Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Institutions Of Higher Earning

(note: this column was written Saturday, before U-M hired Rich Rodriguez. It was supposed to run on Sunday)

Wanna know when a college football coach is thinking of leaving the school he’s coaching at currently? When he says things like, “I’m very happy where I’m at. I have no desire to leave.” Then you know you got him dead to rights.

This is the time of the year when you can cue the phonograph and begin the game of musical chairs in campus football – between the regular season and the bowl games. Those fired have been canned weeks ago. Those mulling a change of venue are in the peak time of mulling. Some coaches drop their current employer like a bad habit and flee to greener pastures – pun intended. And those schools without a coach can find themselves engaged in very public, very awkward searches. But more about Michigan later.

It’s been going on for decades, this blarney from the college football coach.

Why, in our backyard practically – in Ann Arbor and East Lansing – one man rose above the whispers and rumors, while the other issued denials until the jig was up.

In the early 1980s, Texas A&M was very sweet on Bo Schembechler, who was in the prime of adding to his legend at Michigan. The courtship started the usual way – thru hush-hush conversations and rampant speculation.

But Bo would have none of the media circus that can surround such wooing. Before we knew what hit us, Schembechler went public, spilling the beans: Texas A&M had come calling, and was waving some serious bucks in his face. And this: Yes, I considered it, Bo said. Seriously. But in the end, he couldn’t bear to leave Ann Arbor and his kids. Not even for more dough.

The story had ended not long after it began.

A couple years earlier, Darryl Rogers was coaching at Michigan State. He was a popular flavor, having lifted the once-moribund Spartans to a co-Big Ten title in 1978. He had beaten Michigan that year, not long after calling the folks in Ann Arbor “arrogant asses.” Other schools looked at Rogers and got some ideas.

Rogers, presumably NOT cleaning out his office in East Lansing (but we know better)

One of those institutions was Arizona State.

But unlike what Schembechler would do later, Rogers went into denial mode – once the story broke that the college in the desert was showing some interest, that is.

The denials were rather stringent in their tone – almost defiant. No way, Rogers told us, would he ever leave MSU for Arizona State University.

No way.

The story picked up some steam, and the cat seemed to be out of the bag: Rogers would be, indeed, the new coach at ASU.

But the coach still declared the reports fiction.

He did so, in fact, until just hours before he stepped onto a podium on the Sun Devil campus, introduced as ASU’s new coach.

It was wondered how much longer Rogers felt he could get away with his denials, which were considerably less truthful than the stories he was refuting.

Several years later, in 1985, the Lions, it was reported, were seriously considering plucking a college coach to lead their team. Monte Clark had been given the ziggy after seven years. Maybe the new coach, he of the college pedigree, could bring the team out of its morass.

But the college coach pooh-poohed the rumors. He was perfectly happy where he was, thank you. No way would he be leaving for the NFL, to coach the Detroit Lions.

No way.

One day after feeding us some more denials, Darryl Rogers stood before the lights and cameras at the Pontiac Silverdome, grinning that crooked grin of his, accepting the offer of a clearly misguided Bill Ford Sr.

One afternoon at practice, three years and some change later, Rogers would stare at the ceiling in the Dome and wonder aloud, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”

I thought of Rogers as I watched the Bobby Petrino ordeal play out.

Petrino, happily ensconced as the football coach at Louisville University this time last year, issued the typical denials as rumors bobbed to the surface that the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons were knocking on his door. The usual “I’m happy here” blather.

Then he went and signed with the Falcons – a five-year commitment.

I’m not sure what he told Falcons owner Arthur Blank, but it must have been quite a bill of goods, because there were many more, better qualified candidates than Petrino for that job.
Last Monday night, Petrino coached the Falcons to a very uninspiring loss on national television. His record sat at 3-10.

The next morning, he was on a plane to Arkansas, being introduced as the Razorbacks’ new coach. Just like that.

He left a brief letter in the stalls of his players. It had all the warmth of an employer’s rejection note.

Bobby Petrino had quit on his team, and had fed a bunch of blarney to his owner.

The comments from the Falcons players included words like “classless” and “not what a man does” and “I have no respect for someone like that.” Some of them were uttered even as the locker room TV beamed images of a smiling Petrino at an Arkansas pep rally.

Now I also think of Nick Saban, who assured the Miami Dolphins last winter that he was going to be their coach for a good long while. Less than 24 hours after the most recent “assurance”, Saban took the job at Alabama. Among those blasting him for his blarney was longtime Dolphins coach Don Shula – whose son David was the one being replaced by Saban at ‘Bama.

Michigan, twice rejected – that we know of – is now wining and dining Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia. Unfortunately for the Maize and Blue, the two men they’ve pursued the most – Les Miles from LSU and Greg Schiano from Rutgers – have made good on their denials, and are staying put. Bo Schembechler all over again – in reverse.

Former Pistons coach Butch van Breda Kolff said it best, and the most succinctly. Having just signed a contract extension with the Pistons in 1971, VBK was unimpressed when reporters asked for his comment.

“Hell, they can always fire you. And you can quit if you want to.”

Care to argue with that?

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