Rich Rodriguez is the most polarizing sports figure in the state’s history.
Over seven seasons (2001-2007) the Grant Town native and WVU graduate, led his alma mater to 60 wins against just 26 losses, consistent top 25 rankings, a historic Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, and to the brink of a national championship game.
Mountaineer fans rejoiced when, in 2006, Rodriguez passed on the Alabama job—Alabama!—to stay at West Virginia. It was a perfect Mountaineer match, but it all unraveled the following year.
The Mountaineers blew the chance for a spot in the national championship game when they lost at home to 28-point underdog Pitt 13-9.* The disappointment among fans boiled over into anger and resentment when, just days later, Rodriguez accepted the head coaching job at Michigan and unceremoniously left town without word one to the fans.
Well, a lot of time has passed—12 years to be exact—and Rodriguez is now at his third school since leaving WVU—he’s the new offensive coordinator at Ole Miss—but he clearly has regrets about what happened in Morgantown.
That is evident in a revealing interview of Rodriguez by Tony Caridi and Brad Howe in the latest edition of their podcast Three Guys Before the Game.
“I was advised not to have a press conference at West Virginia before I left,” Rodriguez said of his 2007 departure to Ann Arbor. “Looking back, I regret not doing that. I should have stood before the great folks of West Virginia and explained my reasons why.”
Of course he should have, and while Rich Rod was “advised” not to address his departure, he clearly was in a position to make his own decision about how he wanted to leave. Don’t forget that at the time Rodriguez was in a power struggle with the University’s administration; the coach wanted more control than WVU was willing to give.
Rodriguez has tried to put the Pitt game behind him, but with only limited success. He said thoughts of that disastrous night make him want to throw up. To his credit, he takes the blame for the loss. “I was so bad at calling that game,” he told Tony and Brad. “I played it probably too close to the vest. We were all a little bit tight, including myself.”
The coach would rather focus on the positive. “There are so many good memories there (West Virginia),” he said. “I certainly have a lot of regrets, but I also have more fond memories and more joyous times.”
Rodriguez’s path since leaving WVU has been rocky. He was a bad fit at Michigan and was fired after just three seasons. He had limited success at Arizona and was fired after revelations of an extramarital affair and a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment.
Rodriguez has admitted to the affair, but vehemently denied the harassment claim. The University of Arizona paid Rodriguez nearly $6 million to buy him out of his contract after an internal investigation could not substantiate the allegation.
At 56 and with dismissals from his last two jobs, Rodriguez’s career is clearly facing “third and long.” However, as with all coaches, he is an optimist. “You live and learn. Every year I’ve coached, you try to make a better version of yourself.”
Part of that “better version” may be to try to repair damage done when he left West Virginia. Why else would he agree to the lengthy interview with Tony and Brad?
“When I get back to West Virginia, which unfortunately is not often enough, I’ll see some friends and they’ll talk about the success (at WVU),” Rodriguez said. “I try to look back at the positive things more than the negative.”
Rich Rod may be hoping Mountaineer Nation feels the same way.
*(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said the Mountaineers were undefeated heading into the Pitt game. However, the Mountaineers had one defeat, a 21-13 loss to South Florida on Sept. 28.)