All Access: Michigan's Rodriguez readies for debut Print
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Saturday, 30 August 2008 11:02
NCAAF Headline News

 EDITORS - As Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez prepared for his debut Saturday as leader of the nation's winningest football program, he allowed AP Sports Writer Larry Lage exclusive access to the team and coaches. In this story, Lage recounts life for Michigan under its first head coach without ties to Bo Schembechler in four decades as they prepared to open against Utah.
By LARRY LAGE
AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Coach Rich Rodriguez is surrounded by the Michigan Wolverines for the first time on game day, his players kneeling around him.
``You guys can't wait to get out there, huh? I can't wait myself,'' Rodriguez said Saturday before Michigan took the field against Utah. ``I'm proud of the way you worked. We're ready to play a game - every man, every play from the first whistle to the last whistle. They'll make some plays. We'll make some plays. We'll make one more than them, and we'll sing ``The Victors,'' afterward.
``Everybody has questions about Michigan football,'' he adds with the loudest voice he's unleashed in a week. ``What is Michigan football? Where is this program at? We've got a bunch of guys in winged helmets, who are going to go down that tunnel and play their (tails) off and will play with pride, passion and intensity on every snap. That's what Michigan football is!''
Rodriguez left his coaching job and alma mater at West Virginia to replace Lloyd Carr, who announced his retirement last year after 13 seasons leading the nation's winningest college football program.
Ahead of his Michigan debut, Rodriguez allowed The Associated Press exclusive access to the team and coaches during the last, frenetic week before the 2008 season kicked off. This story is what life under Rodriguez looks like at Michigan.
---
Full team meeting room, 4 p.m. Sunday
Spot the ball. When the time to perform arises, the time to prepare has passed. Win for Michigan. Hold the rope.
In blue paint on white walls, those words stare at players seated in the full-team meeting room.
Rich Rodriguez slips into the room and suddenly, the small talk and jokes end.
``We're finally in game week,'' Rodriguez says.
``Yeah!'' the players reply.
---
Rodriguez's office, 6:15 p.m.
Four glass candy jars are a step inside Rodriguez's door, which is propped open by a kickstand doorstop when he's in the building. That's about 16 hours a day.
A majestic shot of Michigan Stadium is the lone hanging on the gray, wallpapered walls. Framed photos of his wife, Rita, 12-year-old daughter, Raquel, and 10-year-old son, Rhett, line the shelves behind the coach's desk. Atop the shelves, five winged helmets sit.
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer steps in as Rodriguez has his feet propped up - between two laptops and just below an HDTV mounted to a wall.
Rodriguez's staff is filled with coaches who were with him at previous coaching stops, most recently West Virginia. Shafer has no connection to Rodriguez or the Wolverines.
``Because I'm new, what do we call a double-edge pressure?'' Rodriguez asks.
``Cats and dogs,'' Shafer says.
---
Parking lot, 6:07 a.m. Monday
A Lexus rolls into the parking lot under a pitch-black sky.
Rodriguez gets out of the SUV sporting dress shoes sans socks, blue athletic shorts and a gray T-shirt. He lugs a bulging leather bag in one hand and the other holds slacks and a shirt on hangers.
A few minutes later, with running shoes on, he steps on a machine labeled ``COACH ROD'S STAIRMASTER,'' for a 35-minute workout on level 15. The speed is so intense that he logs five miles.
Rodriguez bounces on his toes with each step, quickly working up a sweat. It's unclear if he or the whirring StairMaster is getting more of a workout. ``SportsCenter'' is on the TV a few feet away, but he's oblivious to it - even when his image is shown as ESPN teases an upcoming segment featuring Michigan's new coach. Rodriguez reads articles about each team on the schedule and, as fatigue sets in, he leans on the equipment so much that his face is a few inches away from the stack of white paper.
Later, Rodriguez hits a speed bag the skill of a seasoned boxer, creating a rhythm that sounded like a rattlesnake.
Behind him, the Wolverine Countdown clock shows there are 5 days, 6 hours, 24 minutes and 52.3 seconds until the Utah game.
---
Staff meeting room, 8 a.m. Monday
Rodriguez, assistant coaches and members of the support staff are seated at a long, oval conference table. Other members of the staff sit in blue chairs along a wall.
Rodriguez runs the meeting with the same understated, calm voice he always seems to have when he's not on the practice field.
Rodriguez runs the meeting with the same understated, calm voice he has everywhere but the practice field. In a businesslike way, he asks for reports from the equipment manager, trainer, an assistant athletic director and the head of strength and conditioning.
``Check their weight later in the week,'' Rodriguez says. ``I don't want them blowing up because of all the free time they have.''
The schedule for the day and the rest of the week are among the topics of discussion.
``With all the freshmen we have, we need to be in the stadium on Thursday,'' Rodriguez says. ``Two or three years from now, we probably won't need to do that.''
---
Practice fields, 4:53 p.m.
