Michigan fans have wondered for years what really happened during their school's two searches for a football head coach. This excerpt of "Three And Out" presents a gripping behind-the-scenes account of why the Maize And Blue went with Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke over beloved former players Les Miles and Jim Harbaugh.
Michigan entered the 2007 season ranked fifth -- until its first game, a historically horrible loss to Appalachian State, which many pundits still consider the greatest upset in the history of college football. The Wolverines were blown out at home the next weekend by Oregon, 39-7, before grinding their way back to respectability with eight straight wins.
But the damage had been done, fueling the rumor mill all season. Two of Michigan's worst-kept secrets that fall were head coach Lloyd Carr's likely retirement and the possibility of Les Miles replacing him. Both seemed like obvious calls. Miles had played for Schembechler, coached for Schembechler, and was about to lead Louisiana State University into the BCS title game that January.
Hiring Miles would have followed the oldest script in college football: promoting a school's former player to lead his beloved alma mater. Alumnus Gustave Ferbert led Michigan to its first Big Ten title in 1898, which inspired Louis Elbel to write, "The Victors." Harry Kipke, Bennie Oosterbaan, and Bump Elliott -- all great players -- followed suit. Miles had not been a star player, but he was clearly a heck of a coach. But a third poorly kept secret was that Carr preferred that someone else get the job -- anyone else.
Exactly why has inspired both honest speculation and ridiculous rumors. The two most likely theories include bad feelings left over from conflicts when both served on Schembechler's staff -- something Schembechler often intentionally stirred up between the old guard and the young Turks, just to get the best ideas out on the table -- and the friction generated after Miles took over LSU in 2005, when the two coaches often found themselves recruiting the same players.
But ultimately, it was less important why Carr didn't like Miles than the simple fact that he didn't, which no one denies.
Carr wanted his offensive coordinator, Mike DeBord, or his defensive coordinator, Ron English. But athletic director Bill Martin wasn't convinced that either was ready. DeBord had been a successful assistant, but in his four-year stint leading Central Michigan, he compiled a 12–34 record. English had been a coordinator for just two years, which included Michigan's 11-0 start in 2006, but also the embarrassing losses to Appalachian State and Oregon.
Whatever your opinion of what happened thereafter -- from the scattered search to Rich Rodriguez's three tumultuous years in Ann Arbor -- all of it could have been easily avoided had Carr prepared a worthy successor from his ranks. In Schembechler's twenty-one years, he hired thirty-six assistant coaches, eleven of whom became Division I head coaches. Three won national titles, Larry Smith and Don Nehlen came very close, and Gary Moeller won Big Ten titles his first three seasons. They could coach.
In his thirteen years, Carr had nineteen assistants, four of whom became Division I head coaches: Stan Parrish, Mike DeBord, Ron English, and Brady Hoke, who had just finished the 2007 season at Ball State with a 7–6 record, giving him a career mark of 22– 37.
With no candidates from the Carr tree deemed ready, Bill Martin had to look elsewhere -- and that's when things got interesting.
What was most striking about the search committee's first meeting were the candidates they barely discussed, if at all: Mike DeBord, Ron English, California's Jeff Tedford, Rich Rodriguez, and even Les Miles, the committees first choice. "Bill didn’t want him," recalls Ted Spencer, the director of admissions and a committee member. "I have no idea why. He never gave us a reason."
One sensible possibility, however, stands out: Martin did not want to hire a coach whom Carr would not support.
Three weeks after Carr had stepped down, Martin had offered the position to only one coach, Rutgers's Greg Schiano, who turned him down. The sporting public was stunned to see Michigan, one of the most respected athletic departments in the nation, failing to find a leader.
"The phrase I kept hearing," committee member Percy Bates recalled from his colleagues around the country, was "the process being 'so un-Michigan-like.' And that was beginning to rise to the highest level of the university as well. [President] Mary Sue [Coleman] was certainly getting the word from outside, and from the regents and donors, that this was falling apart."
