New steel spines loom large above both sidelines at The Big House, the emerging skeleton of a $226 million renovation to make sure Michigan Stadium remains a top college football destination deep into this century. What inquiring minds want to know is whether anybody bothered to draw up a blueprint for the team that will be playing inside.
The maize-and-blue faithful who worried they'd never forget the sting of losing to Appalachian State a year ago were reminded Saturday to be careful what they wish for, since Rich Rodriguez only needed six games to make them feel worse. And there's no guarantee getting beat by Toledo is the worst of it.
Rodriguez might be a quick study, but he's definitely a slow starter. He was overmatched in the first season of all three of his previous head-coaching stints. In 1988, at age 24, Rodriguez became the youngest coach in the nation by taking over a Division II program at Salem in West Virginia and promptly went 2-8. He never got a chance to redeem himself there, since the administration dropped football soon after.
nville State, another small state school where he started 1-7-1 and eventually reached the NAIA national championship game; or at West Virginia, where the memory of a 3-8 debut was soon eased by the Mountaineers' ascension to beast of the Big East, with four conference titles and as many New Year's Day bowls in his last five years.
``I've been through it before,'' he said in the interview room shortly after the 13-10 loss to Toledo, ``but all that's in the past.''
``Ain't gonna quit,'' Rodriguez said a few moments later, then made sure it sounded more like a promise than a threat by adding, ``Nobody is going to lay down here.''
Nobody is going to show Rodriguez the door anytime soon, either, not just because the school paid a reported $2.5 million to finalize his messy divorce from West Virginia, but because firing coaches fast is not the Michigan way. How much longer the school can afford that luxury might be another matter.
Few seasons speak to the cyclical nature of the college game better than this one. Traditional powers like Michigan, Miami and Florida State are all down. Penn State and Alabama are back up and South Florida, which didn't even join Division I until 2001, has settled in at No. 19 in the latest Associated Press poll.
the revolving door. Notre Dame doubled Charlie Weis' contract midway through his first season praying he might do the same. Penn State and Florida State stubbornly stuck by Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, two of the longest-serving members of the profession, with opposite results.
Rodriguez was likely Michigan's second choice to succeed Lloyd Carr. But former Wolverine player and Bo Schembechler disciple Les Miles found out he could get as much money and more staying at LSU, with a better chance of playing for a national championship most years. All the pieces are still in place at Michigan - topflight facilities, entree into the best recruiting circles, a supportive administration - but patience is increasingly scarce.
It's worth remembering that despite the disruptions caused by Rodriguez' departure from West Virginia and the defections soon after his arrival in Ann Arbor, he wasn't brought in to change the culture, only the offense. The Wolverines were increasingly getting whipped by teams that spread the field and who better to update the attack than one of the pioneers of that very same spread formation.
e offense better, it's that Michigan's defense looks more confused than ever, despite facing a version of the spread in practice every day. Even Rodriguez was at a loss to explain that one.
``We get one thing corrected, it's another thing,'' he said.
``The preparation and the plan is there, but the results aren't. So we've got to do all we can as coaches,'' Rodriguez added, ``to get these guys in position to make plays.''
It says a good deal about Rodriguez's ego or his faith in his system that he had no Plan B ready, especially since the toughest part of Michigan's schedule is yet to come. The Wolverines have gone to bowls for 33 straight years and haven't had a losing season since 1967, but both streaks are in danger of ending. Yet if past is prologue, the spread has worked every place else Rodriguez has been an assistant or head coach - Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia - and at Michigan he'll have better players.
The renovations to The Big House - including a new press box, 82 luxury suites and 3,600 club seats, the majority of which have already been sold - are scheduled to be finished in time for the 2010 season. If Rodriguez's offense is still a work-in-progress by then, the only way he'll get inside is by springing for a ticket.
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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