It seems crazy to think about it, but looking back on the Rich Rod-era at Michigan, maybe the Wolverines pulled the plug a little too soon.
Like most Buckeye fans, I look back on the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan fondly. Rich Rod gave us the worst Michigan season since 1967 (a 3-8 campaign), and never won a game against Ohio State (and if schadenfreude is your thing, let's point out Rich Rod never beat Michigan State either). Michigan also produced a thoroughly watchable spread offense though, blowing up the boring pro-style and making Wolverine football far more palatable, especially compared to the 10-9 slugfests common in the Big Ten many recent seasons. Rodriguez was fired after a 7-5 campaign in his third season, which ended in a memorable curb stomping by Mississippi State in a bowl game, leaving him with a UM career record of 15-22, and zero bowl wins. If we look at his coaching record in context though, especially with what he's been able to do in Arizona in such a short time, it's hard not to wonder what might've happened if he'd been given just one more year to get things figured out in Ann Arbor.
First, let's take a look at the 2008 season. After some lackluster recruiting near the end of the Lloyd Carr-era, Michigan had serious depth concerns and wasn't projected to be particularly good no matter who was coaching. Those depth issues were compounded by an exodus of talented offensive players who worried they wouldn't fit in the new spread system, like Ryan Mallet and Mario Manningham. The Woliverines opened up with Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet at QB, and you can't really blame Rich Rod for that. Despite that, they were a failed 2-pt conversion from beating Utah in the opening game of the year, the same Utah squad, if you recall, that would go undefeated and hammer Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Michigan would lose a winnable game against Notre Dame in Week 3, where pouring rain helped cause four fumbles and two picks (they lost by 17). They upset the #9 ranked Wisconsin Badgers the next week to bring their record to 2-2. They ran into a buzzsaw of an Illinois team (Juice Williams ran up 431 total yards), and then suffered the loss that would in part define the Rich Rod era, a 13-10 loss to lowly Toledo. While Michigan should never need to escape a MAC team, it's worth noting that the margin of that game came from a fluskish 101 yard interception return. Michigan lost several other games that year on account of a porous and young defense and inconsistent offense that wasn't build with his personnel, but Michigan was also unlikely. It is not impossible to envision a scenario where that Michigan squad gets to .500
Rich Rod dumped defensive coordinator Scott Shafer (who's after the fact arrival in Syracuse would see their defense rise from 101st in the country to top 20) in favor of Greg Robinson (the architect of that aforementioned 101st ranked defense), and hauled in the #7 recruiting class in the country that offseason. After finishing last in passing offense, turnover margin and total offense, the Wolverines scored at least 31 points in each of their first four games, knocking off #18 Notre Dame in the process. Michigan was a tipped Forcier overtime pass from beating Michigan State, and dropped a road game at #12 Iowa by 2. Michigan continued to sabotage themselves at importune times, blowing an easy win against Purdue that kept them out of a bowl. Despite going 5-7, Michigan had really started to get the hang of the Rodriguez spread. They finished 3rd in the Big Ten in scoring, 25th in the nation in rushing offense, and boasted an elite punting game. The rub on Michigan was that their defense was horrid, but in 2009, it was really only a little below average. What absolutely killed Michigan though was their propensity to turn the ball over, as the squad finished 115th in the nation in turnover margin. Some of that is bad decision making, and some of that is bad luck.
Most of it though is the fact that Tate Forcier sucked.
Rich Rod brought in another fairly strong recruiting class on paper (#12 from Scout, #14 from ESPN), including Devin Gardner, but suffered more bad luck as cornerback Troy Woolfolk dislocated his ankle before the start of the season and missed every game. The Wolverines would boast one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the country, behind that year's revelation, Denard Robinson. Robinson would break the Big Ten's single season offensive record (previously held by that Drew Brees guy), and win the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award. In a conference full of schools built to stop other more pro-style schemes, a Robinson-in-a-Rodriguez offense based attack was devastating (and this was without a solid running back or a deep wide receiving corps).
So what went wrong? Simply put, they couldn't stop anybody. Greg Robinson's secondaries were some of the worst in the entire country, letting guys like Scott Tolzien and Kirk Cousins absolutely tee off on a hapless backfield. Rodriguez made two horrible defensive coordinator hires, struggled with turnovers, and had some horrible luck.
Rodriguez perhaps didn't get the benefit of the doubt from his administration either. He certainly wasn't Michigan's top choice, as the school went after Les Miles and Greg Schanio hard before settling on Rich Rod. David Brandon also replaced Michigan AD Bill Martin in 2010, removing another link to Rodriguez's hiring. There were whispers throughout Rich Rod's tenure that he wasn't enough of a "Michigan Man" as well, from his un-Michigan like offensive schemes, to his constant quest for market inefficient talent (on both the line as well as receiver/defensive back), to heat from the NCAA over the practice time "scandal". Rodriguez never had the political capital within the institution to give him cover if he couldn't produce results immediately, making his firing unsurprising.
So what happened next? Rodriguez's replacement, Brady Hoke, rode Rich Rod recruits, the palpable sense of a fresh start (which sometimes somewhat stagnant teams/organizations benefit greatly from), and some uncharacteristic turnover luck to a BCS win last season, and potentially a three-loss season this year. Michigan has struggled a little trying to squeeze their spread-personnel into a more pro-style offense, so it may be a little too early to judge the Hoke-era completely.
But how is Rich Rod doing? He's led a far less-talented Arizona team to a 7-4 ranking and a #24 ranking. He knocked off a good Toledo team, and ranked/more talented Oklahoma State and USC squads, while falling to Oregon State and Stanford by a combined 9 points. His spread has worked wonders for Matt Scott (3008 yards, 21 TDs, team ranked 24th nationally in passing yards), but he's also rebuilt the Arizona running game, as Ka'Deem Carey has improved by nearly 1,000 rushing yards this season, and averages 6.3 yards per carry.
The Arizona defense is still a work in progress, especially with the secondary (to be charitable), but he's also working with less heralded players and against more prolific offenses in the Pac-12. It's also worth noting that Rodriguez' best move since making the move to the desert was the hiring of Jeff Casteel, his former defensive coordinator in West Virginia. Besides the working relationship and sense of comfort, Casteel's 3-3-5 was part of the magic sauce for Rich Rod in WVU (and in fact, with Calvin Magee helping run the offense, Rich Rod essentially has the gang back together again). Rodriguez has always been a solid recruiter, and with Arizona's schedule getting a little more manageable in the coming years, it isn't impossible to envision them as a threat in the PAC-12 South, especially as he gets more of his own players in his system.
Maybe Arizona institutionally is just a better cultural fit for Rich Rod. Maybe Brady Hoke will turn out just fine for the Michigan Men. It's also quite possible that Rodriquez was just a good defensive coordinator and some luck away from being successful for Michigan, and things might have turned out differently if he just had a little more time.