I suspect many West Virginia University football fans have followed with great interest (or at least morbid curiosity) the news about Rich Rodriguez and the University of Arizona. The school fired him Tuesday night following an unremarkable six seasons and amid a sex scandal.
Rodriguez’ former administrative assistant, Melissa Wilhelmsen has accused the coach of sexual harassment. According to the claim, Rodriguez made unwanted sexual advances toward Wilhelmsen and also pressured her to help keep his wife, Rita, from finding out about an affair he was having with another woman.
Rodriguez vehemently denies the sexual harassment allegations, calling them “baseless and false,” but he admits to the affair. A University investigation found that the allegations “could not be substantiated based on the evidence and the witnesses available.” Wilhelmsen did not cooperate with the investigation.
However, the University determined that the “direction and climate of the football program” were cause for concern and led to the firing. Arizona is expected to pay Rodriguez his $6.3 million buyout.
Just eleven years ago, Rich Rodriguez had it all going his way. He was coming off a 10-2 regular season and was one of the hottest coaches in the country. Alabama came calling, and Mountaineer fans were ecstatic when Rodriguez turned down the job.
I was camped outside the team meeting room in the Puskar Center and heard the cheers when Rodriguez told the team he was staying. At last, Mountaineer Nation had a homeboy so committed to the Gold and Blue that not even the storied Crimson Tide program could lure him away.
Rodriguez then put an exclamation point on his decision as a Pat White-led Mountaineer team defeated Georgia Tech 38-35 in the Gator Bowl. Those were good times.
But the euphoria was short lived. Rodriguez obsessed over details of his new contract and bemoaned the reluctance of the WVU administration to grant all his wishes. He claimed that he was not supported or valued by the University. The 2007 season-ending upset loss to Pitt cost him and WVU a chance for a national championship and threw him into an emotional tailspin.
This time when a historic football program called, he accepted, becoming the head coach at the University of Michigan. WVU held Rodriguez to the buyout terms of his contract. Eventually a settlement was reached where he agreed to pay WVU $4 million.
The ugly departure angered Mountaineer fans, who felt betrayed. For several years Autumn Saturday’s meant rooting for WVU to win and Michigan to lose. After getting canned at Michigan and then settling in at Arizona, I sensed some of the animosity Mountaineer fans felt toward him began to fade. You even heard chatter from some who wanted to bring him back to Morgantown.
So now what do we make of Rich Rod? Even if the harassment allegations are untrue, he has admitted to an extramarital affair. That’s hardly unique among adults, but the totality of the circumstances, combined with a middling record and a pending retention bonus created a weight from which he could not escape in Tucson.
Rich, like all of us, is flawed, but his flaws are almost Shakespearean… traits that cause errors in judgment that lead not only to mistakes, but to inglorious downfalls.
I’ve heard many Mountaineer fans wonder over the years what would have happened if Rich had stayed. The initial thought is that the favorite son and Mountaineer football would have settled in for a long and prosperous run.
Maybe, but as the saying goes, “Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.” Remember to factor in that truism when speculating about what might have been.