On Friday, December 7, and again on Monday, December 10, Bill Martin, Mary Sue Coleman and Les Miles talked on a conference call. Both conversations were simple and pleasant. During the second call, Coleman said she could not hire Miles without meeting him first, and asked Miles to meet her and Martin in Miami, where Miles had already scheduled a recruiting trip. Miles replied that he could not do any face-to-face meeting until after the national title game. Miles let them know both times, however, that, "If you want me, then after the bowl game, I will be your coach. I just can't do anything before that. [But] I would never say no to Michigan."
But, incredibly, just a few hours after both calls, word had leaked to the media, then started popping up on the blogs, and quickly traveled down to Baton Rouge. Miles was, understandably, upset -- and effectively boxed in.
That night, in what will likely come as a surprise to most fans, West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez -- whose Mountaineers had blown their own chance at the national title game when a 4-7 Pittsburgh team upset them 13-9 -- received a call from Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr. Rodriguez recalled they talked for ten or fifteen minutes.
"It was a very positive call," Rodriguez remembered. "He was definitely encouraging me to think about it."
That next day, the first person to encourage Bill Martin to think about Rich Rodriguez was none other than Lloyd Carr. (Carr did not respond to requests for an interview.)
That night, Bill Martin -- tipped off by Lloyd Carr -- called Rodriguez at his home to inquire about his interest in the Michigan job. Both sides were noncommittal but intrigued. Almost exactly a year after Rodriguez had turned down Alabama, he found himself flirting with the Michigan job. Six days later, on Monday, December 17, 2007, Bill Martin introduced Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's next coach.
When a reporter asked how Rodriguez felt about being Michigan's third choice -- reflecting the common perception that Schiano and Les Miles had been offered the job -- Rodriguez joked, "I was probably Rita's third choice, too!"
But thanks to the whirlwind courtship, Rodriguez knew very little about Michigan, and no one at Michigan had stepped up to teach him -- as others had for the last outsider to take the job, Bo Schembechler.
That became obvious when Rodriguez was tossed the most important question of his first day on the job: Do you have to be a Michigan Man to be the Michigan football coach? Rodriguez repeated the question -- clearly one he had not considered before -- then said, "Gosh, I hope not. They hired me!"
The same question would haunt Rodriguez throughout his rocky three-year tenure -- but his status as an outsider might not have been his biggest problem.
He and Rita flew back to Morgantown that afternoon to close out his business there. In the meantime, Lloyd Carr had suddenly called a team meeting a day or two later, before Rodriguez returned. According to five players, and confirmed by others since, Carr told them if any of them wanted to transfer, he would sign the form, since it requires a player’s current coach's signature.
Whatever personal or professional differences would emerge between these two men in the months to come, it is simply impossible to square Carr's making an unsolicited call to Rich Rodriguez to sell him on Michigan, then telling Bill Martin that Rodriguez might be a good candidate, followed almost immediately by his offer to help any of his players transfer. It's even harder to square those actions with Carr's new role as Michigan's associate athletic director, a largely ceremonial post for which he was paid $387,000 to protect and promote the Michigan athletic department, football above all.
The following three seasons were marked by some exhilarating wins, but more heart-breaking losses, resulting in a 15-22 overall record, and 6-18 in the Big Ten. What was more surprising, however, was watching the famously unified Michigan football family fracturing over the divisions that had started during the messy coaching search.
On Wednesday, January 5, 2011, Rodriguez walked into a coaches' meeting room, where his staff had been waiting for him.
"Well, as expected, they fired me," he told them. "They said they did an evaluation, and they didn't like all the 'negativity surrounding the program.'
"It was a bad fit here from the start. They've tarred and feathered us from the day we got here. But we're still standing."
