NEW YORK – Rich Rodriguez was convinced the worst was behind him at Michigan, that better days were coming after three tumultuous seasons. Much better. "Exponentially" better, as he put it.
Then he was fired.
"We saw the light at the end of the tunnel," he said Tuesday in a 30-minute interview with The Associated Press.
"Heck, we had 24 starters coming back, and the player of the year in the league — he's a sophomore and still learning. Recruiting, we thought it was going really well even with all the drama.
"That's the frustrating part about it is we didn't get a chance to finish the job."
Rodriguez was in New York, preparing to work as a guest analyst for CBS Sports' national signing day coverage Wednesday. For the first time in about 20 years, Rodriguez is free on signing day.
He was fired last month by Michigan after a 7-6 season that ended with blowout losses to Ohio State and, in the Gator Bowl, to Mississippi State.
Michigan athletic director David Brandon took the unusual step of waiting until after the bowl game to decide whether to keep Rodriguez.
Asked if it was fair for Brandon to wait until January to make the call, Rodriguez said the timing of his dismissal was far from ideal for him, his players and staff. The Wolverines lost 37-7 to Ohio State on Nov. 27, more than a month before the bowl game. The Wolverines lost that 52-14.
"Whatever I say in that regard is probably going to sound self-serving," Rodriguez said. "Would it have been better for the staff to know a month ahead? No question about it. When jobs come open in the college level they come open in December.
"And had I been able to get on somewhere, that could have happened, too. I may have been able to get another head coaching job then."
Rodriguez was 16-22 at Michigan — including a 3-9 first season that stands as the worst in the history of the storied program — and 6-18 in the Big Ten. The program was also hit with NCAA sanctions for the first time because of rules violations.
Just before the 2009 season, anonymous players told the Detroit Free Press that under Rodriguez the program was exceeding NCAA limits on practice and training time.
"Witch hunt may be a little too strong of a word, but there was certainly an agenda," Rodriguez said. "That initial article that came out was agenda-driven to be as negative as it could be on Rich Rodriguez and what he was doing with the football program."
The NCAA placed Michigan on probation for three years for practice and training violations, but didn't determine Rodriguez had failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance with NCAA rules.
From Day 1 at Michigan, Rodriguez seemed almost doomed to fail. He came to Ann Arbor from West Virginia, where he nearly coached his alma mater to the national title game, to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr.
But his divorce from West Virginia was messy and his reputation took a serious hit in the court of public opinion. When he got to Michigan, there were plenty of Wolverines supporters who were skeptical of their new coach.
"Are there regrets or second thoughts? If I didn't say that it wouldn't be true," Rodriguez said.
"But it's still a great place. It's a really good job. It can be a great job if everyone is supporting you and pulling in the right direction. Maybe that's what (new coach) Brady (Hoke) is going to get because he was at Michigan before.
"Everybody's got their own theory of it. My personal theory — and this is talking to people that were there before I got there — is that when Bo Schembechler passed away that driving force to get everybody pulling in the same direction may have gone with him.
"I think there were some battles that were being fought even before I took the job."
Schembechler, who coached Michigan from 1969-89 and was the patriarch of the program for years after that, died in 2006 the day before the Ohio State game.
This past season was Rodriguez's best at Michigan. Led by Big Ten player of the year Denard Robinson, the Wolverines' offense was one of the most prolific in school history. But the defense was the worst in the Big Ten, hampered by inexperienced players and injuries.
"We had gotten better, not defensively, we had gotten better as a program each of the three years," he said. "We were going to be exponentially better the fourth and the fifth year."
Rodriguez is still living just outside of Ann Arbor. With a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, he's not in a rush to move. Though he did say his wife, Rita, is getting the house ready to be sold.
Who knows where he will move next, but he made it perfectly clear — at the start and the end of the interview — that he wants to be a college head coach again.
"I'm hungry as I've ever been to coach," he said. "I don't want to lose my confidence. We have a formula that can take a team to BCS bowls and compete for national championships. If I'm at the right school that gives you total support and is pulling in the right direction, I think we'll do that."
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.