out to be Robinson, a mature-beyond-his-years Rodriguez recruit who probably would never have had a chance in Schembechler's spread-averse system.
Readers will finish the book knowing exactly why Rodriguez failed, but also wondering if anyone -- including Miles -- could have succeeded in the shadow of Fort Schembechler.
-- Jeff Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.
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