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Fixing A Mistake: Who Is the Right Man For Michigan Football?

With each passing week, it is looking more and more like Michigan's 2010 football season will end similarly to the 2009 season. Between Mark Dantonio's positioning Michigan State to take over the state of Michigan in football supremacy and the lack of progress Michigan seems to have made, it's hard to imagine Rich Rodriguez returning to the program as the head coach in 2011 with the average, at best, record for which he seems destined and yet another horrible showing in Big Ten conference play.

That means it's time to start talking about making a change at Michigan. And I mean really start talking about it, as in making a list of candidates that should be contacted about replacing Rich Rodriguez. More importantly, Michigan needs to carefully examine who would be the best overall fit for the program based on its needs as the program currently stands. Although much discussion has taken place regarding Rodriguez's job security and some discussion of replacements has taken place, there has not been much in-depth analysis of the direction Michigan needs to take and why.

Thus, I've prepared a relatively thorough list of names and criteria that Michigan should use in analyzing these names. Each criterion will be followed by broad evaluation of which coaches do and do not fit the criterion.

Candidates
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford--top candidate in the minds of most Michigan fans, at this point. Played for Michigan under Bo Schembechler and is having success at Stanford, likely going 11-1 this regular season. Sure to get a call from athletic director David Brandon when the search begins.

Chris Petersen, Boise State--maybe the second most heard name from fans. Has the class, the spread offense, the ability to win with what he has and to win close games against better teams. Uncertain whether or not he’d entertain interest from Michigan, and his contract buyout could be costly.

Gary Patterson, TCU--much like Petersen in many important ways, but has a great complement of offense and defense every season.

Les Miles, LSU--still mentioned among Michigan fans, but the number of fans who would want athletic director David Brandon to speak with him has dropped dramatically due to bad coaching displays. He would almost certainly be contacted, though. Played for Michigan under Bo and has success in the SEC, including a national title.

Gary Pinkel, Missouri--Missouri is certainly on the Big Ten’s radar, having been in the discussion to join the conference. Improved defense this season. Has had Big 12 title game appearances and a #1 ranking with a real shot to play for the national title. Knows how to beat rivals.

Kyle Whittingham, Utah--same boat as Petersen and Patterson. D is questionable at times, but the team pulls out wins however they have to. Offense keeps rolling, regardless of loss of key players. An undefeated season and on that road this year.

Mike Bellotti, ESPN Analyst/Former Oregon Head Coach--I like his personality and what he has to say as an analyst. He is definitely a big part of the reason why Oregon is where they are right now, and I completely believe they would have won the national title and had a Heisman trophy winner in 2007 if quarterback Dennis Dixon hadn’t gotten injured. Something tells me this is the kind of job he’d really consider.

Guys Who Need To Be On the Radar
Butch Jones, Cincinnati--less so now that he is not doing well at Cincy. But he has [state of] Michigan ties and knows how to ride a talented college QB to wins.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn Offensive Coordinator--did with Auburn players what Tuberville and staff couldn’t do his final season, and we have players that need the same thing. Only a matter of time before he is a successful head coach somewhere.

Will Muschamp, Texas Defensive Coordinator--for the sake of more defensive-minded guys in the mix. Not likely to come to Michigan, but it’s worth a stab.

Kirby Smart, Alabama Defensive Coordinator--same as Muschamp.

Carl Pelini, Nebraska Defensive Coordinator--same as Muschamp/Smart, plus he has Ohio roots.

Mark Stoops, Florida State Defensive Coordinator--same as Muschamp/Smart/Pelini. Pelini/Stoops need to be contacted for the D Coordinator position, if not head coach. Ohio and Big Ten roots.

Kevin Sumlin, Houston--for the sake of diversity and seems to be the most successful black coach. Would be very positive for Michigan to have a black coach. Big Ten roots. Seems to have a stable of QBs who can get it done. Questions regarding D and consistency.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern--would not come to Michigan, but he is Harbaugh Lite, i.e. winning with less, attitude of toughness, etc.

Glen Mason, Big Ten Network Analyst/Former Minnesota Head Coach--if no one else wants the job. Ohio roots and had Minnesota where a program like that should reasonably expect to be, which is more than we can say for Tim Brewster.

