Rich Rodriguez might have gotten an inkling that this was not going to end well when, less than 24 hours after leaving for Michigan, the folks in tiny Grant Town had removed the highway signs advertising the West Virginia hamlet as the football coach’s hometown.
If that wasn’t enough, some unhappy fans gave him more clues when they hung disparaging signs on a fence at his home and tossed a mailbox into the yard. There were death threats against some of his relatives, and online communities were formed simply for the pleasure of being able to write expletives in front of his name.
People heckled him at the airport, the governor expressed outrage, and the state filed suit asking for the $4 million Rodriguez promised to pay back if he should ever leave the University of West Virginia.
Hell apparently has no fury like a state scorned, and the people of West Virginia are especially furious with Rodriguez, a native son who always proclaimed his fidelity to his alma mater. On the verge of playing for a national title one moment, the school was left standing at the altar the next when Rodriguez succumbed to the lure of coaching the Wolverines.
Now things are really starting to get nasty.
The revelation by the Charleston Gazette the other day that files kept in Rodriguez’s private office disappeared after he signed with Michigan adds a new level of intrigue to a story that already encompasses angry fans, baffled boosters and a coach who can’t understand why an entire state should be unhappy when he was just trying to better himself.
Details are murky, but the paper cited anonymous sources as saying the missing documents included personal information about players, including strength and conditioning charts and records of their class attendance. The documents went missing about the same time Rodriguez cleaned out his office, and cleaned West Virginia out of the remaining assistant coaches he took with him to Michigan.
Just what happened to the documents will be the subject of debate for some time among the taxpayers of West Virginia, who live in one of the poorest states in the country but still managed to scrape up $1.78 million a year for their football coach.
Maybe he was just looking for Taylor Hill’s cell phone number.
Hill, a highly regarded linebacker from Youngstown, was all but signed to go to West Virginia but announced a few days ago that he would follow Rodriguez to Michigan.
Missing files aside, the whole Rodriguez mess is a classic case study about all that is wrong in college football these days, where players get by on room and board while the coaches who lead them become multimillionaires.
The money is so big and the pressure to win so huge that contracts and commitments mean nothing and schools such as Michigan don’t think twice about raiding another school if it has a coach that might be able to beat Ohio State.
In the business world, that’s just business as usual. But on the campus of West Virginia it meant Rodriguez was not only stepping out on some 80 kids he recruited to play for him, but also that he would abandon them just before they played in the Fiesta Bowl.
At least June Jones waited until after his Hawaii team was badly beaten in the Sugar Bowl before leaving the islands for $2 million a year at SMU, a move that so upset the school that it fired the athletic director for not keeping Jones.
No wonder more and more top players can’t wait until the end of their junior seasons to turn pro. They see what’s going on and understand that loyalty can be a one-way street.
A lot of this could be stopped, of course, if the NCAA had any power in controlling the great excesses in college sports, which it has long since ceded to boosters and television networks. Either that, or it simply doesn’t care about the players who are left behind when a coach leaves or might transfer or lose a scholarship with a new coach coming in.
The people in West Virginia have every right to be upset, because they had a coach under a long-term contract that they expected him to fulfill. The football players at West Virginia should be equally upset because most committed four years of their lives to promises that weren’t kept.
Getting Rodriguez to pay the $4 million buyout in his contract won’t solve that.
But making him dig into his pocket for the money might make the whole thing a bit easier to take.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.