Zemek blog: Family Values In An Election Year

Staff Columnist
Posted Apr 1, 2008

A list of the most tired and worn-out expressions in American politics would have to include a mention of "family values." Sadly, this verbal arrow has been pointed at Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez, who has yet another political headache to deal with in his own version of "Decision 2008."

Rodriguez is immersed in preparations for a high-pressure, no-honeymoon season in Ann Arbor. The former West Virginia boss faces enormous expectations at his new job precisely because he represents a break from Michigan's past. With respect to his personal background, football methodology, and public identity, Rodriguez stands as a marked departure from his predecessor, Lloyd Carr, who stepped down at a time when his fan base was eager for change.

It therefore stands to reason that if a loyal Michigan man received heat even while making the Rose Bowl in three of his final five years on the job, imagine the firestorm awaiting Rodriguez if Michigan can't overtake Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy. In the face of this large and looming pressure, it's little wonder that Rodriguez--in his own kind of election year--has been very much the politician in the spotlight. At seemingly every turn over the past three months, the Wolverines' new leader has had to defend himself and his credibility.

In many respects, this shouldn't be surprising. After all, Michigan invited this level of scrutiny by hiring a coach who was knee-deep in the litigation and procedural maneuvering that dominated the final weeks of a manifestly ugly divorce from West Virginia. Given all the muck that has stuck to Rodriguez ever since his sloppy and aborted romance with Alabama over a year ago, the inclination to luxuriate in righteous glee over Rodriguez's misfortunes is very natural and understandable. This latest incident involving the departure of UM offensive lineman Justin Boren--who uncorked the "family values" bombshell as he walked away from Team Rodriguez--only adds to the woes of Michigan's new head coach. It's very easy these days for any college football observer to offer Michigan a very snide and contemptuous, "I told you so."

Know something else? As easy as it is right now to rub more salt in Rich Rodriguez's increasingly deep wounds, it would also be very cheap to do so.

Yes, Rodriguez's behavior in December--in the weeks following the personally shattering home loss to Pittsburgh that rocked him on numerous levels--was bizarre at best, deeply damaging at worst. Yes, the people of West Virginia have a number of legitimate gripes with Rodriguez in light of that messy departure, which followed the dissatisfying Alabama anxieties of late 2006. Yes, Rodriguez is one of the men who has not enhanced the profile of the coaching profession from an ethical standpoint, at a time when football coaches need to handle these transitions a lot better than they have in the past.

But with all that having been said, and despite everything that has gone before him, Rodriguez should not be prematurely judged as a result of Justin Boren's remarks. One could engage in endless speculation on this matter, but at the end of the day, it's hard to imagine that a coach trying to newly install a system and an entire athletic subculture could have done something so offensive as to render his program free of "family values."

Mr. Boren, perhaps aware of the state of Michigan's political visibility in 2008, lobbed a familiar verbal hand grenade into Rodriguez's personal bunker to make a personal statement rich in both forcefulness and savvy. If he wanted to make a headline with his departure, Boren--one displeased individual who shouldn't be allowed to speak for every Michigan player--made his point and gained the amount of attention he surely sought in the first place. However, it remains that Boren is one player. If you think that politics and football don't mix--especially in this election year--a gentle reminder is instructive.

As is the case with national politics, big-time college football--specifically the relationship between coaches and players--invites friction between and among human beings. If every individual conflict with a player was viewed as a black mark against a coach, the ranks of America's football coaches would look like a coal mine. But of course, in this world of cutthroat competition (which should reward academics and promote holistic development, even though it is competitive; that's another story for another day), egos will be bruised and hopes will be squelched. It's part of the game. Rodriguez should not be given a free pass for what he did at--and to--West Virginia, but he also shouldn't be pre-judged or assumed to be a negative or wayward force at Michigan, just a few months into his tenure. Surely, any human being deserves to be allowed to learn from past mistakes; we'd all want the same if we were in the spotlight ourselves and inhabited the place Rodriguez currently occupies.

Justin Boren should not be taken to task for his remarks--they are merely the understandable outpourings of a very young soul who feels some degree of disenchantment and alienation. (Haven't we all felt those feelings at some point in our lives, especially when we were Boren's age?) Coming down hard on Boren is not and must not be the solution one should find in any argument that is sympathetic to Rodriguez in this case. The purpose of defending Rodriguez on this "family values" issue is to emphasize the importance of according fresh respect to people even when they are saddled with burdens and missteps from past years.

Rich Rodriguez still has a lot to answer to for the way he treated West Virginia. Does this mean he should be pre-judged at Michigan whenever any form of controversy comes along? No way.