Criteria
Class/Character--not going to bring negative attention to the program outside of the results on the field. Has an image that works with the “Michigan Man” ideal.
Candidate Evaluation: Almost as much as Rodriguez fails this test, so does Les Miles. Being a Michigan Man is not about ties to the team, state or university--image is huge. I seriously look at Les Miles in disbelief almost every time I see or hear him that he is considered a Michigan Man. Not only does he lack coaching ability, but he can’t speak [standard] English. A Michigan hire has to have some semblance of an elite, sophisticated, respectable and intelligent persona (Carr) or some mixture of these qualities with an attitude of toughness, doing things the right way, no-nonsense, Midwestern or working class image, expecting to win (Bo). Jim Harbaugh fits this to a ‘T,’ and, though it's harder to tell with guys who don't have Michigan ties, it seems many of them fit this criterion better than Miles does. There is nothing elite or intellectual about the images of Rodriguez and Miles, and the winning quality is borderline in Miles--more like “escaping with wins”--and non-existent in RR over 2 & 1/2 years.

Willingness To Embrace and Understand Michigan’s Culture--the hire has to demonstrate, if he is not a Michigan Man by team/state/university affiliation, a sincere desire to learn Michigan’s identity, history and traditions, and to adhere to them, pass them on and make them part of who he is. Beating Ohio State should not be about getting another win, reaching bowl eligibility, failing/getting embarrassed on a big stage or job security; it should be about the ecstasy of beating them and the pain of losing to them for the coach personally.
Candidate Evaluation: Guys like Harbaugh and Miles obviously come with this as a given, but this is where it gets really tricky with the other candidates. Michigan dropped this one big-time when RR was chosen. It has to be the #1 criterion this time, and that is why so many Michigan fans feel that the head coaching hires need to have Michigan ties. Right now, outside of Harbaugh and Miles, it’s tough to know who will come in and ingrain Michigan’s culture into their being. Ironically, history tells us, though, to look at guys with Ohio ties for this, i.e. Carl Pelini, Mark Stoops, Glen Mason. Bo and Gary Moeller both had Ohio ties. It goes without saying that Butch Jones, being from Michigan, would also be logical here, as Lloyd Carr did grow up in Michigan. On the same note...

Michigan Or Ohio Roots--as much as people talk about being a Michigan Man, being an Ohio one is probably way more important in evaluating who will be successful at Michigan. Two of Michigan's most successful coaches in the modern era have been Ohio guys. Bo Schembechler was from Ohio, had a degree from Ohio State, was an assistant at OSU and coached at Miami (OH). Gary Moeller was from Ohio and actually played for OSU. Some of the best players in Michigan football history have been from the state of Ohio, including Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard. Still, having Michigan ties, particularly to the team, means a built-in understanding of Michigan’s history, traditions, identity and way of thinking.
Candidate Evaluation: See “...Michigan Culture” candidate evaluation above. Just please, nobody else with West Virginia ties...

Defensive Strength--if there’s any criterion I would place #2 behind “getting” Michigan, it would be, at this time in the program, finding a guy who really cares about defense. A big part of Michigan’s decline as a football program has been defensive struggles, even before RR got to Michigan. The next head coach needs to be someone who will hire a great defensive coordinator at the very least, but being a head coach with either a defensive background or an eye on defense as evidenced by strong defensive performances on teams he has coached is critical, as well. Michigan will not see much progress until defense is improved.
Candidate Evaluation: A lot of candidates who will be on Michigan’s hot list fail this criterion, including Harbaugh and Petersen, and I fear that this is where Michigan will err in the next coaching hire. Getting this element of a hire wrong can leave programs in the same position as before the hiring as evidenced by Notre Dame’s hiring of Brian Kelly and Charlie Weis. In evaluating these guys’ defensive performances and overall results, it will be equally important to consider the kind of teams they face at their current programs. Harbaugh’s Stanford is winning in a conference that lacks defensive strength, so the name of the game is outscoring everybody every week. I don’t see this approach working in the Big Ten and, indeed, it has not worked for Michigan...nor for Indiana and, at times, for Purdue, Illinois and Michigan State. Stanford’s defense was clearly a weak spot in their only loss this season to Oregon.

