The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

July 13, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Rich Rod’s return not impossible

MORGANTOWN — As you may guess, in the wake of LeBron James’ decision to let bygones be millions and return to his rooters in Cleveland, more than once was I approached with someone wanting to know if this opened the door for a return to West Virginia University of their once-reviled coach Rich Rodriguez.

If one thinks back to the moment, Rich Rod’s ungraceful exit from West Virginia to take over as head coach at Michigan following a loss of atomic bomb proportions to Pitt with the national title in sight was greeted by locals much as LeBron’s exit from Cleveland to go to Miami was greeted.

LeBron’s was perhaps more of an ESPN event, both in the television special which introduced his decision to leave that turned it into some kind of NBA gala to the visions on tape from Cleveland of LeBron jerseys being burned and posters destroyed.

It was not, however, any more heated than was Rodriguez’s decision to leave his team at the moment it needed him most and walk away from his home state where just days earlier he had been its most valuable natural asset, leaving even coal in the dust, while he was more popular than its governor, Brad Paisley and Jennifer Garner combined.

No one cared, least of all us in the media, that the decision to leave was a reasonable one, that he had built WVU to the brink of a national title, that Michigan had far more assets to offer him, far more history behind it and, to be honest, far more national prestige if he could turn that program into a winning one again.

The problem was the timing and circumstances were wrong when he left.

And unlike LeBron James, who left Miami with two rings that were given to him for winning NBA championships (and who knows how many others he may have purchased), Rodriguez did not turn Michigan into a winner and had created a good bit of ill will among its faithful when he was fired.

That did not break many West Virginians’ hearts, most of the locals having been granted a football reprieve when Bill Stewart engineered the stunning Oklahoma upset and, even if there was a strong segment of highly vocal and rather wealthy alumni who felt Stewart was the wrong man for the job, those three consecutive 9-4 records say he at least maintained respect and dignity in the program.

We will not go into what Dana Holgorsen has done with the program following his initial 10-3 season that ended with the utter annihilation of Clemson, 70-31, in the Orange Bowl, other than to note that he has not been able to build upon that or even maintain it. If he had done that, the questions about the possibility of Rodriguez returning would not have come up.

It is an interesting prospect, however, as time may not heal all wounds, but it surely eases the pain they cause, and the hurt WVU fans are feeling right now comes not from Rodriguez’s ill-advised exit but instead from a 7-15 record over the last 22 games and the lack of a bowl appearance last season.

Over and over these same people are asking if LeBron can return to Cleveland, cannot Rodriguez march triumphantly into Morgantown following this season?

And over and over they are being told that remains a very long shot, less because of anything that involves Rodriguez but more because it does not appear the job will be open no matter what the record that is compiled this year by the Mountaineers.

Dana Holgorsen, you see, is Oliver Luck’s man. In West Virginia, football is king, and Luck’s legacy is tied to Holgorsen, which means you can be assured that Luck will give him every opportunity to turn the Mountaineer fortunes around.

Already you are hearing about what a fine job of recruiting has been done this year, which as we all know means nothing until the players a. show up and b. show how they adjust to the college experience and game.

The propaganda, too, has long spread far and wide about the strength of schedule WVU is facing, which is probably true … Alabama not being a normal opening opponent and Towson State being as strong a FCS foe as you could find while Maryland is said to be an improving team coming off a 37-0 whipping of the Mountaineers last year.

The 4-8 record last year was unacceptable against that schedule, but this year it might not be quite so bad, especially if the recruiting class does show promise.

Luck, the other day, hinted that he isn’t itching to make any kind of coaching move when he offered this analysis of the coming year.

“I think we’re going to be a better football team. I hope that’s reflected in our record, but given the strength of our schedule this year, it very well may not be.”

When I spoke with him a month ago he emphasized that he was looking for “improvement” rather than a winning record or return to a bowl game.

There was no ultimatum.

Add to that Holgorsen will be owed $8.6 million after next season for a contract that extends through 2017 and you understand why a coaching change isn’t financially sensible following this season.

As for Rodriguez, would he be accepted back in West Virginia?

Almost without a doubt, he would be.

Nothing against 110-degree summer days, sand and scorpions in Arizona, but the indication that it could happen may best be seen in the steps taken by Arizona in his latest contract, which doubles what he would have to pay normally should his destination upon leaving be WVU.

Obviously, in negotiations, the subject of him possibly returning to WVU came up and was taken seriously by Arizona, which has seen him revive their program to the tune of 16 wins over the past two seasons and high hopes riding into this year.

Rich Rod back at WVU?

Let’s just say it remains a long shot, but then wasn’t that Tonalist, not California Chrome, winning the Belmont Stakes last month and paying $20 to win?

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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