Five years ago, the University of Michigan football team was headed into its final game of the season 11–0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, facing 11–0 and No. 1 ranked Ohio State. “The Game” had become “The Game of the Century” and everything was on the line: a chance to beat archrival Ohio State; a national-championship-game invite; and an opportunity to put the capstone on Lloyd Carr’s Michigan career (one that had steadily lost its glow since his 1997 national title).
On what seemed like the precipice of greatness, however, the program instead fell into darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth.
With eerie symbolism, legendary coach Bo Schembechler died the day before The Game. The next night, Michigan lost in heartbreaking fashion, 42–39, and then lost again to USC in the Rose Bowl, 32–18.
The following season, the Wolverines (ranked No. 5) lost to Appalachian State in one of the most stunning upsets in college-football history. This downward spiral was briefly interrupted by a 9–4 season and a win in the Capital One Bowl. But the next three seasons would prove to be perhaps the ugliest and most difficult in the long history of Michigan football.
And John U. Bacon found himself with the kind of access unheard of in modern athletics. The result is a remarkable book: Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.
Lloyd Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season and Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez. In one of those quirks of fate, a former student of Bacon’s worked for Rodriguez’s financial adviser. This connection led to the idea of Bacon’s writing a couple of articles about the spread offense coming to Michigan, and then maybe collaborating on a book.
It is the height of understatement to say things did not work out as planned.
For most Michigan fans (myself included), that makes this book particularly painful. It is like watching a replay of your car accident in slow motion, on repeat. You know both the ultimate end result and the final score of every painful game and yet you force yourself to read the excruciating details as you relive the nightmare.
But if you are simply a fan of college football, or interested in big-time college athletics more generally, it is a fascinating read. Ohio State fans might find it entertaining and strangely cathartic.
What happened? What went wrong? Well, just about everything.
Having lost the legend, and the glue that held the community together, the Michigan football community became unorganized, splintered, and ineffective. The search for a new coach was bungled; the eventual hire was undermined at nearly every turn; the media were hostile to a degree hard to fathom outside of Ann Arbor; the coach far too often failed to see the repercussions of his words and actions; a lack of recruiting, injuries, and poor decisions decimated the talent available; the offense eventually soared but the defense cratered; and ultimately the football team lost far too many games. End result: Rich Rodriguez was fired after going 15–22 in three seasons.
While Bacon is frequently critical of Rodriguez, the picture he paints is largely one of Michigan never giving him the chance to do what he does best: coach football. Athletic director Bill Martin’s incredibly bungled search for a new coach undermined trust and began the bad feelings that would be a source of constant distraction and disunity. Having failed to get the Michigan Man so many wanted in Les Miles, Martin and former coach Lloyd Carr seemed unaware that Rodriguez would need extra support if he were to succeed — support he never really received.
Carr, who refused repeated interview requests from the author, bizarrely called Rodriguez to encourage his interest in the job and then seemed to undermine him at every turn — including encouraging recruits to transfer and never really sticking up for the new coach or the team.
Rodriguez fatally assumed that, Michigan being Michigan, 1) the talent would be there and 2) the backbiting and lack of support that drove him away from West Virginia wouldn’t happen. Desperately wrong on both counts. Rodriguez contributed to this problem by never hiring a defensive coordinator that he could trust and work with (even a half-decent defense would have made a world of difference, as his team gave up leads and lost heartbreakers with soul-crushing frequency) and failing to grasp the impact of his words and actions off the field. He increased the bitterness by careless words and not working hard enough at building relationships.
The “Michigan Family” takes a beating as well. The story is full of petty jealousy and bickering that undermined a high-quality coach – and, by all accounts, a genuinely good person — and also the very program and institution that Michigan people claimed to love and support (and, in many cases, the employer who paid them large sums of money).
What strikes me as truly amazing, however, is the dedication and commitment of so many of the players despite the never-ending negativity and criticism. After a rocky start, and with a few exceptions, Rodriguez molded a team that fought hard and cared deeply for their teammates and their school. The same cannot be said of too many of the adults tasked with supporting them.
On Saturday, some who endured this epic soap opera have a chance for some redemption. If new head coach Brady Hoke can lead his team to victory in this edition of The Game (against a 6–5 Buckeye team mired in scandal) it would portend an end to the dark cloud hanging over Ann Arbor since that fateful day five years ago when the heart and soul of Michigan football passed away.
And maybe, just maybe, Michigan’s return to greatness can really begin.
— Kevin Holtsberry is a writer, consultant, and Michigan fan living deep behind enemy lines in Columbus, Ohio.