Rich Rodriguez was visiting an Alabama college football spring practice a couple of years ago and chatting on the sideline with one of the Crimson Tide’s big supporters.
Gazing around at Alabama’s grandiose football digs, Rodriguez couldn’t help himself and quipped, “Where’s my statue?”
The Alabama booster looked at him curiously and said, “What do you mean?”
With a sheepish smile, Rodriguez deadpanned, “I’m partly responsible for those five national championships because if I had said yes, you wouldn’t have had the greatest coach of all time, Nick Saban, winning all those championships.”
All these years later, one of the most fascinating coaching what-ifs in college football history still reverberates from the hills of West Virginia, to Denny Chimes Tower at Alabama, to The Big House at Michigan.
“At least I can still get a laugh out of it,” said Rodriguez, who had three Power 5 head-coaching stops at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona before spending last season as Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator. Rodriguez was not retained when Lane Kiffin was hired as the Rebels’ head coach and brought in his own staff.
Famously (or perhaps infamously), Rodriguez turned down an offer to become Alabama’s football coach on Dec. 8, 2006, and instead decided to stay at his alma mater West Virginia, reopening the door for Alabama athletic director Mal Moore to make another run at Saban.
And this time — after weeks of persuading and maneuvering — Moore got his man, turning the college football landscape upside down and once again making Alabama the epicenter of the college football world.
“I’d say it worked out pretty well for Alabama because they went out and got the best college football coach of all time,” Rodriguez said.
“I’m partly responsible for those five national championships because if I had said yes, you wouldn’t have had the greatest coach of all time, Nick Saban, winning all those championships.”
Rich Rodriguez, jokingly suggesting he deserves a statue at Alabama
Moore, who got to see three of Saban’s five national titles at Alabama before dying in 2013, had his sights set on Saban from the beginning after firing Mike Shula on Nov. 27, 2006. But Saban was just finishing up his second season as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach and initially rejected Alabama’s overtures. Moore also reached out to Steve Spurrier to gauge his interest in the job. Spurrier, who had just completed his second season at South Carolina, remembers encouraging Moore not to give up on Saban.
“Mal called after Saban turned them down,” Spurrier recounted. “He didn’t say he was giving me the job or anything like that, but wanted to talk and see if I was interested.”
Spurrier’s response was, well, vintage Head Ball Coach.
“I’d made a commitment to South Carolina. They’d been good to me, hiring me when I was 60,” Spurrier said. “I just told Mal, ‘With the history of the program here, we have nowhere to go but up. So I’m going to stay here, ride this thing out and see if we can do some things that haven’t been done at South Carolina.’
“Had I gone to Alabama and won a national championship, it’s just another one. … It ain’t the first.”
Ultimately, Moore settled on Rodriguez and offered him the job during a meeting in New York City in early December. There was at least one report that Rodriguez agreed in principle to take the job, and while Rodriguez admits he was close, he to this day is adamant he never told Moore he was going to be the Tide’s next coach.
“It’s like a lot of things. It got out there and got legs and maybe there’s an assumption that, ‘Of course you’re going to go to Alabama,’ ” Rodriguez said. “Maybe I could have had more foresight than I did, but at the time — and I know it sounds crazy now — we were in a better place at West Virginia than they were at Alabama. You could see that they had a plan and that Mal was on top of everything. They showed me pictures when we were in New York of everything they were going to do facility-wise on campus.
“They were going to take a step up, and obviously they got the right person to guide them in doing that.”
In fairness to Rodriguez, from 1997 to 2006, Alabama had more losing seasons (four) than 10-win seasons (three). So the program was in full transition mode and going on its sixth head coach (counting Mike Price, who never coached a game) in 12 years.
West Virginia, meanwhile, was in the midst of three consecutive 11-win seasons under Rodriguez, who felt like he had the talent coming back in Morgantown to compete for a national championship in 2007.
“We were one bad game away from playing for the national title that very next year, so I knew how good we were going to be,” Rodriguez said. “Listen, it was still Alabama, and I was very interested. I made that very clear to Mal, but never even visited the campus. I told him I needed to go back to West Virginia before I made any decision.”
And once back at West Virginia, Rodriguez said he was heartened by the support he received from prominent donors, including Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, to upgrade facilities and beef up his assistant coaches’ salaries.
