ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez to take college football’s winningest program to another level.
He did just that, and it cost him his job.
Rodriguez was fired Wednesday after going 15-22 in three disappointing seasons, including an 0-6 record combined against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, and staining the proud program with a handful of NCAA violations.
“Michigan is not used to this,” said athletic director Dave Brandon, who met with Rodriguez on Tuesday and again Wednesday before announcing the firing.
“I believe this is the best decision for the future of Michigan football,” Brandon said. “We have not achieved at the level that I expect.”
Rodriguez, who was highly successful at West Virginia before arriving in Ann Arbor, was just 6-18 in Big Ten play and 11-11 at home. The school will buy out the final three years of Rodriguez’s contract for $2.5 million, bringing its overall cost in hiring and firing him to $12.5 million.
Brandon said he will immediately begin a search for a replacement amid speculation that candidates might include Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback, and former Michigan assistant Brady Hoke, now San Diego State’s head coach. A SDSU spokesman said Michigan hadn’t asked for permission to talk to Hoke.
Harbaugh has declined to comment about the Michigan job and a Stanford spokesman would not say whether Michigan had asked for permission to speak with him. His brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, said he thought “the Michigan thing is done now.”
“I think that’s over. I don’t think he’s interested in doing that,” he said Tuesday on WBAL radio in Baltimore. “That’s hard for him because he loves Michigan.”
Brandon said he has talked with Harbaugh and “will continue to talk” with him because he’s “a Michigan man” he has known for years.
“I personally believe that Jim Harbaugh is headed to the NFL, that’s my opinion,” Brandon said.
Another potential candidate, LSU coach and ex-Michigan assistant Les Miles, said he likes his current job with the Tigers.
“I very much enjoy where I’m at,” Miles said Wednesday during a Cotton Bowl news conference. “I don’t think anybody has any reason to be concerned in any way.”
Brandon said a candidate with head coaching and recruiting experience, especially in the Midwest, would have an edge in the search.
“My timetable is: Go fast, but do it the right way,” Brandon said.
Rodriguez was not available for comment after the decision was announced. Rodriguez and his son drove away from Schembechler Hall at 6:45 p.m. EST.
“It’s really hard on all of us,” defensive tackle Mike Martin said before a private team meeting.
It didn’t get easier inside a somber gathering in which both Rodriguez and Brandon addressed the players.
“What would you expect the atmosphere to be like when you lose a member of your family?” defensive tackle Dominique Ware asked reporters.
Rodriguez’s final season was pivotal and it didn’t go well on or off the field.
He helped the Wolverines win seven games to earn a postseason bid, a relief for him at the time. Then he stood helplessly on the sideline on New Year’s Day as Mississippi State handed Michigan its worst bowl beating ever — a 38-point drubbing — in a Gator Bowl loss that looked all too familiar.
Quarterback Denard Robinson couldn’t consistently make the sensational plays he did during a jaw-dropping start to the season. And Michigan’s young defense, which ranked among the nation’s worst, was overmatched again.
“There’s a thought of getting a defensive-minded everything,” Brandon said when asked if he was looking for a head coach who emphasizes defense. “I want the ball boys to be defensive-minded.”
Rodriguez finished 7-6 this season, losing six of the last eight games. The improvement wasn’t enough from his 5-7 finish last year and the Michigan-record nine losses in his debut season in Ann Arbor.
The last season clearly weighed on Rodriguez.
He surprised supporters and players alike at the team’s postseason banquet when he broke down and cried, talking about the toll his job had on his family. He then quoted the Bible and Josh Groban and played a song from the musician in a surreal scene.
“I don’t think Rich Rodriguez has had a peaceful night sleep since he arrived in Ann Arbor,” said Brandon, who was lured to Michigan a year ago from his job as chairman and CEO of Domino’s Pizza.
“I think that his three years here … can somewhat be defined as three years of turmoil,” Brandon said. “It seems like it was one thing after another. It clearly impacted recruiting. It clearly impacted the positive energy that the team needs to be successful. It created a lot of hardships and a lot of distractions. Clearly, we need to put ourselves in a position where that is all history.”
Michigan’s former athletic director, Bill Martin, hired Rodriguez away from West Virginia after the 2007 season in a messy divorce. The school Rodriguez had played for and rooted for as a kid had extended his contract a year earlier, and he didn’t want to pay a $4 million buyout. Michigan eventually agreed to pay West Virginia $2.5 million, leaving Rodriguez to take care of the rest.
Rodriguez didn’t inherit a roster full of talent from Lloyd Carr. Quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas and offensive guard Justin Boren left for Ohio State, making his transition even more challenging, and Boren also claimed that the program’s “family values” had eroded.
Under Rodriguez, the program was hit by the kind of news it dreaded.
Just before the 2009 season, anonymous players told the Detroit Free Press that the Rodriguez-led program was exceeding NCAA limits on practice and training time.
“We know the rules, and we follow the rules,” an emotional Rodriguez declared a day after the report was published.
Yet the school later acknowledged that it was guilty of four violations. It was put on three years of probation, though Rodriguez and the school avoided major penalties. Paul Dee, chair of the Division I infractions committee, nonetheless compared the coach’s role to that of being captain of the ship.
“Some of the things that did occur did not get all the way to the coach, but ultimately, the coach bears a responsibility for the program,” Dee said.
Rodriguez is widely considered one of the architects of the spread offense that has become the rage in college football, creating his version of three- and four-receiver sets at tiny Glenville State in 1990. He turned the Mountaineers into a Big East power, winning four conference titles and 60 games in seven seasons.
The folksy man from Grant Town, W.Va., recruited two players who could lead the Michigan offense — Robinson and Tate Forcier — and they helped the 2009 team get off to a strong start that put the team on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His defenses never kept pace.
Rodriguez might’ve been willing to fire his second defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson, and let the new hire run his own assistants and scheme to keep his job. But he didn’t get that chance.
“Rich is a good person and coach,” Brandon said. “It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out at Michigan, but I’m sure that Rich and his staff will find opportunities at other institutions.”
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Allen Park, Mich., and Stephen Hawkins in Irving, Texas, contributed to this report.