The Hiring A Michigan Coach Debate… Go Big Or Go Home

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

Football teams are a lot like hot air balloons. If you cut the dead weight holding them down, there is little alternative for the team other than rising. Recently Michigan went all dirigible on head football coach Rich Rodriguez.

After three years of underwhelming performance (15-22 record) in the ultracompetitive Big Ten, Michigan’s Athletic Director Dave Brandon announced that the school and head Rodriguez were parting ways. While this may not have elicited the same celebratory high-fiving antics of ESPN reporters that the Eric Mangini firing did, it still gave many football fans reason for celebration, especially disgruntled Michigan fans. Now that the cloud of discontent that has hovered over Ann Arbor for a few seasons has lifted, the only question that remains is who will take control of the program now?

There are two schools of thought on the matter. The first suggests that the program temper its expectations of recruiting a big name and simply search for a low profile coach who will mold to the established style of the program and the Big Ten in general. The second is to recruit a big name or bust.

To me there is no real choice to be made at all… Michigan MUST make a splashy signing or risk hurting the future of the program. While I do not suggest that signing a nobody to take over the team will completely undermine the more than 100 year legacy of Michigan football, I do maintain the action would signify an immediate surrender. The move communicates that the program is rebuilding and has abandoned its win-now pursuit of Big 10 dominance and a legitimate shot at a national championship. While that may be true, the perception cannot be communicated to the public without feeling the fallout in the recruiting process.

Michigan Can’t Afford Growing Pains

No top tier recruit wants to sign with a team amidst the messy process of rebuilding. College players have an extremely limited chance to make a name for themselves, which could be completely wasted in the transition to a new coach and scheme. In general, coaches are given around three seasons to put their stamp on a program. During that time, even the best programs can lose their mojo. Former standouts can become marginalized by change. While this does not mean that Michigan would be unable to sign any premier recruits, it does mean that elite level game-changing recruits will think twice about joining the ranks of a program already waiving the white flag of defeat and surrender.

Signing an established coach like Brady Hoke from San Diego State, or the former Wolverine alum Les Miles, would offset some of these growing pains. Recruits would know that Michigan, although in transition, is committed to winning… and winning now. Even other lesser names that top Michigan’s speculative short list – such as Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, or TCU’s Gary Patterson – would communicate a serious desire to win with an established guy from a respected program.

At the NFL level, the Carolina Panthers face a similar dilemma – attempt to persuade a Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden type to resurrect the team or try to start all over again from the bottom up. While the Panthers certainly aren’t most free agents’ number one target destination, they might be with a proven guy like Cowher at the helm. But if they instead go with a lesser known guy like New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell they will probably find their only source of new blood in the draft. While college and the pros are two very different things the analogy stands on a similar premise, there is indeed power in the name of a coach. Michigan would be foolish to ignore that, and may suffer the long term consequences in recruiting if it does.

Hoke-y History Repeating Myth

There is a popular misconception that if the Wolverines were to bring in a guy like Hoke it would just be the same old story – school signs big name, big name struggles, school fires coach, school signs another big name. This really doesn’t fit with Michigan’s model because Rich Rodriguez’s failures were not because he was simply a big flashy name, but rather the weaknesses of his individual coaching ability. There is no indicator that another big name will be similarly flawed. Obviously signing any coach comes with a risk, but a lesser known coach is not the answer. In fact a lesser established coach is more of a risk.

Sometimes small fish struggle in a big pond. As a New York Yankees fan I have seen this phenomenon more times than I care to remember. Thrusting a small time coach or coordinator into of one of the most high profile jobs in the Big Ten could be a recipe for disaster. An established guy like Hoke or Miles knows how to deal with media and the expectations of an ultracompetitive program like Michigan. Who knows how a coach from a small conference would deal with the Michigan-Ohio State game, let alone a whole season of Big Ten games. Guys like Hoke are the smart bet, because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

Michigan is a big time football program and needs a big time coach. A coach with recruiting power. A coach that can handle the pressure of the job. And should Michigan sign a big name, and it doesn’t work out, they can always try again.

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