I had never heard the phrase "you drank the wrong poison" until Rich Rodriguez uttered it last week, inserting it effortlessly into a sentence as if it were one of those vintage West Virginia aphorisms that had carried down through the generations and landed fully formed on his tongue. I know it's not the first time RichRod has employed creative linguistics, but it felt especially apt at this moment, coming as it did while Rodriguez addressed the ongoing dispute -- manufactured largely by a pair of feisty Southeastern Conference coaches -- over college football's offensive revolution. It was an argument that Rodriguez promptly labeled "a farce," and following that denouncement, he employed his toxin-heavy metaphor to describe those who were bold enough to correlate pace of play with injuries.
It's understandable why this criticism would drive Rodriguez in particular to fall into fits of slightly befuddling verbal pique. He is, after all, one of the founding fathers of the aforementioned offensive revolution. It's been more than two decades since he accidentally birthed the modern spread offense while coaching at Glenville State in West Virginia: It was 1992 when his quarterback, Jed Drenning, bobbled a snap, failed to hand the ball to the running back in time, noticed that the backside defensive end had already crashed down on the back and scooted in the other direction toward the open space the defensive end had left behind. Already, out of necessity and a glaring lack of personnel, Rodriguez had chosen to run his two-minute offense the entire game. Now, he had his signature play, one that would become a metaphor for the very spirit of the spread offense, one that takes advantage of individual matchups and forces the defense to react. Hence, the read option was born.
"It's strange to consider," Drenning told me this week, "watching a game and realizing the accidental impact of that play. For the first hundred years of organized football, the defense was given the advantage of playing 11 on 10. But I really believe that most of the advantages of football favor the offense. There's still an advantage to be found in spreading the field and maximizing every inch of real estate. It's like when you see a basketball coach take down the rim and show it to you, and you realize how big it is, and you think, 'How do I ever miss a shot?'"
All these years later, Rodriguez's ideas have been adopted at every level of football, so much so that Rodriguez, in his third year at Arizona, now finds himself just another spread-offense coach in a spread-heavy league. "The uniqueness of it has worn out," he said last week in Los Angeles. "So you as a coach, you better stay on top of it."
This was during the opening day of the Pac-12's 48-hour media day extravaganza, and as the very first coach on the podium, RichRod had opened the proceedings by drily informing the crowd that he was not particularly excited to be here. He'd rather still be on vacation, he said, or he'd rather be at home in Tucson, meeting with his assistant coaches, tweaking an offensive scheme that's become his life's work. I understand this sentiment: Rodriguez's strong suit has never been public outreach. But it also made me wonder if Rodriguez, in his third job as a major-college head coach, still feels like he has to reflexively defend himself in settings like this. It made me wonder if one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic minds in college football is just now getting over the biggest mistake of his professional career.
* * *
Nearly everything that happened to Rodriguez at Michigan was a patently bizarre example of the tribal insularity of college football. From the very beginning, if the premise of John U. Bacon's dishy tell-all Three and Out is to believed, Rodriguez was considered the wrong fit for a school that traffics on its own lofty tradition. He didn't talk like a Michigan Man; he didn't act like a Michigan Man. (And, of course, Rodriguez compounded his own mistakes, and exposed his own ambitions, by reacting poorly to public criticism.) If he had to do it over again, I imagine Rodriguez would have shunned Michigan and stayed at West Virginia; if he'd stayed at West Virginia, there's a possibility that Rodriguez would still be there, and would not be saddled with an 11 percent approval rating in his home state (due largely to the scorched-earth nature of his departure).
I imagine there are few football coaches as burdened with the kind of regret Rodriguez dealt with over the course of three short years: Shunned by his own community in West Virginia, and then deemed an inadequate exemplar at his new school. I imagine that kind of rejection has to alter a man's perspective, especially someone as openly emotional as Rodriguez, whose final sin as Michigan coach, according to Bacon's book, was to encourage a crowd of Michigan fans to sing along to a Josh Groban song. I imagine Rodriguez is a different person now, at least in certain ways (when told that one of his players had said he'd lightened up during his time at Arizona, Rodriguez responded, "I need to go back to being a prick then. I'm getting soft.") But I think he also recognizes that he's better off at a place where the ideas matter more than the framing of the ideas.
This is the beauty of the Pac-12: It is the closest thing big-time college football has to an experimental league. And so Rodriguez fits in perfectly. In his third year at Arizona, he's now recruiting the kinds of players he wants for his system. He is not saddled with the same weight of expectations he was in his third year at Michigan. He can focus on his offense, on finding a quarterback to replace the departed B.J. Denker. He can focus on the concepts that made him a revolutionary coach in the first place, and he can focus on the continued evolution of those concepts, on ways to continually surprise within a scheme that is no longer inherently surprising to opponents.
"It's the same language," Drenning, now a sideline reporter for West Virginia football broadcasts, likes to say of Rodriguez's offensive system. "He just continues to add words to it."
"As a coach, you can't sit back and say, 'Well, we've got all the answers," Rodriguez said last week. "You've got to come up with new answers to new problems. I think that is the one by-product over the last 10 years of the evolution of the spread. We have forced ourselves as a staff to look at it: 'OK, it used be teams defending the front side one way and the back side one way. Now they can defend the front side one way. Defend the back side two different ways.' So you've got to be in tune with that offensively and know the answers to it."
One of the things Rodriguez did so effectively in his days at Glenville, Drenning tells me, was that he self-scouted. If his offensive had a tendency, he wanted to know it so he could alter it. Sometimes, Drenning says, there might be tendencies you're not aware of until someone points them out to you. And I have to think Rodriguez has done many kinds of self-scouting over the past several years, given all that he's been through. I have to think he's got some pretty firm ideas about the implications of drinking the wrong poison. And I have to think he's pretty damned excited to be where he is these days, even when he's telling us that he isn't.