ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan fired coach Rich Rodriguez on Wednesday, ending a disappointing three-year tenure marred by embarrassing losses and NCAA violations at college football's winningest program.
Athletic director Dave Brandon announced the decision after meeting with Rodriguez on Tuesday and again Wednesday morning. He said the two had an "open, honest and direct exchange."
"I believe this is the best decision for the future of Michigan football," Brandon said. "We have not achieved at the level that I expect."
Rodriguez, who was the head coach at West Virginia before arriving in Ann Arbor, finishes 15-22 at Michigan. Rodriguez was just 6-18 in Big Ten play and 11-11 at home. The school can buy out the final three years of his contract for $2.5 million.
Brandon said he will immediately begin a national search for a replacement amid speculation that Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback, and former Michigan assistant Brady Hoke, now San Diego State's head coach.
Brandon said he has talked with Harbaugh and "will continue to talk" with him.
"I personally believe that Jim Harbaugh is headed to the NFL, that's my opinion," Brandon said.
Brandon said a candidate with head coaching and recruiting experience would have an edge in the search and he didn't set a deadline for making a decision.
"My timetable is: Go fast, but do it the right way," Brandon said.
Rodriguez was not immediately available for comment. He and his wife, Rita, drove past TV satellite trucks and reporters camped out near Schembechler Hall Wednesday and entered the back door of the indoor practice facility. A team meeting was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
"Everybody finds out info before the players cause they feel that if they were to tell us we would blabber it to the world," defensive back Troy Woolfolk wrote on his Twitter account.
Rodriguez's final season was pivotal and it didn't go well on or off the field.
He helped the Wolverines win seven games to earn a postseason bid, then stood helplessly on the sideline on New Year's Day as Mississippi State handed them their worst bowl beating -- a 38-point drubbing -- in a Gator Bowl loss that looked all too familiar.
Quarterback Denard Robinson couldn't consistently make the sensational plays he did during a jaw-dropping start to the season. And Michigan's young defense, which ranked among the nation's worst, was overmatched again.
"There's a thought of getting a defensive-minded everything," Brandon said when asked if he was looking for a head coach who emphasizes defense. "I want the ball boys to be defensive-minded."
Rodriguez finished 7-6, losing six of the last eight games. The improvement wasn't enough from his 5-7 finish last year and the Michigan-record nine losses in his debut season in Ann Arbor.
He was 1-11 against ranked teams and 0-6 combined against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.
The season had clearly weighed on Rodriguez.
He surprised supporters and his players at the team's postseason banquet when he broke down and cried, talking about the toll his job had on his family, then quoted the Bible and Josh Groban and played a song from the musician in a surreal scene.
"I don't think Rich Rodriguez has had a peaceful night sleep since he arrived in Ann Arbor," said Brandon, who was lured to Michigan a year ago from his job as chairman and CEO of Domino's Pizza. "I think that his three years here ... can somewhat be defined as three years of turmoil. It seems like it was one thing after another. It clearly impacted recruiting. It clearly impacted the positive energy that the team needs to be successful. It created a lot of hardships and a lot of distractions.
"Clearly, we need to put ourselves in a position where that is all history."
Michigan's former athletic director, Bill Martin, hired Rodriguez away from West Virginia after the 2007 season in a messy divorce. The school Rodriguez had played for and rooted for as a kid had extended his contract a year earlier, and he didn't want to pay a $4 million buyout. Michigan eventually agreed to pay West Virginia $2.5 million, leaving Rodriguez to take care of the rest.
From the beginning and until the end, he struggled to be accepted at Michigan. Some wanted LSU's Les Miles to return to Ann Arbor, where he was an assistant for the late Bo Schembechler. Miles, who has been LSU's head coach for six years, said Wednesday: "I very much enjoy where I'm at."
On the field, Rodriguez didn't inherit a roster full of talent from Lloyd Carr. Quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas and offensive guard Justin Boren left for Ohio State, making his transition even more challenging.
The Wolverines took pride in winning with class and by the rules for three-plus decades under Schembechler, Carr and Gary Moeller.
Under Rodriguez, the program was hit by the kind of news it dreaded.
Just before the 2009 season, anonymous players told the Detroit Free Press that the Rodriguez-led program was exceeding NCAA limits on practice and training time.
"We know the rules, and we follow the rules," an emotional Rodriguez declared a day after the report was published. He insisted the off-the-field "drama" didn't affect his team.
The school later acknowledged that it was guilty of four violations. It was put on three years of probation, though Rodriguez and the school avoided major penalties in part because the NCAA agreed that the coach didn't fail to promote an atmosphere and compliance in his program.
Still, Paul Dee, chair of the Division I infractions committee, compared the coach's role to that of being captain of the ship.
"The coach is ultimately responsible, but that doesn't mean that the coach is involved in all of the activities that occurred," Dee said. "Some of the things that did occur did not get all the way to the coach, but ultimately, the coach bears a responsibility for the program."
Rodriguez is widely considered one of the architects of the spread offense that has become the rage in college football, creating his version of three- and four-receiver sets at tiny Glenville State in 1990.
Rodriguez recruited two freshmen who could lead his offense -- Robinson and Tate Forcier -- and they helped the 2009 team get off to a strong start that put Michigan on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His defenses never kept pace.
Toward the end of the collapsing 2009 season, Rodriguez took a few not-to-subtle shots at Carr and his staff in terms of recruiting talent to Ann Arbor.
"The last three Februarys, or four Februarys, have hurt us a little bit," Rodriguez said. "The next two or three Februarys will be very critical. That's where it starts."
Rodriguez, though, didn't get a chance to finish what he started.
"Rich is a good person and coach," Brandon said. "It's unfortunate that it didn't work out at Michigan, but I'm sure that Rich and his staff will find opportunities at other institutions."