Even while RichRod was struggling through his tenure in Ann Arbor I wondered: What is going on down there? Doesn’t anyone want him to succeed?
Some clearly did, but almost from the moment he arrived, the knives were out. John U. Bacon makes this very clear.
Rodriquez was tricked again and again, whether but what people did (outgoing coach Lloyd Carr offering to release any player upon request) or omission (no one telling him about the significance of various program traditions).
Bacon puzzles mightily throughout the book, adding up the pieces of evidence that point to a clear conclusion, but then throwing up his hands in despair and asking “What can it all mean?”
Perhaps this is because the author feared a libel suit, or wished to avoid burning all his bridges with the program. Whatever the explanation, in Bacon’s telling, RichRod was undercut not only by nameless Michigan Men, but also by his predecessor and the man who arranged to hire him: Lloyd Carr.
Bacon portrays Carr as a proud and thin-skinned man, jealous of his success and irritated that his achievements did not get the respect he felt they deserved.
Carr has a point: Saint Bo of Schembechler had a lot of wins and conference titles, but he never won the national championship. Carr did.*
What was his reward for the first national title in a half century? Forced retirement after the humiliation of the Appalachian State loss.
Carr was the beneficiary of the program Bo built, no question. And he also was fortunate in that Michigan State was busy destroying itself whilst Ohio State was led by John Cooper – the guy who always lost the Big Game. Cooper was shown the exit and the abler Jim Tressel came in and quickly dominated Michigan.
By 2006, the malcontents in Ann Arbor were making the case that Carr was past his prime. Local wags were calling talk radio shows saying the program needed “a new Carr with Les Miles.”
Adding insult to injury, Carr was denied the opportunity to hand pick his successor. In the book, Bacon notes that Carr’s coaching ‘tree’ was not yet developed enough to allow this – though it is not unknown for assistants without head coaching experience to take over the program upon the retirement of their boss. While it is true that Carr’s predecessor, Gary Moeller, had prior head coaching experience, it consisted of three dreadful seasons leading Illinois to a combined record of 6-24-3. Hardly a strong endorsement.
What put Moeller over the top was his relationship to Bo. And when Moeller was forced out (after an arrest for disorderly conduct) Carr – one of his assistants with no prior head coaching experience – took over.
This was the Line of Succession in the House the Bo Built, a lineage that stretched back to 1969. Carr’s ouster and the refusal of Athletic Director Bill Martin to let him name one of his assistants was simply too much to bear.
Bacon’s book leaves some ambiguity (since the accounts are not entirely clear) but it seems to me at least that Carr helped undermine the move to bring Les Miles of LSU on board. Miles was initially willing, but the deal fell through. With the prime candidate gone, Martin had no one else in mind. For weeks the question festered, badly damaging the prestige of the Winningest! Program! Ever!
Carr now made his next move – reaching out to RichRod, who was dissatisfied with his circumstances in West Virginia. It was an odd fit, but had Carr put forth the effort – say by encouraging his players to stay and guiding his successor through the very different traditions of the school – it might have worked.
None of that happened. Carr offered to sign the transfers of anyone who wanted out and allegedly suggested certain players leave (Bacon is understandably cautious in pushing this line).
He then withdrew into himself, and let RichRod flounder on his own. When Carr did speak, it was with the voice of a distant oracle – full of ambiguity and prone to multiple interpretations.
Then there was the practice time scandal. While Carr cannot be blamed, someone inside the department was the source of the Free Press expose on excess practice time. The knowledge of procedures was too specific for it to be an outsider or a concerned student.
Indeed, throughout the book Carr stands like a dark, sinister figure, looming threateningly over everything RichRod is trying to accomplish – but always keeping his hands clean.
Bacon admits this, but can never bring himself to conclude that Carr and his operatives were behind much of the woe that befell the program. The closest he comes is to remark on the contradiction of bringing a guy into a program and then failing to help him succeed. He can’t fathom a motive for wrecking the program that Carr did so much to build.
I can. It was pride. Pride and resentment.
Lloyd Carr brought the Skunk Bears to heights they had not scaled since the Truman administration. For his troubles he was kicked to the curb. It makes perfect sense to me that he would then work to undermine the school and give it a taste of failure – and what a taste it was!
In the end, RichRod was canned, Bill Martin was replaced, and Michigan Men (with ties to Carr) were placed in both positions.
Call it Game of Thrones, Ann Arbor edition.
That is the real story of "Three and Out" and it is what makes the book so absorbing. It is worth all of the RichRod and Skunk Bear propaganda just to see how dysfunctional that program truly is.
And as I have noted, there is nothing to indicate it is getting better.
*Note to MSU fans: Drop the “he only won half of a title” crap. It is demeaning. MSU claims six national championships, and most of them were disputed as well. I yield to none in my distaste for the Skunk Bears, but the 1997 title is a legitimate honor.