Richard Alan Rodriguez. "Richrod." The man’s name alone is enough to generate significant conversation amongst the Hokie faithful. This article is not meant, in any way shape or form, to advocate for or against the idea of Coach Rodriguez following Frank Beamer as the HC of the Virginia Tech Hokies football team. Instead, this piece will explore why Richrod is such a polarizing figure, and why he may, or may not, end up as VT’s next head coach of football.
First, let us take a look at the history of the man. Rodriguez grew up in Grant Town, West Virginia, and was an accomplished high school athlete. He played as a defensive back at West Virginia University before graduating and beginning his coaching career. In 1988 he got his first head coaching gig at Salem International University. His first season there was also his last, as the school decided to drop their football program. His next HC job was at Glenville State College from 1990 through 1996. During his time at Glenville Rodriguez was very successful, and he was eventually hired by Tulane as their OC and QB coach. He was there to oversee the Green Wave’s undefeated 1998 season, and followed head coach Tommy Bowden from Tulane to Clemson. In 2000 WVU announced that Rodriguez would replace legendary coach Don Nehlen. From 2001-2007 Richrod managed a successful resurgence of the Mountaineer football program, culminating in a near national championship bid during the 2007 season. Rodriguez departed WVU and moved on to Michigan where he directed the Wolverines for three seasons before being fired. Richrod took a short break from coaching and served as a contributor for CBS sports before being hired by the University of Arizona as the HC of the Wildcat football squad in 2011, where he currently resides.
That is quite a gloss of Coach Rodriguez’s history, but worry not, because the remainder of the article will provide an exploration of what happened during Richrod’s various head coaching tenures. The first detail that will be highlighted are the many accomplishments that Rodriguez has collected during his time as a coach.
As of the writing of this article Richrod sits on a 107-67 (0.615) record. His bowl record is 5-5, but in those five wins he does have two BCS bowl wins – the 2006 Sugar Bowl and the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. His most recent bowl was a 38-30 Arizona Wildcats loss to Boise State at this past year's Fiesta Bowl. Rodriguez's best season is arguably his most controversial. In 2007 WVU was one game away from a likely BCS championship game bid, but unranked Pittsburgh showed up to Morgantown and handed AP Poll No. 2 / Coaches Poll No. 1 WVU a loss during what is truly one of the great upsets in recent college football history. It was an upset that affected the fabric of college football. The Mountaineers finished No. 6 in the AP Poll. Although they did have a No. 5 finish in 2005, their proximity to a National Championship bid pushes the 2007 effort past the 2005 squad.
Rodriguez has also collected significant coaching awards. He won the Big East Coach of the Year in both 2003 and 2005. In 2007 he lost to another polarizing figure in college football, then Cincinnati Bearcats HC, Brian Kelly. Last year he won the Pac-12 coach of the year award after guiding the Wildcats to a 10-4 record, including an astonishing win over the No. 2 Oregon Ducks, and a final AP Poll ranking of No. 19. In addition to the above accolades, Richrod is credited with developing game-changing offensive schemes. Even though others were also implementing the spread offense, Richrod is considered an innovator of a spread offense featuring a run oriented attack. Building on that run-oriented spread offense he is the progenitor of the zone-read option that has become such a force in both college football and the NFL.
There is certainly much to be said about the manner in which Rodriguez found his success, but success he has found. His offensive acumen is less controversial. The man is a founding father of the run-oriented spread offense and he created the zone read option favored by the likes of Urban Meyer. It is the same offense that the 49ers used to get to Super Bowl XLVII. To say that Richrod has not found success and is a stellar offensive mind would be disingenuous. That being said, let’s take a look at some of the controversy surrounding Coach Rodriguez.
As mentioned above, in late 2007 the West Virginia Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 by the BCS and were about to face the 4-7 Pittsburgh Panthers. The game was supposed to be complete murder. WVU was a 28.5 point favorite, but the Panther defense and LeSean McCoy punched the Mountaineers right in the face, defeating the likely Nation Championship contenders, 13-9. That game was played on December 1, 2007. Only two weeks later Rodriguez announced that he would be resigning as the head coach of West Virginia and replacing Lloyd Carr at the University of Michigan. In two weeks two inexplicable major bombs dropped at WVU.
The announcement came as a surprise to players and the WVU athletic administration. A few months prior Richrod had negotiated a new deal to stay at West Virginia, which included a four million dollar buyout. There was significant controversy about when Rodriguez’s retirement would actually result in him leaving his post. Initially it was reported that his letter of resignation listed the effective date the day following the WVU Fiesta Bowl participation, but a later letter, dated December 18, 2007, was a one sentence statement asserting that the resignation was effective immediately. Rodriguez was not present for the Mountaineers’ fantastic performance in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, and after a bunch of legal maneuvers Michigan agreed to pay $2.5 million of the $4 million buyout clause while Richrod was responsible for $1.5 million of the cost.
