Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Establishing a New Tradition in Michigan Football

I grew up watching traditional, smash-mouth, run-it-up the gut Michigan football. Even in the lean years, ending the season outside of the top 25 was hardly considered a possibility. The offensive tactics were not the most exciting, but kept us competitive for the better part of four decades. A tradition established by Bo Schembechler and carried on by his hand-picked successors, both long-time coordinators while he was head coach. In the mid-2000s a couple of rough, underwhelming seasons, and an abysmal record against a revamped Ohio State seemed to force the last of Bo's proteges into retirement. Rich Rodriguez, a well known coach who developed one of the more radical forms of the spread offense at West Virginia, was hired to take his place in 2008.

There was immediate backlash. Many fans were angry that the new head coach was not a product of the old guard, which had been successful for so long. His offense was so much different than Michigan offenses of the past. He had a greater emphasis on agility in his players than size. Even along the offensive line, mobility came at a premium over mass. Michigan used to move the ball by overpowering you, Rodriguez wanted to give his athletes space to run around you.

The misdirection in his offense required a level of execution that he couldn't achieve in the short period of time he had to work with players who never played in his system before. If it wasn't a failure in play execution, the offense just looked slow due to lack of experience in the new system and a paucity of athletes designed for it. The spread offense we had seen at West Virginia was a long ways off. Many were calling for the coach to be fired after the 3-9 season, saying his system just couldn't work in the Big Ten.

His second season began with promise. He won the first 4 games on the schedule, including a high profile win over rival Notre Dame. The offense had improved from the year before. Everyone seemed more comfortable in the system. There were young, developing recruits who had the kind of athleticism that makes his offense work. Many of them showed flashes that year, however, the team was still young. Injuries and inconsistent play from the offense and a horrific defense kept Michigan out of a bowl game. Improvement was clear, but the results left more people wanting a new head coach.

Good things come to those who wait. We saw glimpses of it in his first two years, but now see what a Rich Rodriguez offense looks like with all the pieces in place. We have, arguably, the most exciting player in the country in Denard Robinson running one of the best offenses. It's a different sort of euphoria than watching the good teams of the past. Wins are not expected based on a tradition already in place. We are watching a coach try and establish a new winning tradition. We never know what to expect. The uncertainty brings an added level of excitement to every game. Can this offense work against the toughest teams in the conference? Do we have a coach who can get us back to the top?

The season is far from over. The toughest games remain on the schedule, but it is becoming clear why we hired this guy. The image of what Michigan could be when we hired Rich Rodriguez is, at least on the offensive side of the ball, the reality. However, last season Michigan started out with an identical record. It was a loss to Michigan State that started the collapse. I guess we will see this weekend just how far this team has come. I have never been more excited to go to the Big House Saturday. Go Blue!

Picture of Bo Schembechler from AnnArbor.com
Picture of Rich Rodriguez with Denard Robinson from the Detroit News

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