"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, Vice-Presidential Candidate Debate, 1988.
Dan Quayle compared himself to Jack Kennedy in response to a question about his youth, pointing out that Jack Kennedy was also young when he ascended to the Presidency. Likewise, Rich Rodriguez has similarities to Urban Meyer – most notably a run-heavy variant of the veer offense, recent ascension to one of the top jobs in college football after a successful run at another school, and inheriting players ill-suited for his style of offense.
That’s where the similarities between Meyer’s first year at Florida, and Rodriguez’ first year at Michigan, end. Rodriquez isn’t Quayle, and Meyer isn’t Kennedy, but there’s reason to believe the gap between them is nearly as large.
Both inherited quarterbacks with potential, but not for their type of offense. Ryan Mallett, a highly touted, strong-armed quarterback, promptly packed his bags and headed for more favorable environs. Urban Meyer retained Chris Leak, did the best he could to play to Leak’s strengths (passing accuracy) and minimize his weaknesses in Meyer’s offense (small, not a strong runner, and didn’t care for contact). That paid off in Urban Meyer’s second year with a BCS crystal trophy.
Rodriguez faced a wave of defections before his team opened the season in September, particularly along the offensive line. The Michigan faithful painted it as getting rid of the slackers, those that had been coddled under Lloyd Carr and couldn’t adapt to the new regime. But when a Michigan legacy like Justin Boren not only leaves, but goes to arch-rival Ohio State, it gives one pause. Urban Meyer faced no such wave of defections at Florida.
Of particular interest was the way Urban Meyer adapted his first year at Florida. His wan-tango offense put up gaudy scores against lesser competition early in the season (41-3, and 49-28). Then came the first real SEC test at Alabama, which blitzed the house every time UF went empty-set. Leak got hammered, badly rattled, and Alabama won in a rout, 31-3. SEC defensive coordinators took note.
Two weeks later, Florida visited LSU. Once again, LSU max blitzed every empty set, Leak became ineffective, and LSU won despite losing the turnover battle 5-0. It was in the press conference after this game that Meyer broke down in tears and earned the moniker “Urban Cryer”.
But Meyer wasn’t done – he assembled his staff upon their return to Florida, and they stayed up all night at a kitchen table drawing up plays. Formations that weren’t in the Urban Meyer playbook. Plays with tight ends, and fullbacks, and all sort of exotic creatures never seen when he was at Utah; extra blockers to give Leak more time in the pocket. Florida hunkered down on offense enough to finish the season 9-3, with a bowl win, and scored more than 30 points 7 times.
After the season, Meyer was asked how difficult it was having players that didn’t fit his offense; he took umbrage at the question, and said his job as a coach is to fit his system to the players he’s got, not the other way around. It was clear Urban Meyer was the real deal.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, ran off a top quarterback and much of his offensive line, muddled through a painful 3-9 season, and only scored more than 30 points a single time. Before his second season starts, he’s already lost one quarterback with experience from last year (Threet) and will once again face a season with a green signal-caller.
Rodriguez took a square peg, stuck it in the proverbial round hole, and just whaled away all season long. At no point did he sit down and remake the offense to match the players on hand. He fired his defensive coordinator promptly after the season, but the offense was far worse than the defense last year. It appears his plan is to get the right players on offense; until then, just keep on hammering until that square peg gets rounded off.
Even with the right players in place, it’s a rare season that goes perfectly. Witness Florida struggling without Harvin; West Virginia’s woes when Pat White went out with injuries. Adapting during the season – as Meyer did after the Ole Miss loss this year, getting scat backs Raines and Demps more involved in the offense – is vital if one aspires to a BCS Championship.
Rodriguez succeeded at West Virginia, and there’s no reason to think he won’t succeed at Michigan after he remakes the team in his image. At the same time, though, he doesn’t appear to have Meyer’s adaptability, and without that ability to morph the system in mid-season, it’s unlikely he’ll ever achieve the level of success that Urban Meyer has enjoyed at Florida, or even be a consistent contender for the Big Ten conference championship.
Coach Rodriguez, you’re no Urban Meyer.