“I left New York and went back to West Virginia and we were getting ready to play in the Gator Bowl, so I had a press conference in Jacksonville for the bowl game, and that day was when a couple of the boosters put together a proposal,” Rodriguez recounted. “I told them I couldn’t believe they got everything together so quickly because it was millions of dollars of stuff for the program. I was humbled by it and told Alabama I was staying.”
Later that day, Moore did what every athletic director dreads and publicly announced that Rodriguez had indeed rejected Alabama’s offer and was staying put at West Virginia.
But it was another announcement from Moore a little less than a month later, on Jan. 3, 2007, that will forever endear him to Tide fans. He had persuaded Saban to change his mind and return to the college game, and Alabama football was changed forever.
“It is phenomenal how quickly [Saban] got it going,” Rodriguez said. “They were in the SEC championship game his second year.”
And that was just the start.
Alabama under Saban has won 10-plus games every season since and either won or played for an SEC/national championship in eight of the 11 seasons since.
For Rodriguez, things went in a totally different direction. He returned to his alma mater, but for just one more year. Michigan came calling following the 2007 season, and this time Rodriguez couldn’t say no to another one of college football’s blue bloods.
And while it’s true that coaches by nature rarely look back, Rodriguez concedes, “But I’m getting older, so I look back more now than I did.”
His greatest regret is not so much that he passed on the Alabama job, but more the manner in which he left for Michigan. He never had a news conference to tell the West Virginia fans why he was leaving. He said he was advised by Michigan officials to move forward and thus went against his own instincts.
“That’s what I think about now, not that I turned down Alabama, but that I went to Michigan and never told the West Virginia people why,” Rodriguez said. “That was my home, my school, and I should have told them why I was leaving. That was a mistake, and it’s on me.”
What would Rodriguez have told the West Virginia people?
“The truth, that some of the things I was promised when I turned Alabama down were never delivered,” Rodriguez said. “It wasn’t just me that turned down Alabama, but my assistant coaches, too. I had a great group of coaches and wanted to be able to keep them. I wanted $50,000 more in salaries for them. That was part of what was promised a year earlier, and all of a sudden, that wasn’t the case.
“I wanted to stay and win championships at West Virginia, but it was becoming increasingly harder to keep assistant coaches, to keep the program at that level, and I wanted more assistance. It just seemed like some in the [West Virginia] administration weren’t of the same mindset that I was as far as building that.”
West Virginia filed a lawsuit against Rodriguez to claim the $4 million buyout after he left for Michigan, and the suit was eventually settled out of court.
Making Rodriguez’s exit even worse was the 13-9 upset loss to bitter rival Pittsburgh in the 2007 regular-season finale, a loss that cost the Mountaineers a shot at the national championship. West Virginia was ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings going into that game and a 28-point favorite.
“It’s the worst game I’ve ever had in my life,” said Rodriguez, the pain in his voice obvious more than a decade later.
At Michigan, Rodriguez never found the success he’d hoped for in leaving his alma mater. He went 15-22 in three seasons in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines were hit with NCAA probation for rules violations — centered primarily on offseason workouts and activities of support personnel — that occurred on Rodriguez’s watch.
Rodriguez never won more than seven games in his three seasons at Michigan, but knew going in that it would take some time, especially making the transition from Lloyd Carr’s pro-style offense to Rodriguez’s spread attack and recruiting to that system.
After Rodriguez was fired, Brady Hoke came in and won 11 games during his first season at Michigan in 2011, including a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
“We thought by the fourth year that we were going to be really good, and they were pretty good. I just wasn’t around to see it,” Rodriguez joked. “Those guys making the catches and tackles and throws and runs (in 2011) were guys we recruited. But that’s the way it goes in this business.”
Hoke made it four years at Michigan before he was also fired and never won more than eight games after his first season, setting the stage for the Wolverines to bring back favorite son Jim Harbaugh in 2015. Harbaugh has won 10 games in three of his five seasons, but there is a pretty significant caveat. He’s 0-5 against Ohio State in The Game.
Of course, Ohio State has won 15 of the past 16 games in the series. The only Michigan win in that stretch came during Hoke’s first season in 2011 and with Ohio State being led by an interim coach. Luke Fickell was coaching the Buckeyes in the aftermath of Jim Tressel being forced to resign six months earlier amid the tattoo parlor scandal and NCAA investigation.
“We all have things in our lives that we would do differently if we had that opportunity,” said Rodriguez, 56, who may look next to catch on with an NFL staff. “And, sure, hindsight is always 20-20, but Alabama would have been a better fit for me than Michigan.
“But it all happened, and you live and learn.”