Petersen’s Boise State masks the fact that they do not have strong defense by playing mostly inferior competition. But if you look at all the “real” teams Boise State has faced, the only times in the years that they’ve been on the national radar when their defense has looked good were in two bowl games against TCU and in their first game of 2009 against Oregon. In this time, they have also faced Virginia Tech, Oregon (2008), Oregon State, Oklahoma and undefeated Hawai’i. They have faced decent Nevada, Fresno State and East Carolina teams. They’ve lost two of these matchups in part because of their defense--Hawai’i and ECU. Not coincidentally, Tennessee hired away Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox at the end of last season, and now Tennessee’s defense is the worst it has been in years whereas it had been the strength of these past few difficult seasons. Meanwhile, Boise State has struggled even under a new D coordinator against VT, Oregon State and Louisiana Tech.

Kevin Sumlin finds himself in a similar position as Petersen does, except Houston’s defense looks bad against even inferior competition and adds to inconsistent win/loss results, i.e. beating Big 12 teams and losing to C-USA ones. Butch Jones is struggling with D at Cincinnati, though defensive struggles were a problem there before he arrived. The two best teams Pinkel’s Missouri has faced this season--Nebraska and Oklahoma--are teams they’ve given up lots of points and yards to, resulting in their first loss of the season ultimately. And defense had not previously been considered a strong point at all at Mizzou under Pinkel.

While D coordinators such as Muschamp, Smart, etc, would bring a defensive mind to Michigan as head coaches, the problem is these guys have not been head coaches before. This hurts their chances of being hired as the Michigan head coach, even if they were interested in the Michigan job. Best case scenario for Michigan would be one of the main candidates coming in and luring a guy like Smart, Pelini, etc, away to Michigan as D coordinator, or Gary Patterson or Kyle Whittingham accepting the head coaching position at Michigan. Patterson is the best candidate as far as defensive strength goes, having a defensive coordinator background and coaching a team in TCU that is regularly recognized as having one of the best defenses in the nation. They do play fairly weak competition, but they also have been able to slow down good offenses belonging to Utah, Air Force, Boise State and Baylor. Les Miles has had good defenses at LSU, particularly this season, but it’s hard to ignore all the other problems he and his teams have had.

Aggressive Mentality--Michigan has never really been a “soft” team, but that’s exactly what has happened to them since RR showed up. The next hire needs to be a guy who, if he’s going to insist on a spread offense, knows how to instill traditional Big Ten-like aggression within the players running it and especially within the defense since the D often will face Big Ten teams with more typical Big Ten aggression. The coach has to emphasize toughness and going after the ball, and he has to implement a strength and conditioning program that allows Michigan to be successful at playing aggressively instead of passively and instead of suffering injuries on a weekly basis.
Candidate Evaluation: Obviously, Harbaugh can do this. If he can do it at Stanford, he can do it at Michigan. And he would have the understanding of Big Ten culture to know how Michigan needs to play in the conference in order to win it. I think Fitzgerald is capable of it, as well, from watching him and his Northwestern teams, and he also knows the Big Ten landscape. I question whether most of the other candidates can do it, though, and I suspect some of it will relate to recruiting and the strength and conditioning program. But with many of these coaches, the doubt relates to the kind of systems they run and the lack of defense in their programs. I can’t say much about whether or not coaches of non-AQ teams are aggressive because there are not enough defensive stops going on at most of the programs led by my list of candidates against good teams, and it might very well be that they just don’t have the kind of players to play aggressive defense.

That said, Michigan apparently doesn’t have those kind of players right now, either. The preference at this time is for a guy who knows how to teach that to some degree, regardless of the kind of guys Michigan currently has. The offensive aggression is there with many of these teams; however, Michigan really needs to be concerned with getting more aggressive on D. Not sure, based on what I’ve seen particularly from Muschamp, that the D coordinators on my list could help with that...maybe Kirby Smart, but it’s seriously doubtful that he’d end up at Michigan in any capacity.

