So the latest big-time college program in trouble is Michigan. The roll call recently has been pretty disturbing if you are the NCAA: USC—football and basketball; Florida State; Memphis and then the ongoing Rick Pitino soap opera at Louisville. No doubt their investigators are currently working hard to expose wrong-doing in a Division 3 wrestling program somewhere.
What makes the Michigan situation different are two things: the school’s football program—unlike the basketball program—has never had a hint of an NCAA rules problem EVER. Second, the timing of this couldn’t be worse for Coach Rich Rodriguez. He’s coming off an unheard of 3-9 season and probably isn’t going to get it turned around during the coming season. That means he doesn’t have the equity with fans and alums that most Michigan coaches have had in the past.
If he’d been 9-3 a year ago and went to The Rose Bowl this year, they’d all rise to his defense and say that the kids who talked to The Detroit Free Press (the story was NOT broken on ESPN in spite of the network trying to claim it as its own on Monday after finding a couple of other kids to back up the News’s story) were just malcontents.
What was interesting Monday was (A) Rodriguez tearfully not responding to the charges but instead going on about how much he (sniff, sniff) cared about his players. One wonders how his ex-players at West Virginia (his alma mater) feel about that after he left them in the lurch to Follow The Money a couple of years back. And (B) the various TV talking heads defending Rodriguez and his staff not by saying they were innocent but by saying it is impossible to be competitive and stay within the 20 hour rule handed down several years ago by the NCAA in response to coaches making players work 40 and 50 hours a week in addition to allegedly attending college.
The 20 hour rule is like any other rule: it works if everyone follows it. As long as the playing field is level, the rule works. But because coaches—football coaches in particular—are such fanatics, they want every piece of tape broken down; every on field mistake corrected 20 times in practice and they want to hold more meetings than a House sub-committee.
Football coaches are obsessed and paranoid. Years ago Lou Holtz went crazy when a jogger began circling the stadium track at North Carolina State during a practice. He had the man forcibly removed, convinced he was a spy of some kind. He was an N.C. State professor. Recently Florida Coach Urban Meyer explained that one reason he completely closes his practices is because if someone is moved up or down the depth chart someone in the media is bound to ask about it after practice.
“We (coaches almost always use the royal we) just don’t have time to deal with that,” he said.
My guess here is that the Michigan players aren’t lying. They may have an axe to grind but there are too many of them telling the same story for their not to be some truth in it. Rodriguez is in full non-denial, denial mode right now insisting he knows the rules without addressing the question directly as to whether he broke those rules. Some players, he insisted, may have misunderstood what hours counted towards the 20 hour limit and what hours didn’t.
If in fact the NCAA finds that the rules were broken the next step will be the, “everyone does it,” defense (to which there is no doubt a good deal of truth) followed by the talking heads, “20 hours isn’t enough,” defense that has already been raised. It doesn’t really matter. The NCAA isn’t going to come down hard on Michigan. It will give it probation (which in English means saying, ‘don’t do it again); might take away a scholarship or two (there are already too many under the rules anyway) or dock the school a recruiting visit or two.
It’s the court of public opinion Rodriguez needs to worry about. He isn’t going to win anyone over with his personality so he better win games. The game with Notre Dame now looms as huge for both schools and both coaches. Charlie Weis, another guy who isn’t going to win over anyone with his charm, is on the hot seat at Notre Dame and, with a heavily watered-down schedule is expected to win at least 10 games. Holtz, who would apologize for Notre Dame for just about anything, has the Irish in the national championship game. Weis had better beat Michigan.
Or, Michigan had better beat Notre Dame or Rodriguez is going to start hearing some footsteps: losing games and embarrassing the school is not a good combination anyplace, especially at Michigan.
“I’ve been a head coach for 16 years and won eight conference titles,” Rodriguez said Monday when he wasn’t sniffling.
You can trust me when I tell you no one at Michigan could care less how many conference titles he won in Conference-USA or The Big East. And they don’t care how many hours he worked the players there, or, to be honest at Michigan, if he’s winning games. Not three games in a season, more like 10.