Coach's personal touch adds pomp to UM walk

8/30/2008
BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

ANN ARBOR - Buses carrying Michigan football players will take them from their team hotel today to a parking lot on Kipke Drive, near the public safety building, about two hours before today's season opener against Utah.

From there, the Wolverines will walk past Crisler Arena to the Michigan Stadium tunnel, led by cheerleaders and the marching band.

It's called the "Victors Walk," yet another wrinkle added to UM's program since new coach Rich Rodriguez took over following the Wolverines' victory over Florida in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day.

Rodriguez said he thinks the Victors Walk was in the works even before he arrived on campus, and school officials say Bo Schembechler and Bump Elliott did something similar during their tenures.

But when UM takes the field today, much will be different from the way things have been for a long time.

And all of those changes are a direct result of Rodriguez's presence.

From the spread offense, to the eschewing of team captains until the end of the season, to a new, highly publicized (and grueling) conditioning regimen - those are just some of the changes - Rodriguez has already put his stamp on UM football without ever having coached a game.

"Rich thinks outside the box. He's always trying to get ahead of the curve," new Wolverines defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said.

Today marks the official start of the 129th season of UM football. Fans will see some things they've never seen from the Wolverines, especially with Rodriguez's spread-out, deceptive, light-your-hair-on-fire offense.

And what have these changes earned the Wolverines so far?

Getting left out of the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll for the first time since 1985, for one.

"I feel like we might be a little under the radar so to speak, but we're still Michigan," linebacker Obi Ezeh said. "Michigan football is always going to be Michigan football, so I feel like we still have that element."

Obviously, the low expectations of national pundits can be blamed partially on the Wolverines' lack of experience on offense. They lost six players on that side of the ball to the NFL, and only one or two returning starters might start today's game.

Utah smells an upset, and isn't letting any of the negative press the Wolverines have received lessen its anticipation for this game.

"Opening with Michigan will certainly get your players' attention," Utes coach Kyle Whittingam said.

From West Virginia's $4 million lawsuit against him to Justin Boren's transfer and accusations of eroding family values, Rodriguez has been through a lot lately.

The same goes for his players, who had never endured anything quite like what they went through during strength coach Mike Barwis' workouts.

Today, they all get a chance to put all of those issues - and many others - behind them.

"We'll see Saturday," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "We're going to shock a lot of people this year."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.