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Rich Rodriguez will get a third season at the helm of the Michigan football program in part because he is joined at the hip with athletic director Bill Martin. One's failure tarnishes the other's legacy and with Martin soon to retire he will, as a going-away present, give Rodriguez the rope he needs to turn things around and salvage their combined reputations.
If the Wolverines lose at home Saturday to Ohio State - and we use the word "if" instead of "when" simply to make nice with our maize and blue friends - it will mean a second straight losing season and watching games from afar for the second straight holiday season. The last time UM failed to get to bowl games in back-to-back years was 1962-63.
The greatest indictment against Rodriguez is the seeming lack of improvement from Season One to the next. His '09 Wolverines have lost four straight and are 1-6 since a 4-0 start. They are 1-6 in a Big Ten Conference that is a shadow of its former self, and they can't seem to stop a soul or make any purposeful halftime adjustments.
Martin sat in on Rodriguez' postgame press conference after Saturday's 45-24 loss at Wisconsin and, of course, was surrounded by the media afterwards. All of those aforementioned numbers and issues were tossed his way.
"I know, I can count," he said rather testily. "What's your point?"
Well, the points are endless.
There is the defense that has allowed, on average, 465 yards and 39 points to its last four opponents, who have outscored the Wolverines 99-19 after halftimes. It's hard to tell which was worse, allowing 38 points and 500 yards to a woeful Illinois team or having a 24-10 halftime lead at home against Purdue melt into a 38-36 loss.
On Saturday, despite UM tinkering with a four-man defensive front, Wisconsin rushed the ball 52 times for 229 yards and, afterward, Rodriguez acknowledged that in the second half "everybody in the stadium knew what was coming [but] we still couldn't stop them and that is what's really frustrating."
It also had to be frustrating that a little bickering between the coach and his starting quarterback, Tate Forcier, became public knowledge. It also is frustrating that we still don't know what Denard Robinson, another freshman quarterback, can do because he has been given very little chance. Sure, chances have to be earned, but with the season unraveling it's odd that Robinson hasn't had any real opportunity.
It has to be more than frustrating that a proud program, the college game's winningest, is being referred to as a "piata" by one national columnist and, in the words of a Detroit writer, has become everybody's favorite homecoming opponent.
But RichRod isn't going anywhere. Nor should he be, at this point. He's been putting out fires since the day he arrived - an awkward contract battle with his previous employer that became quite expensive for UM, player defections, that awful 3-9 debut, an ongoing NCAA investigation into off-season practice methods, and the current string of losses - but no coach, providing it is proved he's been following the rules, can be fairly judged on the basis of just two seasons.
Regardless of whether you fall in the camp that feels the recruiting efforts of Rodriguez's predecessor, Lloyd Carr, had tailed off during his final couple seasons, it's hard to argue that the offensive cupboard wasn't fairly bare after the graduation of some significant contributors and the transfers of quarterback Ryan Mallett to Arkansas and talented offensive lineman Justin Boren to Ohio State. Mallett, a starter for three games in '07, saw no future in Rodriguez's offense and Boren, bluntly, saw no future in Rodriguez.
That doesn't explain the porous defense, though. The offense, for all its youth and for its transition to Rodriguez' foreign style of play, has scored 28-plus points seven times. But the defense has surrendered 30-plus points seven times. That unit's beleaguered coordinator, Greg Robinson, could be made into this season's sacrificial lamb, but if such a move were made his successor would be the fourth D-coordinator at Michigan in as many years and such continued instability might not be the answer either.
But it is an answer - not his continued and tiresome references to a "process" - that angry alumni and an embarrassed fan base will soon be demanding of Rodriguez. He is unlikely to get a third mulligan.
He'll get a third year, though, because any coach merits it and because Martin is his guardian angel. But Martin will be gone by next September, if not sooner, and the next athletic director figures to harbor no emotional attachment to be as understanding or as patient.
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