A two-plus hour practice that is as intense as one could be without full pads is over, but Kurt Wermers can't leave yet. He's being disciplined.
The offensive lineman starts his extra work with a bear crawl for 100 yards and 100-yard sprint.
``If you don't like being punished, don't be late!'' assistant coach Greg Frye shouts. ``C'mon Wermers!''
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound freshman is so exhausted on his next bear crawl that knees are dragging and hands are sliding on the artificial turf. After more crawling and sprinting, Wermers tries to outrace Frye from the far corner of the field to the indoor practice facility.
``I was supposed to be at a team meal at 10:30 and I got there at 10:31,'' the exhausted Wermers - flat on his back - says to trainer Paul Schmidt.
``Just remember,'' Schmidt says. ``Early is on time and on time is late.''
---
Full staff meeting room, 6:15 p.m.
The offensive coaches are debating what plays to run near the goal line.
``We need extra points - not field goals,'' offensive coordinator Calvin Magee says with his bare feet propped up on the conference table, left hand on belly, right on a remote control that rewinds, pauses and plays every play from practice several times.
Rodriguez interjects that he wants running back Carlos Brown, who played quarterback in high school, to get a shot to be a signal caller.
After a ball bounces off a receiver's arm and into the arms of a player on the scout team, Rodriguez tilts his head back, arches his back, puts his palms over his eyes and rubs his face.
Sigh.
``This is giving me a headache,'' he says shortly before going home at 10 p.m., when the sky looked a lot like it did 16 hours earlier.
---
Practice, 2:30 p.m. Tuesday
Each practice is reordered by videographers, who are atop 50-foot high lifts. But they don't have the highest vantage point.
Six bricklayers - counting one worker watching the workout with a cigarette dangling between his lips - are at work on an enormous practice facility that will cost $26-plus million.
``Wow,'' marvels Phil Webb, a roommate of star Michigan running back Jamie Morris in the mid-1980s. ``You could play a game in there.''
Machines whiz, dust wafts and expletives fly.
At practice, Brown's option pitch with his left hand comes up short, sending the football bouncing off the turf.
``Run it again!'' Magee demands with a few not-fit-to-print words mixed in.
Brown does, perfectly flicking the ball to Brandon Minor.
Rodriguez's wife, Rita, and their two kids - along with other coaches' wives and children - are around again today. Sometimes they watch practice, sometimes they just hang out on the indoor practice field.
``Bo (Schembechler) never had wives and kids around like this,'' former Wolverine Vada Murray said while watching his first Rodriguez-led practice. ``But I love the pace of this practice, and Bo would've, too.''
The late coach probably might've also gotten a kick out of something else Rodriguez does, giving a birthday cake to any person connected to the football program.
``Happy birthday, Parker,'' the players say to the strength and conditioning assistant Parker Whiteman, when Rodriguez hands him a cake.
When Schmidt gets his cake, he reveals his hairy belly and chest to the players.
``Awwwwwwwwwww,'' the players respond.
---
Rodriguez's office, 7:54 p.m.
Rodriguez peruses recruiting Web sites after working on the game plan with the offensive staff.
``We've got two recruits coming in for official visits this weekend,'' he says. ``They're close to making a decision.''
Rodriguez does not seem close to getting rid of a cold that makes his eyes look sleepy and his nose runny.
``I've got to sweat this cold out,'' he says.
---
Full team meeting room, 12:45 p.m.
Rodriguez stresses the importance of backups practicing hard on the scout team to improve themselves and their teammates. He goes on to say everything the players do on and off the field will be scrutinized, especially on the Internet, because they're Michigan football players.
Then, he delivers another message after getting upset about another article questioning whether he cares about Michigan's tradition.
``I don't know where that comes from,'' Rodriguez tells his players. ``We're going to sing 'The Victors' and we're going to wear winged helmets. We're not going to change the tradition or the culture here.
``But tradition isn't going to get us a first down. You have to earn that. Tradition isn't going to get you a degree. You have to earn that and I hope every one of you does just that. I don't think people outside the program really understand what's going on here.''
Suddenly, Rodriguez bows his head silently.
``I'm not choked up,'' he deadpans. ``I'm sick.''
Laughter fills the room.
---
Steps outside Rodriguez's office, 2:27 p.m.
Former Michigan quarterback Rick Leach, a frequent visitor, tells Rodriguez how Schembechler told him he was starting as a freshman in 1975.
``The day before we opened at Wisconsin, Bo said, 'Let's take a walk,''' Leach recalls. ``He said, 'If I make you my quarterback, can you handle 85,000 fans wanting your head on a platter?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' And he said, 'Good because you're my man.' Then he said, 'You don't have to win the game. That's what all those guys are for. But don't lose the game!'''
Rodriguez chuckles.
A couple of minutes later, while walking to practice, a reporter asks Rodriguez if quarterback Nick Sheridan knows he's starting.
