For the second successive year, the Michigan Wolverines suffered an opening-week defeat at the hands of a team they should’ve beaten. Last year, it was the mountain men from Appalachian State who ran through the Big House on their way to a I-AA three-peat; this year, however, it was a relatively unheralded Utah team who spoiled Rich Rodriguez’s maize-and-blue debut.
While many commentators will no doubt harp upon this loss as a singular indictment of Rich Rodriguez’s overrated status, I am viewing it in a much broader light: For me, the loss is a testament to now-all-too-common phenomenon that I like to call Reinventing the Wheel.
For an illustration of what happens when coaches try to overhaul already-effective systems, let’s consider one notable example:
The Nebraska Cornhuskers of the 1990s were scary. Tom Osborne and company established a legacy of success that would extend from the untouchable Frazier-Phillips duo to the video-game ridiculousness of Eric Crouch.
Why were they so good? Well, it’s the same reason that I could never beat Dan “Cool As” Schmidt in Gamebreaker: the option. When the Huskers were running the option offense, you knew that every game–without fail–was going to feature 300+ yards on the ground; even if you knew exactly what was coming, there was little you could do to stop it.
Enter Bill Callahan, and the overrated “West Coast Offense” (woohoo–it took the lousy Raiders to the Super Bowl, where they were outclassed by the defensive juggernaut of Tampa Bay), and suddenly Nebraska has become a thoroughly mediocre team. Now, they’re just like every other team who recruits above-average “normal”-style players: They might win 7 or 8 games, but they could easily lose just as many.
I’d be willing to bet that if the Cornhuskers still recruited specifically for an option offense, they’d stand a much better chance of contending on the national stage. Unfortunately, they tried to reinvent the wheel, and have since experienced a free-fall into irrelevance.
In much the same way, Rich Rodriguez is riding on the illusion that his success at West Virginia came from his system, whereas I would argue that the Mountaineers’ string of solid seasons was a direct result of Pat White and Steve Slaton; in other words, there were players who met a system that fit them perfectly.
Michigan, arguably the Biggest 1 of the Big 10, is not West Virginia, and the Big 10 is not the Big East. Wolverines, Buckeyes, and Nittany Lions don’t play flashy, spread-happy football. Quite the opposite: They recruit 300-pound corn-fed monsters who carry running backs to yards, touchdowns, and Heisman trophies. It’s smashmouth football, a haven of 10-7 nail-biters and running between the tackles.
I, for one, don’t see the Michigan faithful jumping on the Rich Rodriguez bandwagon anytime soon–and why should they? The Wolverine style has been successful for years, while Rodriguez’s spread offense led a better-than-good team to relative (yet national title-less) success.
In some instances, such as with Urban Meyer, consistent results justify wholesale reinvention. When a guy turns wins 10 games at Bowling Green and leads Utah to an undefeated season, he earns the right to place his footprint upon any program he takes over (Keep in mind, too that Meyer did not exactly reinvent the Gators’ offense; the Old Ball Coach established a precedent for high-octane theatrics). However, when a one-trick pony gets a job at one of the 4 or 5 most storied programs in the history of college football, it’s not necessarily the best idea to have him completely alter the identity of the program.
There’s a reason that the option doesn’t work in the NFL; and now, there may be a reason that the spread offense proves unsuccessful in Ann Arbor. A leopard can’t change its stripes–and perhaps a wolverine can’t change its horns.
In a nutshell, I hope Michigan goes 2-9.