Don’t blame Rich Rodriguez, blame the system

This weekend, thanks to some fantastic investigative work by The Detroit Free Press, we learned that one of the most storied, above board college football programs ever, The University of Michigan, apparently violated NCAA rules by working players too many hours.

Why would this happen? Why would a college coach find it necessary to have players practice, lift, and watch tape for twelve hours on Sundays after a game? These are, after all, STUDENT athletes, are they not? They are in school to get an education first, and play football for State U second, right?

Lets make this point first. If Michigan is doing it, they aren’t the only college team bending the rules. We don’t know of anyone else at the moment, but the compliance measures at Michigan are second to none. Despite what happened with the Fab 5 in basketball, there’s a great deal of pride taken at Michigan in their allegiance to education.

But even with the school’s interest in players matriculating through their system, the football coach reportedly found it necessary to cheat. Why would Rich Rodriguez, in his first year at the school, have to bring players in to work seven to nine hours more than they should be allowed to on Sunday?

Here’s why. Because college football coaches generally aren’t as interested in the college part of their job title as the football part. For good reason. Google Fire Rich Rodriguez, and you get 183,000 results. There are two sites dedicated to firing him…after one year in Ann Arbor. While their football program exceeded the NCAA requirements for graduation rate, the fact of the matter is that on the field, the team struggled last season.

Rodriguez could graduate EVERY player, even at Michigan, but if he goes 3-9 for three straight years, he’s gone. On the flip side, if he takes the Wolverines to a BCS Championship game and two Rose Bowls in three years, do you really think he’d get fired if graduation rates lagged? He’s working players harder than the rules say he should because he has to win games. The pressure was on the day he took the job. At pretty much every Football Bowl Subdivision institution (Division I for us old schoolers), the first charge of a head coach is to win games. If he does that, can we graduate a few of our kids, too? That always looks good.

Don’t blame Rich Rodriguez for working his kids too hard. Blame the fact that while, ideally, we’d like those kids to relax or study on Sunday, the fact is that Michigan fans are about winnin’. And they’d be hypocritical…and liars…if they say they’d rather those kids go to the library on Sunday and graduate than have them go to the football facility and win games on Saturday.

I admire the idealists out there, and there are people, including my partner in The Fast Lane, Bob Ramsey, who believe big time college sports should be about education and academic integrity. But idealism and reality reach a fork in the road when the team isn’t winning and making big bucks. And when most programs and their boosters reach that fork, invariably they take winning over graduating. That’s why Coach Rod worked his kids on Sunday.