Although many folks that follow West Virginia University football will tell you that it’s not worth revisiting the Rich Rodriguez era in Morgantown and the messy divorce that followed, I’m inclined to bring it back up for discussion. Not that there’s anything breaking on what took place back in December of 2007 when Rich Rod departed the Mountain State on his way to Ann Arbor. Rather, yours truly spent a recent week lounging on a Florida beach reading a handful of books, one of which is John U. Bacon’s “Three and Out." The book, as many of you know, is a profile of Rodriguez’s time as the head coach at the University of Michigan. Before I go further, there are a couple of things you need to know.
First, I’m a friend of Rich’s, and I will not make an apology for it. I don’t like that he left, how he left and the issues that came up during that departure, but he’s a friend and I have no problem saying that.
I got to know Rich very closely back at Salem College, then at Glenville State and eventually back at WVU. At every stop, Rich was good to me. I only bring that up because, without question, someone will believe my thoughts on the book are shaped by that friendship. That’s fine, some of it probably is, but what I say here will probably have a lot of folks disagreeing with me on both sides of the Rich Rod fence. Then again, this is an opinion piece and it’s my opinion. As I like to say, you’re entitled to my opinion.
Secondly, and it will lead into my initial discussion on the book, if you loathe Rich Rodriguez, don’t read the book. It’s very much a pro-Rich Rod publication; almost exclusively in fact. Both WVU and Michigan are painted as oppressors to Rich and the book certainly turns the former WVU coach into a victim of the first order at almost every single stop.
Part of the positive report may stem from the author’s relationship to Rodriguez and a smaller part of it likely stems from the fact that folks like former Athletic Director Ed Pastilong and former WVU President Dave Garrison and others that might have provided a counterbalance to things stated would not allow themselves to be interviewed for the book. I can tell you first hand that when you have a situation that you’re covering and only one side agrees to give their side; you generally have a one-sided report.
If you can handle the fact that Rich is made to be the victim and the book is decidedly one sided, then my advice is to give it a read. It’s particularly worth reading if you have any nostalgia in your bones for Rich’s lone year at Salem College and his time at Glenville State, and if you were caught up in the dilemma where Rich was courted and eventually committed to the Wolverines.
It was the Salem College angle that drew yours truly in. When Rich took over as the head coach at Salem College in 1988 at the age of 25, I was the beat writer for the Tigers. The initial “meet the coach day” for the country’s youngest head coach at the time I can assure you wasn’t anything like it was at WVU, Michigan or even in Tucson. As I recall, that initial Salem press conference involved me as the sole media representative, Rich and Sports Information Director Randall Carson. There was also a plate of sandwiches; bologna and cheese if I remember correctly.
The Salem College years, including Rich’s one year as the head coach before the program unceremoniously folded, is an angle I’ve long believed where everyone missed the boat in what may have led to Rodriguez’s premature departure from what could have been – and should have been – a lifetime gig as the head coach at WVU. I’ll return to that later.
Perhaps it’s because Rich’s tenure at Salem was so short that Bacon only briefly mentions his time there, but the few pages focusing on the Harrison County college is worth the read by itself. Stories about Rich’s predecessor – Dana “Corky” Griffith – are as accurate as my tiring mind can flash back to (I also covered the Tigers in Griffith’s final year as a 19-year-old). Hell, there’s one part in this where the author talks about a player on Rich’s team that was so bad that he “couldn’t play dead in a Western” and then talks about the same guy having a bit role in the move “Porkies II.” They don’t mention the name, but I definitely remember him, his name and, well, the description of his ability is probably too kind. The player in question was dominant on the ping pong table and dominated the student center on the campus of Salem College; often wearing those old man sandals even in the dead of winter.
Again, I digress.
There’s comments from Bridgeport’s Chris George, who was Rodriguez’s record-setting wide receiver at Glenville State, and to this day had the best hands of any player I’ve ever witnessed in college football at any level. George, too, is pro-Rodriguez in his limited time in the book and, honestly, no one should expect him to be otherwise.
While the book progresses too quickly from those golden days to Rich’s courtship and acceptance of an offer from the Wolverines for my taste, those drew in by the old school stuff from Salem and Glenville State certainly wasn’t the audience the author was likely trying to reach. Yet, it’s when the author paints Rich as being targeted by a smear campaign from the powers at WVU that Bacon probably missed the boat. If Bacon unknowingly or knowingly was attempting to turn readers sitting on the fence or on the other side of it to agreeing with Rich’s take on why he departed or even to understand it, he failed based on one big area.
The author quotes Rob “Dusty” Rutledge as the primary source for some of the key components of where Rich was wronged in his final days by Garrison, Pastilong and the WVU powers that be; most of whom the book alleged was afraid that Rich was the new power to be and that was unacceptable. Anyone that knows Rich Rodriguez and Dusty Rutledge knows full well that Rutledge’s umbilical cord of football wellbeing is attached to Rodriguez. That doesn’t mean that Rutledge is or isn’t telling the truth, it just means anyone in the know realizes getting Rutledge to back Rich Rod is like getting Muttley to back Dick Dastardly or Shaggy to vouch for Scooby Doo.
