16 July 2009

What They Won't Admit - Why West Virginia And Rich Rodriguez Need Each Other

I have typically avoided specific locales, subjects, etc. that might tend to identify me but let's just say that despite not being involved with the West Virginia University football program I have intimate knowledge about the goings on there mostly since Rich Rodriguez took over in 2001.

The story is well known and long debated. West Virginians and WVU alumni (not always the same group) added another gear (incredibly) to their long-established reputation as wild-eyed it's-us-or-them fanatics. Was Rod disloyal? In his mind no but the facts point to a different conclusion especially in light of the unintentional dry run with Alabama the year before. Were WVU, the athletic director and the various self-important lieutenants inflexible? Again the answer has to be yes else why would Rod walk away from his dream job given remarkable success on the field (the 2007 Pitt game result notwithstanding)?

Both sides and their supporters have plenty of factual and anecdotal evidence to support their claims and there is still enough raw emotion to fuel tears, ulcers and arguments for a lifetime.

Those emotions may keep Rich Rodriguez and West Virginia (the state, the university, the alumni, the fans and West Virginia as a state of mind) separated in the short term and perhaps forever but stranger things have happened in life and especially sports.

With that lengthy preamble it's time to drop the outrage, the lawsuits, the depositions and admit one basic fact: Rich Rodriguez and WVU belong together. Any current coach in college football would not and does not fit in the WVU head coach's role as well as Rodriguez. And Rodriguez will be a fish out of water whereever he may ply his trade outside Morgantown, WV.

1) Rodriguez is still young and vibrant - it's become almost a cliche'. Messy scandals involving governors' daughters and WVU's largest private donor aside, a new president is in place who knows nothing about the battles of the past. He would be an ally for Rodriguez who had to fight singlehandedly against many hidebound individuals and policies carried over to this day from the Don Nehlen era.

2) Speaking of Don Nehlen, his lineage appears to have been restored with the appointment of Bill Stewart as WVU head coach. Stewart is 'the real deal' (one of his favorite phrases). It's no hyperbole to say that he is a God-fearing family man who started panning for gold at the river's edge and eventually occupied a stately home on the mountaintop. He has done it all in amateur football for meager pay, long hours and little recognition. He may be the most appreciative occupant of a head coaching position in the nation and will probably remain that way perhaps forever.

But the Stewart/Nehlen mentality is different. Sportsmanship and fraternal love within a team are great things and they are heavily promoted under this restoration. But what about the football? Bumper crops of recruits are announced but the mentality seems to be a throwback as well. WVU will be a ham-and-egger like Rocky Balboa hoping to throw a devastating uppercut...except there are no Apollo Creeds to fight. The Big East is simply not a strong conference despite the strides made by Louisville (already slipping fast), Cincinnati, Rutgers (also slipping) and USF (not there yet).

The point of all this is that the Big East's reputation, membership and the defection of Miami and Virginia Tech (and BC to a lesser degree) combined with Stewart's nice-guy approach mean that WVU football will probably be viewed - once agan - as a 'strong program' but on the outside looking in at BCS and even national championship contention.

3) Rodriguez and Michigan. It doesn't work. It won't work. Ever seen a Yankee suburbanite try to 'country' it up when they are with (in their minds) hicks, rednecks, Southerners, etc.? It's awkward and embarrassing. Michigan loves its football and it's got a rather large outdoor library, er, stadium to prove it. Their attempts to shower this new arrival in Ann Arbor with love have been half-hearted at best. Perhaps some credit is due them - they recognize a carpetbagger when they see one. Rodriguez and Schembechler are not miles apart in terms of on-field antics although their private demeanors differ greatly. Football is football whether it's the Wing-T or the Spread Option. There is a cultural gap that will never be bridged.

Then there's the small matter of winning football games. Rod hasn't done it at Michigan. When he's trying to recruit a point guard from Duke's basketball program to play quarterback you know that desperation has set in on all sides.

4) The Big Ten. A moribund conference with a single superpower (Ohio State). Its lesser lights were once dangerous sleeper teams (Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State) but the quality of football in those programs and in the conference as a whole has declined quickly. Huge alumni bases and locked-in television contracts mean that the Big Ten will remain in the public eye despite the problems but the matchups aren't there. Rod thought it would be the SEC of the North but it's more like the MAC with bigger stadiums.

Which brings us back to Rod and WVU.
In a few years' time the landscape will be different on and off the field. WVU's power brokers will change - a new president is already in place. Athletic Director Ed Pastilong is planning his exit even if he hasn't announced it. The governor is in his second (and final) term and waiting for nonagenerian Senator Robert Byrd to pass from this earth or retire so that he may tap himself on the shoulder and seamlessly move into the office of US Senator.

One thing Rod has lacked throughout this affair is proper PR. He may think that a football coach doesn't need it or that he can provide himself but it's a 24-hour job now and coaches have other duties and priorities. A hard-as-nails lawyer/agent issuing threats and denials isn't the answer either. An appearance here, a speech there, a radio interview...small doses and manageable bites are what he needs to begin the healing process. West Virginians are excitable - too excitable - when it comes to celebrities and get star-struck very easily. It explains their choice of elected officials to a large extent.

Without any ill will directed at Bill Stewart & staff, Rod can and should be the next head coach at West Virginia. The timing may just work out perfectly for both and when the opportunity presents itself we can only hope that the red mist will have subsided enough for fans to think about the future and not the past.