Recruiting Skills--simply put, get the right kind of guys in at Michigan. In a sense, Michigan can recruit itself, so this is not necessarily a big issue. But there is a need for a guy who is going to come in and focus on getting good defensive players, though. Someone who will get away from the undersized players, get the 4 and 5-star recruits back and at least get back to the good balance of speed and size we used to see at Michigan by continuing success in CA, OH and southern states. His recruiting skills where he’s been, depending on the program, is what Michigan needs to look at. If the guy has been at a non-AQ school, then Michigan needs to focus more on coaching ability.
Candidate Evaluation: A lot of these guys aren’t going to have the experience recruiting nationally on the kind of basis Michigan has been doing for decades, particularly the non-AQ guys and guys who have not been head coaches. With Harbaugh, I wonder how the academics issue would come into play. He will not be bound to strict academic standards at Michigan, but that’s not to say he won’t make it a focus. It’s hard to deny that he has been doing a good job recruiting at Stanford, even following academic standards. Les Miles has been recruiting well at LSU, but he and his staff seem to struggle with knowing what to do with talent. With Bellotti, I like that he has experience getting good, fast players from the West Coast and Texas, but can he recruit the rest of the country just as well? And would the kind of players Oregon recruits work out in the Big Ten? Same issue with Patterson as far as his experience with Texas--it’s great, but what about Florida, Ohio and CA? Butch Jones probably has the most knowledge of the state of Michigan, but Michigan is also not among the elite states for college football talent.

Win With Current Crop/Coaching Ability--I would rank this a close #3 to defensive strength among the criteria. People always ask if Michigan really wants to start over. Yes--if Michigan can get the right coach, yes, we want to start over. Michigan is where Nebraska was with Bill Callahan, and Nebraska got the right guy in Bo Pelini and started winning early on. Florida and Ohio State were competitive on the national landscape early with Meyer and Tressel. Pelini had not been a head coach, Meyer came from Utah and Tressel came from Div. I-AA Youngstown State. In other words, Michigan doesn’t need another big-name coach, someone with a gimmicky system that takes time to implement and/or someone who will come and make drastic changes to the program--Michigan needs someone who, preferably, has proven he can coach up and win with what he has...and if not that, then a coordinator who has shown immense promise. Someone who can coach what he has is incredibly important this go-round because Michigan is lacking in talent, particularly on the defense.
Candidate Evaluation: The non-AQ guys win this round, hands-down, along with Harbaugh coaching Stanford kids to wins over USC 3 out of 4 years of his tenure--including his first year at Stanford. They produce programs that are among the best in the nation without the best players. I would hope that Michigan would follow the Ohio State/Florida formula for success, and there are Div. 1-AA guys that I wouldn’t mind Michigan looking at. But outside of my #1 criterion, which is understanding Michigan’s culture, it’s hard to see how Michigan could go wrong with guys who have had undefeated seasons at non-AQ schools like Whittingham and Petersen have, the route Florida took and has not been sorry for it.

Winning Background--basically, the next Michigan hire preferably will have enough wins to convince the Michigan faithful that he can get the job done. I'd like to see coaches with most seasons at their programs resulting in a number of wins expected at Michigan yearly, i.e. at least 9. Just might be the #5 criterion for me and certainly will be high on the AD’s list. And to clarify, the winning would need to be done in such a fashion as to think the coach is controlling the games, not just getting lucky, because you never know when the luck will run out. He is going to need to win in year 2, i.e. finish 4th or higher in the Big Ten (a la 8-4 or better), and he has to be able to accept, understand and produce that rather than be critical of a disappointed fan base (again, going back to "getting" Michigan culture).
Candidate Evaluation: This will almost surely eliminate any guy who has never been a head coach and just might eliminate guys who are currently not a head coach, most particularly Glen Mason...unless, as I said, push comes to shove with Michigan's ability to find a coach. Guys who win this round--Whittingham, Patterson, Petersen. Ones with acceptable backgrounds despite record--Harbaugh and Bellotti. Not quite sold on Pinkel yet, which is exactly how I felt about Brian Kelly, and look how things are going at Notre Dame. The way things are going right now at Cincy for Butch Jones is not going to work in year 1 at Michigan, especially not after the RR fiasco and not after comparing the Big Ten to the Big East. But if he were doing a little bit better at Cincy, that combined with his record at Central Michigan might have been acceptable.