One part I do agree with is how the author paints Gov. Joe Manchin’s involvement before, during and after Rich’s departure. Let me say this, Manchin was way too involved in WVU’s football program; and that’s not something you’ll have to go to the Book of Revelation to discover. I’ve always felt a strong portion of the mess that resulted in Rodriguez leaving Morgantown rests squarely on the shoulders of Manchin and his micromanaging of WVU, including what I believe was his hand-picked and equally unqualified president in Garrison.
Manchin’s meddling aside; you know where I’ve always felt a huge portion of the genesis for Rich Rodriguez’s horribly sloppy exit from Morgantown came from? Back where I mentioned earlier: Right here in Harrison County, and back in Rich’s day at Salem College. And it’s always been my opinion that the angle was completely overlooked as a possible consideration as why things went down as they did nearly two decades later in Morgantown.
After just one year at Salem, Rodriguez wasn’t just involved with losing his job. He was involved with an entire program folding. That news would have leveled the psyche of a veteran coach, let alone a 25-year-old. Even worse, he found out about the matter by an Associated Press reporter calling him to see where his players were going.
Rodriguez thought it was a joke. I happened to be going into the newsroom at the media outlet that employed me at the time when I was told by a staffer to look at an “AP News Alert” on the computer. If memory serves me correctly, the alert stated something to the fact of a major announcement at Salem College and the possible dissolution of the football program. I immediately called Rich who told me about his phone call from another reporter just minutes earlier that had asked him about the program’s players. Although Rich was still in the dark officially, he was already getting a pretty good grasp that the worst was at hand.
After that, I began reporting my first real “hard news” story and focused on the impact of the decision. It wasn’t the decision that bothered Rich and his staff, including current Bridgeport High School educator Fred Wilhelm; it was the timing of it. It was summer. There were no coaching jobs left at other schools, there were no scholarships left for players looking for a chance to play elsewhere and, for that matter, basically few roster slots for those that could find their way to another school. The timing of the decision could not have been worse. There was nowhere for almost every single player on the Salem roster to go.
The school failed its players. Not somewhat, not on a small or large scale. Salem College's failure was total.
There was anguish in Rich Rod’s voice as I talked with him following a meeting with his team that day, and in the days that would follow. While there are critics who have said Rich’s often emotional reaction to his departure from Morgantown was contrived for the benefit of the media, this wasn’t. There were no cameras. There were no message boards. Hell, there was no internet. There was Rich either on the phone or in person and there was me.
Insecurity, in my mind, was planted nicely that day in Rodriguez’s cranium. It was fertilized later at Tulane, when he was passed over for that head coaching job in what even the most ardent of the anti-Rodriguez crowd would be hard pressed to say wasn’t done in a way that would have left even the most secure person shaking a magic 8-ball for answers.
When the perfect storm formed following WVU’s fetal position inducing and National Championship opportunity denying loss to Pitt took place, I’ve long felt that when his agent Mike Brown began whispering in his ear that it was time to go Rich was ready to listen. Whether WVU’s power structure was in the wrong is a moot point; Rich thought they were in the wrong and I’ve always felt Mike Brown was ready to capitalize on that. From all accounts from those closest to Rich, he was in a frail state of mind following the Pitt debacle and no one will convince me Brown didn't play that mindset to whatever advantage he wanted.
What followed was one of the most heated college football divorces I can remember. It was not only ugly, but it was disgusting. Because of that, Rich Rodriguez to a vast majority of the state is persona non grata. I don’t know if that will ever change.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a free pass should be given to Rich Rodriguez. I’m trying to lay out a theory as to why things transpired as they did. I’m trying to figure out why Rich didn’t protest vehemently when Brown and others representing him did some of the following things:
There was the “Product Rodriguez” tag used to describe Rich’s marketability to teams such as Alabama, Arkansas and eventually Michigan that made Rich look like a mercenary. There was Brown calling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to let them know that Rich’s offensive coordinator Calvin Magee wasn’t considered as a replacement at WVU because of the color of his skin; and the announcement came on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Then there was Rich’s attorney describing his contract at WVU as some form of slavery, which Brown should have stopped.
None of those things were addressed in the book; not one. There are other things as well that came up in the aftermath of Rich’s departure. Much of it we’ll never know if it’s true, if it’s false or if there are varying levels of gray.
In fact, outside of Rich Rod’s singing of Josh Groban’s “You Lift Me Up” at the UM Senior football banquet during Rich’s final year, the author makes little mention of areas where Rich or those representing him stubbed their toes or nearly severed an appendage.
I guess it’s easy for me to sit back and blame some of the worst issues that came up – with or without merit – during Rich’s horribly messy departure from WVU to a great extent on Mike Brown and others hired to protect him. And while the buck ultimately stops with Rich, I felt then and feel now that Brown was in his ear telling him the whole time that WVU couldn’t be trusted. Maybe they couldn't. Hell, who outside of that inner circle really knows. But, for someone that had been jilted too often and in a method considered harsh even in the brutal world of college coaching, Rich Rodriguez was a prime candidate for being manipulated.
Is that the case? Who knows? That’s just my opinion. To be honest, most of you won’t agree. Heck, I’m pretty certain Rich would tell me I’ve got it wrong as well.
See, maybe this is something WVU fans and Rich Rodriguez can finally agree on. Unfortunately, it may be the only thing.