"Coach, I'm sorry," administrative assistant Dusty Rutledge said. "I said this was the greatest place in the world, all first-class ... "
Rodriguez interrupted Rutledge with a wave of his hand. Water over the dam.
A week later, with Rodriguez gone, even his supporters didn't have to restrain themselves from speculating about his successor, and the rumor mill went back into overdrive.
The most popular candidates, of course, were Les Miles and Jim Harbaugh. Miles' Michigan credentials were well known from the 2007 search, and he had added a national championship to his resume in the meantime.
Harbaugh's father had coached with Schembechler and Carr, while Jim moved up from the team's ballboy to become an All-American quarterback and a 15-year NFL veteran, who had just led the Stanford Cardinal to a stunning 12-1 season, ending with a number four ranking. According to a well-placed source, who had participated in one negotiation with Michigan and was well-informed about the others, becoming Michigan's head coach "was all Jim talked about for the last two years."
But Michigan's new athletic director, Dave Brandon, was late to get to Harbaugh, so even Brandon's offer of $5 million a year -- double Rodriguez's salary -- was not enough to keep Harbaugh from taking over the San Francisco 49ers, which didn't even require Harbaugh to move his family. Harbaugh's camp is not convinced Brandon was ever truly serious about hiring him. Either way, Harbaugh was not coming to Ann Arbor.
Brandon then approached Jim's older brother, John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who ultimately decided to stay in Evanston after a wealthy NU alum promised to improve Northwestern's outdated facilities.
The one coach who everyone agrees did not receive an offer from Michigan, again, was Les Miles. He had been handled shabbily during the 2007 search, and it appears he wasn't treated much better in 2010, either. All overtures to him were strictly a show designed to appease his supporters. When Rodriguez asked Brandon in December of 2010 if he already had someone lined up, Brandon denied it but said he would hire Les Miles "over my dead body." The rest was theater.
Thus, arguably the two hottest coaches in the game today, who bleed maize-and-blue and were dying to return to their alma mater, were both eliminated from consideration early in the hiring process.
If Brady Hoke was a dark horse candidate to most Michigan fans and followers, he wasn't to the players he had coached at Michigan in the mid-nineties, including many of the alums at the Brian Griese-Steve Hutchinson-Charles Woodson golf outing, held on Michigan's golf course the previous May. They developed a great respect for Hoke when he assisted Carr, and were unified in supporting him as their favorite. When Dave Brandon took to the podium at the Junge Champions Center on Wednesday, January 12, 2011, to present Brady Hoke as Michigan's nineteenth head football coach, they got their wish.
In a crucial introduction, the largely unknown Hoke, clearly well-versed in Michigan lore and well coached by the PR-savvy Brandon, hit all the right notes to win over just about everyone. He came across, in the phrase of the day, as the consummate Michigan Man.
"Hoke will be successful," said former Michigan star Bill Dufek, "because we're not going to do to him what some of those guys did to Rich."
Brandon made sure Hoke got everyone he wanted on his staff. Michigan lured defensive coordinator Greg Mattison from John Harbaugh's Ravens staff with a contract worth $750,000 a year, and incentives that could push it to $900,000 -- more than three times what Michigan had paid Rodriguez's defensive coordinators.
If Hoke was surprisingly impressive in his introductory press conference, the normally silver-tongued Brandon fell short. He did not name names, but he clearly felt the need to explain why he had not hired the higher profile coaches who had played under Schembechler: Harbaugh and Miles. He said, "All that glitters is not gold when it comes to some coaches ... Sometimes the hype or PR does not match the real person."
Even in praising Hoke, Brandon could not resist saying, "Unlike some other coaches, it's not about him, it's about his players and his team.
He doesn't have to learn the words to 'The Victors.'"
After reaching beyond its famed family for only the fourth time in more than a century, Michigan had officially declared itself: Only a Michigan Man would coach Michigan -- and only Michigan would decide who qualified.
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-- John U. Bacon is the author of Three And Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.