U-M Insider: Word police chasing Rich Rod now

Be careful what you say, Rich Rodriguez.

Every word will be used against you.

That’s what it gets to when a football coach is failing to live up to expectations. Even their news conferences are picked apart and over analyzed.

It happened last week to Rodriguez during Michigan’s bye week.

Some people think their coach shouldn’t show any sense of humor or personality when he’s lost two straight and has a defense that is shredded on a weekly basis.

Rodriguez was explaining how he’s more of a hands-on coach with the offense and special teams, but he delegates the defensive duties to coordinator Greg Robinson and the defensive staff. Rodriguez has reiterated throughout the season that some of the defensive liabilities couldn’t be completely solved in the short term because of inexperience, especially in the secondary.

Last week, he went a step further and suggested Vince Lombardi wouldn’t fix these problems, either.

It was a good quote, but some interpreted it as Rodriguez not taking responsibility for his lousy defense. And so there was an uproar on sports-talk radio and the message boards.

Rodriguez also said, “If nothing more, I think we’re fun to watch. There are times when I wish we weren’t so fun to watch and we could just execute the way we want to.”

In other words, they’re playing high-scoring games, both ways, which are entertaining for the viewers. But some people were irked by this one, too, because they’re not having any fun watching a soft Michigan defense. They also expect their coach to be in mourning 24-and-7 after a loss.

“We take it pretty hard for 24 hours,” Rodriguez said. “After that, we move on. You’ve got to.”

Because if the head coach doesn’t, how are the players going to?

These are the types of extreme interpretations of a coach’s words and actions that occur when he’s not winning enough.

Welcome to life on the hot seat. It can get nasty. And it can spread out of control like wildfire if you don’t watch what you say and, more importantly, if you don’t start winning immediately.

That’s what makes Saturday night’s game at Penn State so crucial. It could be the swing game for Michigan’s season, maybe even for Rodriguez’s future.

A victory puts the Wolverines, who are 3-point favorites, in position for a 9-3 or 8-4 season.

Either one sounds pretty good under the circumstances when you consider where this team has been the last two seasons (8-16) and mix in some other factors such as distractions from the NCAA investigation and injuries. If eight or nine victories aren’t enough, then Rodriguez should have been fired before the season.

The Wolverines are 5-2 right now, ranked No. 25 in the Coaches’ poll.

Now, that’s not up to Michigan standards, of course, but it at least makes the rest of the season worth playing out to see which way things go.

In Ann Arbor, however, there’s almost a feeling that this season already is another train wreck.

There’s three main reasons for that belief:

1. Rodriguez is 0-3 against Michigan State, and the Spartans are undefeated and contending for the Big Ten championship, if not a national championship. That is tough for Wolverines fans to swallow.

2. Michigan’s defense, the rock of this program for decades, has shown no tangible signs of improvement, ranking No. 117 in pass defense, No. 104 in total defense and No. 80 in points allowed.

3. Memories of last season’s collapse when the Wolverines lost seven of their last eight after a 4-0 start.

The players are determined to avoid another meltdown.

“We know what that was like,” said offensive lineman Stephen Schilling, a fifth-year senior captain. “I saw what it did to our seniors. It ruined their last year. I don’t want that to happen to us.”

“We’re a different team,” quarterback Denard Robinson promised. “We train harder, we play harder. We’re more as a team, more as a family than we were last year.”

Still, the anti-Rodriguez mob wants him out as soon as possible, and they will vocal.

This program, however, has invested three years into his system. If you’re going to make a move, you better have his replacement ready to name and not just start a search for anybody.

If you can get someone like Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, a former Wolverine quarterback, then it might be the way to go. But that will require the higher-ups at Michigan forgiving Harbaugh for a quote several years ago that was critical of the football program’s academic approach, along with his drunk-driving arrest.

Fortunately for Michigan, from all indications, athletic director David Brandon is the right man to make these decisions. He’s not likely to butcher the process the way his predecessor, Bill Martin, did after Lloyd Carr’s retirement.

Through it all, Rodriguez is trying to stay focused on football and not the external debates over what he has to do to keep his job.

“I’m not listening,” he said. “There’s a lot of passion for our program. Fans will talk about what they want to talk about. I can’t control that. I worry about the things I can control.”

If nothing else, a change clearly needs to be made with the defensive coordinator, assuming there’s still no progress made these final five weeks. It would be Michigan’s third D.C. in four years, which is a concern. You don’t want to start over again.

This isn’t all Robinson’s fault — the defensive personnel is suspect — but he should be able to piece together a more respectable unit than what we’ve seen the first two months.

The bye week came at an ideal time for the defense to try to regroup and save face.

“I hope so,” Rodriguez said when asked if he thought the defense had fixed anything. “That certainly was our intent to get better fundamentally.

“Our tackling hasn’t been great, but it hasn’t been that bad. One of the things we had to get better at defensively was getting off blocks. That was a big point of emphasis for us, using our hands and getting off blocks. We worked quite a bit on that last week.

“The bigger test comes in games. I’ll answer that after Saturday.”

He better win this one, or he’s going to answer to a lot more. A third straight loss and that ugliness could start to get out of control around him.

A victory can slow it down and give Rodriguez a chance.

Oct. 29, 2010