At the time of the incident it was considered a rather mercenary move by Coach Rodriguez. The players were reportedly shocked and somber to hear of the move, especially when one considers that they had just lost their place in the National Championship game. It speaks to the temerity of the players and remaining staff that the team went on to crush the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners 48-28 in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. Richrod’s surprising departure from WVU certainly ruffled feathers and called into question his loyalty and dedication to anything other than promoting himself.
The manner in which Coach Rodriguez departed West Virginia was nowhere near as controversial as his exit from Michigan. Richrod’s first year at the winningest program in college football was certainly a disappointment. During his inaugural season he only managed a horrible 3-9 record (the worst in school history) and ended Michigan’s NCAA record 33 season long bowl streak. In fact, he didn’t even achieve a bowl eligible season until his last with the Wolverines when he struggled to a 7-6 record. While at Michigan Richrod stumbled to an overall record of 15-22, a 6-18 record in Big Ten play, and failed to ever beat primary rival Ohio State where he was outscored 24-100 in three games. Rodriguez left Michigan with the lowest winning percentage (0.405) for a head coach in the history of the school. One can certainly argue that there are questions concerning Rodriguez’s ability to coach at a major, blue-chip program, but nothing calls Richrod’s character into question more than the NCAA violations committed by him and his staff during his tenure at Michigan.
Before the 2009 season reports surfaced that Coach Rodriguez and his staff regularly violated NCAA rules. The claims included attending unofficial scrimmages and mandating that players practice past the hours limited by the NCAA. Richrod denied the allegations and addressed them in what can perhaps be seen as a disingenuous press conference where he provided quite an emotional response denying allegations that were later shown to be true.
In early 2010 the NCAA formally charged the University of Michigan with five major rules violations. This was the first time in the history of Michigan football that violations had ever been leveled against the storied program. The university owned up and applied self-imposed sanctions that included two years of probation. In the end the probation was increased to three years by the NCAA, and Richrod was fired in early 2011.
Afterwards he was hired by CBS Sports and worked as an analyst for a year before being hired to coach the Arizona Wildcats. Coach Rodriguez remains at Arizona and has lead the team to a resurgence of competitiveness in the PAC-12.
The man has had success, but that success has been seasoned with significant controversy. The reality of that controversy alone is enough to generate significant conversation concerning his validity as a the next head coach of our beloved Hokies. Be that as it may, Richrod has been tagged, by some, as the leading candidate to follow Coach Beamer at Virginia Tech. The idea of anyone replacing a living legend is already difficult, but many in the Hokie fanbase have had a violent reaction to the idea of Rodriguez following Frank Beamer. Certainly the manner Richrod departed WVU and the NCAA violations committed during his time at Michigan are upsetting, but to really understand the polarization of Richrod one must look at the dichotomy between Rodriguez and the coach he would follow.
Frank Beamer has a reputation of being a complete man - a true class act. This is a reputation that he has earned through years of sticking to high moral principles. Many see the differences of Beamer’s and Rodriguez’s actions and philosophy as a complete antithesis of one another. Richrod has shown a penchant to promote himself and to also break NCAA rules, while Beamer has done anything but. This difference creates significant dissonance, between the two men, and the idea that someone with questionable character could ever follow a man of Beamer’s charisma is not something that many Virginia Tech fans are willing to stomach.
There is no doubt that Frank Beamer's reputation, as a man of character, is greater than Rodriguez's. But, even when one considers the more pragmatic approach, and looks simply at Coach Rodriguez’s accomplishments, there are significant questions concerning his ability to actually win at major program like Virginia Tech. Questions of loyalty and ability abound, and when coupled with moral concerns it is no wonder that the fanbase is uncomfortable with the idea of Richrod becoming the next head coach at Virginia Tech.
Whit Babcock is facing a situation that no Athletic Director wants to approach. He is overseeing the replacement of a living college football legend, and more importantly a man respected by all. History has shown that winning heals almost all ailments. Does Mr. Babcock feel that Coach Rodriguez can overcome the disdain for him, within the VT fanbase, if he wins? Can he win?
Babcock must be acutely aware that this decision will define him as an AD. There are a lot of open coaching jobs in the FBS, but Virginia Tech is seen as a top tier option. Along with programs like USC, VT will garner the greatest interest from coaching talent. Whit Babcock has history with Rodriguez that dates back to his time at WVU when Babcock was assistant athletic director. Some feel that relationship is enough to make Richrod the front runner to follow Beamer. There is no way, other than conjecture, to truly say who will be chosen to follow in the footsteps of Frank Beamer, but Whit Babcock would be foolish not to take the fan’s concerns into consideration. It is difficult to actually determine a greater question, within the auspices of VT athletics, than who will follow Frank Beamer? In actuality, there may be no current larger question in all of NCAA athletics. The idea that it could potentially be Richard Alan Rodriguez – a man of questionable character, a man of questionable ability, and a man that coached WVU when the Mountaineers were one of the Hokies’ greatest rivals disturbs many Hokies. There is a lot of time left before any decision is ultimately made, but Richrod remains the most polarizing answer to the question of who follows Frank Beamer.