Ability To Win Big Games--more than anything, this refers to rivalry games. Michigan hires with an eye towards beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and playing in the Rose Bowl or for the national title. This time, given the losing streaks, the ability to beat OSU and Michigan State will come first. Nebraska will come to mind, as well, since they will be joining the Big Ten and will be in Michigan’s division, making them a huge possible road block every single season as far as reaching larger goals of winning the Big Ten and playing in BCS bowls. I believe that Nebraska will become a Michigan rival anyway, so the rivalry games are huge in this equation. Probably #4 on my list.
Candidate Evaluation: Petersen, Patterson, Whittingham, Harbaugh, Miles, Bellotti have all shown the ability to win big games. That’s not to say that they’ve won every single one. But particularly Petersen and Whittingham have won enough big games often enough to be completely sold on their ability to come to Michigan and beat OSU and Nebraska. Petersen beats almost every ranked team he faces, and Whittingham has won every single bowl game he’s coached at Utah, even beating Alabama...whom Michigan will play in 2012. Whittingham has also had some success against rival BYU and TCU.

My Top 5, In Order, Based On Criteria
1) Jim Harbaugh--honestly, he would probably not be #1 if it weren’t for the huge question mark regarding the other candidates' ability to “get” Michigan. But he meets far too many of the things on the criteria list to not be in the top 3 either way. Defense is the biggest weakness I see with him, but I have a hard time believing he won’t find a way to get Michigan playing D something like the way they used to, considering his pedigree.

2) Gary Patterson--his defensive background and TCU’s balance and success on both offense and defense are huge boosts for him. He would not be this high on the list if I didn’t think Michigan would still be a .500 or below team in 2011 and 2012 without a serious defensive focus almost regardless of who the coach is. Before realizing this is now where Michigan is, Petersen was #1 on my list. Patterson just happens to bring basically everything Petersen would to the table, plus defense and Midwestern roots, being from Kansas.

3) Kyle Whittingham--we start to get more into cultural issues with these last three, Whittingham’s relating to religion and West Coast ties. But, other than Patterson, Whittingham is the only other--for lack of a better word--"realistic" candidate who comes from a defensive background and has often enough presented a team with anything like a good enough defense against good teams. We know that he can find ways to get through complete seasons undefeated, and he looks like the second coming of Urban Meyer just as much as Harbaugh looks like the second coming of Bo Schembechler.

4) Chris Petersen--another one who is more West Coast, and examining Boise State’s defense under him more closely has dropped him on my list. But it’s hard to ignore the plug-and-play success Boise State keeps having, as well as his intelligent and classy demeanor. The play-calling is aggressive and plays are well-executed. With the way he regularly gets unknown players on the national radar, imagine what he could do with Michigan’s name. Wins big games like nobody else does.

5) Mike Bellotti--we run a big risk here of this being another cultural mismatch. I find him to fit the classier side of Michigan’s image and really like him as a person, but he was the AD at Oregon when players he recruited started becoming as famous for being troublemakers as for being playmakers. But if he can show that he is willing to “get” Michigan and understands the Big Ten is not like the Pac-10, he belongs among the top 5 with the success he has shown he may be able to have at Michigan from his time at another strong AQ school.

What About Les Miles? I think there are two big criteria that immediately should get a coach eliminated from Michigan consideration--not being committed to or able to understand Michigan culture and a lack of coaching ability. If Michigan weren't in dire need of guaranteed significant defensive improvement with an incoming head coach, coaching ability and winning with the current crop would be the #2 criterion behind "getting" Michigan. Some see the importance of defense at Michigan right now as enough to believe that firing Greg Robinson and hiring a strong defensive coordinator would buy RR another year at Michigan (despite worse special teams, NCAA violations and lack of a cultural fit). While Miles meets most of the criteria I list-- including, you’d think, having an understanding of Michigan culture--and he’d otherwise be a top 5 candidate, I just don’t believe that he can coach well enough to lead Michigan. I think that he can recruit or has good recruiters among his staff members. But that’s just not good enough, especially since Michigan does not have the talent at some positions for a coach to rely more on recruiting than coaching ability in order to turn out a 6-6 record in year 1 and a 8-4 record in year 2 at bare minimums as expected by the fan base. My opinion is that Michigan’s hiring him would not be terribly different from hiring RR in very important ways, and Michigan needs to be looking to go in a very different direction this time.

Ren Simon

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