ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez reached into the middle drawer of his desk and pulled out 10 large index cards filled with notes.
One outlined problems to fix, another was changes to make and one included items to address with the athletic director.
The 45-year-old Rodriguez started organizing his thoughts this way two decades ago at tiny Salem College and continued to do so at Glenville State, Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia.
“This year, there are more notes and cards than I’d like,” Rodriguez said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve gone through years with one card. Now, I’ve got 10 cards here. That tells you what kind of year we’ve had.
“It’s been as tough as any season I’ve had in coaching.”
Michigan’s year will mercifully end soon, but not until playing Saturday on the road against rival Ohio State.
The Wolverines (3-8, 2-5) have already broken a school record for losses, had their first losing season since the pre-Bo Schembechler era and will be relegated to watching bowl games for the first time since 1974.
It has been an miserable season for the once-proud program, which hit rock bottom last month when it lost to Toledo. Against the
10th-ranked Buckeyes, who are favored to win by a rivalry-high 20½ points, Rodriguez and the Wolverines can either salvage some pride or add a gloomy final chapter.
“I’m disappointed in the season we’ve had, but I’m not deterred or discouraged about the direction we’re headed,” Rodriguez said. “We had more things to get shored up than I originally expected, but none of them are daunting.
“I’m still as excited about the future as I was three months ago.”
Rick Leach, Michigan’s quarterback from three decades ago, is also fired up about how he believes the new-look program will evolve under Rodriguez.
Leach started watching Rodriguez’s high-tempo workouts last spring and has been a regular visitor this fall, standing on the sideline during practices and sitting with Rodriguez during a recent lunch as they swapped hunting stories.
“I loved it when we hired him and I love it more now after spending time with him and getting to know him pretty well,” Leach said. “There have been a ton of players who have been through this program and they all have the right to an opinion about him, but personally, I’m proud he’s our coach.
“It’s painful for a lot of people to see Michigan lose like this, but the wins and losses go on his record and so you can multiple the pain he feels. Nobody has taken more of a brunt for this year than coach, but this wasn’t going to be an easy job for anybody.”
Lloyd Carr, who announced his retirement a year ago, left behind an experienced defense and an NFL-depleted offense.
Rodriguez has tried to install his renown spread, but he didn’t have much to work with at quarterback, receiver or on the offensive line and the unit has outscored only Purdue in the Big Ten.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose staff visited Rodriguez in West Virginia a few years ago to learn about his scheme, has no doubt the Wolverines will eventually find a groove on offense.
“Everyone in the country that’s been around coaching would agree that Rich Rodriguez has been one of the most creative and really one of the founders of the spread-style attack,” Tressel said. “You know that he’s building one building block on top of the next.”
Michigan’s defense has been disappointing, giving up 28 points a game to rank 10th in the conference, and woes on special teams have led to some of the setbacks that have stunned a school, program and fan base.
Rodriguez has kept his composure for the most part in public, where his every word is dissected, but he has lost it at times privately.
He ranted and raved at his players, without lashing out at individuals, in particular after losses at Notre Dame and Penn State.
“What made him so mad after those games was that some people weren’t running hard enough to make plays even when the game was on the line,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor recalled. “The fight wasn’t there within some guys and that obviously bothered him a lot. I was frustrated about it, too.”
Rodriguez, though, is not about to hide from a challenge or critics.
Instead, he’ll just keep picking away at the to-do lists on his index cards to restore Michigan to a national power.
“Some of these problems can be solved quickly,” said Rodriguez, thumbing through the 5-by-8 inch cards. “Some will take years, like having quality depth at every position so that the first, second and third guys are so good you could play them all.
“We’re not there yet, but we’ve got a plan to get there.”
BUCKEYES BUZZ: A lot is being made of freshman Terrelle Pryor starting at quarterback against Michigan on Saturday. But what if he doesn’t?
This is the final home game for the seniors, and one of the most loyal seniors has been quarterback Todd Boeckman, who waited patiently for his chance to play and then led the Buckeyes to an outright Big Ten title and the national championship game a year ago. As Pryor began to develop early this season, coach Jim Tressel tossed Boeckman aside and has barely put him in since.
So, what about it, coach: Would you start Boeckman?
“I’m not sure that that’s in the cards here, but I haven’t really talked about that,” he said this week.
Boeckman’s teammates are sure talking about it. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
Linebacker Marcus Freeman: “Just talking to Todd and seeing him, it’s got to be tough. He’s a competitor. Any true competitor wants to be on that football field. ... A lot of times if you see a guy get his spot taken, he’ll be like, ‘I ain’t helpin’ nobody out. It’s about me.’ And Todd isn’t that guy.”
Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins: “It would be nice to see Todd go out on his senior day and get a snap. But that’s not up to us. It would be a nice gesture.”
Linebacker James Laurinaitis: “He has handled the whole situation the whole season with unbelievable class, and I think he’ll handle this week the same way. You don’t expect anything less from him. He’s a guy (who) truly loves this university, loves this team and has tried to take every opportunity to help Terrelle with anything he’s needed.”
Tight end Rory Nicol: “I do feel for Todd. Todd’s one of my best friends on the team. A year ago he was an All-Big Ten quarterback and he’s struggled and he’s had some adversity. ... I think that’s one of the toughest situations you can be put in as a player regardless of your position. He never backed away from it. He never asked that he not be a captain. He gets up and speaks in front of the team every Thursday.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Punter A.J. Trapasso, on whether it’s been hard to watch Michigan go 3-8 this season: “I think any true Buckeye fan would tell you when we’re not playing Michigan, we’re rooting for them. A lot of people will turn their heads about that, but you want it to mean more than just Michigan playing their last game of the season. It makes it that much better of a game when there’s something on the line, when there’s BCS bids, Big Ten titles. That’s what you really want at the end of the season.”
SMALL TALK: Tressel was asked if wide receiver/kick returner Ray Small might duck his head out of the coach’s doghouse long enough to see action against the Wolverines. Tressel said only that Small might be available to play.
STAT OF THE DAY: ESPN.com suggests that Ohio State should be rooting for Tennessee to lose to Vanderbilt or Kentucky in its final two games.
Why? Should the Volunteers lose at least one more game, they would join Michigan with eight losses. That would leave Ohio State as the only current Football Bowl Subdivision team to never have lost eight games in a season.
— The Associated Press