Rich Rodriguez was never going to be "a Michigan man."
Not when he was hired, not when he cried after being accused of pushing his players too hard, not even if he wins nearly every game for as long as he lasts in the job.
That's not a slam on Rodriguez. No one in charge of a topflight major college football program anywhere else qualifies as "a Michigan man," either. The last one, Lloyd Carr, resigned at the end of the 2007 season, when he realized he could no longer be both. Trying to uphold a winning tradition while following both the letter and spirit of NCAA laws finally wore him out.
Not a day went by, Carr recalled at his retirement news conference, that he walked into his office without finding at least one of the 100 players he coached, and often several, had dumped a problem _ academic, legal or otherwise _ on his desk.
"I think it's time to let somebody else worry about all those issues," Carr said.
Not so long ago, the people in charge at Michigan were to college football what Pittsburgh's Rooney family was to the NFL _ patient and loyal almost to a fault, as committed to doing things right as they were to doing them better than anyone else. Then the business around them changed.
When they hired Rodriguez to replace Carr, the mandate was to restore the winningest program in the sport to the top of the heap. Naively, perhaps, they thought he could accomplish it simply by updating the offense, not the culture. But Rodriguez knew better.
He had been around the block a few times already _ as an assistant or head coach at Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia. He knew there was no way to compete with the juggernauts all around him unless he did things the same way they did _ pushing everything and everybody in the program right up to the edge, and sometimes beyond.
Saying "Everyone else is doing it" is not an excuse, but it's true. There was no shortage of players and coaches who confirmed that in recent days, including coach Jim Tressel and captains Kurt Coleman and Doug Worthington from bitter rival Ohio State.
"I haven't had anyone come in and say, 'You know what, Coach? We spent too much time at it and that's why we didn't do as well as we wanted to do,'" Tressel said
"I think Michigan is probably abiding by the rules," added Coleman, a starting safety. "But, you know, to be great you have to put in more than 20 hours. That's just the minimum. In any great program, each player is putting in more than what they're required to."
Carr was a stickler about stuff like that. He made sure no staff members showed up at offseason conditioning sessions and voluntary practices, entrusting his captains and upperclassmen to play sheriff when he wasn't around. The account of goings-on in the Detroit Free Press paint a different picture since Rodriguez took control.
A telling detail in the newspaper's first story quoted an unnamed player about a saying echoed often by members of Rodriguez's staff: "Workouts aren't mandatory, but neither is playing time."
Maybe it's just coincidence, but the newspaper also noted that Rodriguez's All-America center at West Virginia, Dan Mozes, was quoted saying the same thing in the summer of 2006; six months ago, Mozes was hired as a part-time assistant strength coach at Michigan.
During an emotional news conference Monday, Rodriguez insisted, "We know the rules and we follow the rules." What bothered him instead was the perception that he and his staff would put the players at risk.
"To say that is misleading, inaccurate and goes against everything that I have ever believed in coaching."
But if there turns out to be a paper trail that NCAA investigators can trace back to Rodriguez's office door, there's going to be trouble. Michigan football has never been hit with major sanctions, and if those were to follow on the heels of a 3-9 season, the people in charge could point to a clause in Rodriguez's contract allowing termination for that very reason.
There's a saying in sports, spoken only partly in jest, "that if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." If Rodriguez gets labeled a cheater and he still isn't winning, it's going to be a long fall in Ann Arbor.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org