ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Rich Rodriguez was at ease with reporters for a change, casually chatting and cracking jokes.
Michigan's embattled coach said Monday there was a reason he looked and sounded more relaxed — as he previewed the season-opening game this week against Connecticut — than he had the past two years.
"It was kind of refreshing to have a press conference with all football talk," Rodriguez said after his news conference. "We haven't had a whole lot of those."
He has often been tense and defensive at his weekly news conferences because of problems on and off the field.
A year ago Tuesday, Rodriguez fought back tears in the same room while defending himself after the Detroit Free Press published a report in which anonymous players claimed the amount of time they spent on football during the season and in the offseason greatly exceeded NCAA limits.
The school later acknowledged it violated four major NCAA rules under Rodriguez, though it backed him last month against a fifth charge that he failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
Rodriguez seems more than ready to move on and give the public a better sense of how he is when comfortable and confident.
"Maybe everybody knows me better, and I know everybody better," he explained. "The more you know somebody, the more you relax. I've come to the realization that you are who you are, people are going to judge you regardless, so why worry about it?"
Winning, of course, is what concerns Rodriguez the most entering his third season.
The Wolverines lost a school-record nine games in his first year leading college football's winningest team and flopped to a 5-7 finish last season.
Rodriguez has been widely identified as a coach on the hot seat, but steadfastly insists he doesn't feel more of a sense of urgency now than he has in any other season.
"There's more pressure at higher levels because it's more important to more people, but as a coach, you feel the same," he said. "I'll stay awake the night before Saturday's game, thinking about what I've got to do, just like I did at West Virginia and Glenville State."
Michigan lured Rodriguez away from West Virginia to replace retiring coach Lloyd Carr after the 2007 season and it didn't take long for the Wolverines to know things would be different.
"He was an intense, fiery coach, obviously different than coach Carr with the way he's a little more in your face yelling," fifth-year senior Steve Schilling said. "I knew he had success in the past, so I had a lot of respect for him coming in.
"I've gained every more respect for him through what we've gone through. We've kind of bonded as a team with the coaching staff the last couple of years, going through all the adversity."
Instead of recoiling at his first weekly news conferences of the season, Rodriguez was often smiling and laughing while answering questions.
"I don't need no Dr. Phil moment with the guys," Rodriguez cracked.
Is he more encouraged by his inexperienced players than he's acknowledging?
"I know eventually what we'll have, but in the first game or two, with all of the nerves out there and all that kind of stuff, big Johnny (Falk) will probably have to bring a couple extra pairs of pants in case they make a little mess," said Rodriguez, referring to the team's equipment manager.