``I haven't told him yet, but he's bright enough to know because he goes out there with the No. 1 offense and takes a lot of snaps,'' Rodriguez replies. ``I'll probably tell him tomorrow.''
---
Walk to The Big House, 2:07 p.m. Thursday
Rodriguez walks across the outdoor practice field, train tracks and a parking lot to get to Michigan Stadium for practice.
``That's him,'' a construction worker says, pointing at Rodriguez.
``Welcome to Michigan, coach!'' another man shouts.
``Thanks,'' Rodriguez says, waving his hand.
Rodriguez then walks down a long tunnel and onto the field where the seats are empty, tons of steel for future luxury boxes tower over both sidelines.
The team is getting ready for a light practice. Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor hopes he can pull himself away from a trash can long enough to participate.
``The pepperoni roll is not sitting well in my stomach,'' Taylor groans.
Michigan's marching band shows up later, following a tradition before the season opener by performing for players and coaches who don't hear its halftime performances because they're in the locker room. Rodriguez, his wife and kids sing the school's famed fight song, ``The Victors,'' along with the rest of the team.
---
Indoor practice field, 2:26 p.m. Friday
West Virginia football boosters Bill Webb, Matt Jones and Andrew Hudson are skipping the Mountaineers' opener at home vs. Villanova to watch their friend's Michigan debut in person.
``I got a daughter that won't speak to me,'' Webb admits.
After the starting offense, defense and special-teams units practice running on and off the field, Rodriguez stops in the weight room to talk with a baseball recruit and his family.
``When you choose a college, it's not a four-year decision,'' Rodriguez says. ``It's more like 30 years.''
The countdown clock ticks down to 23 hours, 15 minutes and 55.4 seconds as Rodriguez walks away.
---
Campus Inn Ballroom, 8:55 p.m.
Rodriguez slips into a darkened ballroom 5 minutes before a scheduled team meeting and keys to the game are projected onto a screen.
Rodriguez wants the Wolverines to play smart, avoiding penalties.
``When you make a big play, celebrate with a teammates because chances are, a teammate helped you make the play,'' he says. ``Don't be a clown.''
He also tells the players, seated in rows, to control the tempo on both side of the ball.
``We're going to take the field like we own it,'' Rodriguez adds.
Rodriguez speaks in the silent room for 16 minutes, his longest speech of the week.
``I'm not BSing you guys. We have a lot of unknowns,'' the son of a coal miner and sign-language interpreter says in his thick, West Virginia accent. ``I ain't been in a game with y'all. But I can't wait to find out who you are.''
A little later, Rodriguez cues a highlight tape, which shows current players making plays in the past.
``It's time to make new highlights,'' Rodriguez says when the 6-minute video ends. ``See ya tomorrow.''
---
Team bus, 1:09 p.m. Saturday
Rodriguez boards the first of three buses lined up outside the hotel to take the team to Michigan Stadium. He's wearing a navy blazer, light blue shirt, maize tie, gray slacks and black shoes. Rodriguez stands, holding a strap hanging from the handrail as his wife and two children sit together in the only three seats available. He could be a New York City commuter at rush hour.
At 1:15 - 10 minutes before the buses were schedule to leave - Rodriguez is getting anxious.
Tight ends Carson Butler and Martell Webb are only two players holding up an early departure.
``Put them on the third bus,'' Rodriguez says, glaring at the front door of the hotel.
Butler and Webb appear a minute later and a police escort springs into action with two winged-helmet officers on motorcycles and another vehicle leading the way. Rodriguez slips into a seat, putting his son on his left thigh next to his wife and daughter - each sporting a lot of maize clothing.
The coach pops up as the stadium comes into view, leaning against a luggage rack and staring through the window at tailgaters.
When the door opens after the seven-minute drive, the band strikes up a stirring rendition of ``The Victors,'' and Rodriguez leads the way on the new ``Victors Walk,'' along a 200-yard long fire lane lined with screaming fans.
Taylor cups his left ear like a professional wrestler and waves his arms above his head, whipping the crowd into an even greater frenzy.
``Let's Go Blue!'' hundreds of fans shout in unison. ``Let's Go Blue!''
Jon Falk, hired by Schembechler to be his equipment manager in 1974, shouts the same words to players he has before games for decades.
``It's all Michigan today!'' Falk screams. ``Every man on every play.''
At 1:31, Falk has something else to say.
``Shut the door!'' he shouts.
----
Michigan Stadium locker room, 3:22 p.m.
Players sit at locker stalls, looking straight ahead. The only sound comes from cornerback Donovan Warren, reciting the hip-hop lyrics he's hearing in his headphones.
Strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis, whose pregame speeches have gained fame on YouTube, paces in front of the players and the former boxer throws a right hook with each step.
``It's time to get your mind right!'' Barwis shouts as he begins a 33-second rant. ``We kill 'em all. We let God sort 'em out!''
 

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