By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There has been much back-alley chatter these days, especially with rumors rampant about the possibility of West Virginia University athletic director Oliver Luck leaving for a similar job at Texas or finding a way to afford firing football coach Dana Holgorsen, who has lost nine of his last 14 games, that Rich Rodriguez may be considered a candidate to return to his alma mater to take over the program.
Certainly a video of “The Seth Davis Show” that appeared online Tuesday morning in which Rodriguez spoke openly about a multitude of subjects could only add fuel to such discussions.
Included in the video was Rodriguez discussing for the first time outside a courtroom setting the forces that drove him to walk out on West Virginia without so much as a formal goodbye following the crushing 2007 loss to 28-point underdog Pitt in a game that could have put the Mountaineers into the national championship game .
Rodriguez spoke openly and frankly, denying he had been job hunting during his final season, saying he hadn’t talked to Michigan until a week and a half after losing to Pitt, saying he probably would have stayed had he felt the administration at the time wasn’t beyond him and that if he had it to do over again he would have held a press conference to explain why he was leaving rather than just jumping in a car and driving away from West Virginia football following an emotional meeting with his team.
Rodriguez also said he did not coach the Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma because he felt his presence would be too great a distraction rather than because he wanted to get started at Michigan or couldn’t face a WVU public that felt so alienated over the Pitt loss and his departure.
Was this a first step at making peace with WVU for the man now in charge of the Arizona program following a hotly contested lawsuit that found he had to pay WVU a $4 million buyout, three difficult seasons at Michigan which included NCAA violations he called “a bunch of B.S.” during this same interview and a recent poll in which his popularity was still lingering at 11 percent in his home state after having been the toast of the town during the glory days?
Certainly, the timing is intriguing considering the way the football situation at WVU has deteriorated since that Pitt game, sliding from the doorstep of a national championship game to an unranked .500 team.
Rodriguez, who went 60-28 (.698) during seven years as WVU coach, began talking about the West Virginia situation by emphasizing he did not go out seeking the Michigan job, even after the loss to Pitt.
“I heard people say, ‘You must have been looking for this job’ or ,‘The Michigan thing was in the works before the season was over.’ That’s just not true,” he maintained.
“I didn’t talk to them even a week after the season. It was a week and a half after the season I got a call and I said, ‘Jeez, maybe I should listen to it.’”
Rodriguez did not say whether his agent had begun pursuing the job earlier than that, however.
Rodriguez claimed it wasn’t so much the Michigan offer or a chance to go to a school with the rich history and prestige Michigan has that convinced him to accept, but instead the way he was treated by the administration headed by WVU President Mike Garrison.
“I still wasn’t going to take the job if I thought the administration at the time at West Virginia had the same vision I did as far as growing the program,” he claimed. “The program had gotten to a pretty good place, and I wanted to keep growing it.”
His negotiations with WVU, however, convinced him he had taken the program as far as he would be allowed to take it.
“When Michigan offered the position, I didn’t take the job right then,” he explained. ‘I said I was going back to my superiors at West Virginia and see what they think about it and give them an opportunity to say, ‘We want you to stay here and we’re with you all the way.’ But when that meeting went the other way and they said, ‘We’ve done all we can with you. Take it or leave it,” I almost felt like I was being pushed out the door.
“That was my perception, what I felt, but I didn’t take the job in Michigan without consulting with West Virginia first.”
And so it was he opted to leave, a departure that was abrupt and poorly handled on all sides.
Rodriguez says much of it was mishandled by him because he was given bad advice.
“If I could do one thing over again I would have a press conference at West Virginia and explain some of these things,” he said. “I was kind of told to not do that (by Michigan). They said, ‘Hey, move on.’ I got some advice to not do that, but I owed that to West Virginia.
“I think it would have cleared a lot of things up to tell them, ‘This is why I’m leaving. This is why I’m taking this opportunity’ … and it was a great opportunity. ‘You may not like it, but at least I’ve given you the upfront.’
“They said, ‘Move on and take the high road.’ Well, sometimes taking the high road is not the best. Staying on the level road and talking to the people … I called a few people who had supported the program and gave them a heads up.
“But there were so many people who had supported the program and my staff that I didn’t contact before I left, that if I could do one thing over again it would be that.”
The regrets linger with Rodriguez, just as the hard feelings linger with the people who felt snubbed by the way he left.
“A lot of people were simply mad because I didn’t coach the bowl game,” Rodriguez continued. “That was my decision only. I thought I would have been a huge distraction. I felt the best chance for West Virginia to win that game against Oklahoma was for me to remove myself from the staff and the state.
“That way they could concentrate on just the game and not the drama of me being there with my last game.”
And win it they did, stunning Oklahoma, 48-28, with Bill Stewart serving as interim coach. Following the game, with a strong post-game endorsement from quarterback Patrick White, Stewart was named as Rodriguez’s replacement.
This was a controversial decision made at a time of strong emotions, to say nothing of victory celebrations, that was challenged by influential contributors to the program, leading to a split in the support the athletic department had developed during Rodriguez’s time as coach.
So where does it go from here?
“It’s in the past,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve moved on and I’ve moved on … but when people say they’re still mad sometimes I think, ‘It’s a long time ago,’ and, it’s home, too. There were a lot of good things that happened over seven years, too, a lot of things that came at that time that are still in place, facility-wise and structure-wise that have helped them get to where they are at today.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.