The University of Alabama has a sterling reputation of spending top dollar on its football program — whether it involves handsomely paying the head coach, assistant coaches and supporting staff or sparing no expense on the school’s first-rate athletic facilities.
But there’s one glaring omission on the Crimson Tide department’s current payroll: Rich Rodriguez.
Citing his non-presence in Tuscaloosa for the last nine years, Rodriguez deserves at least some credit for Alabama’s absurd success since 2008: Eight 10-win seasons, five SEC West titles, four SEC crowns and four national championships under head coach Nick Saban.
Here’s the story: Back in December 2006, amidst a second straight 11-win season with West Virginia, Rodriguez turned down the head-coaching vacancy at Alabama — after initial whispers of accepting the move — and subsequently returned to his lead job with the Mountaineers.
It proved to be a sleek short-term move for Rodriguez, whose Mountaineers came thisclose to reaching the BCS title game in 2007 (before falling to Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale). In the long term, it ended up as maybe the greatest rejection in football lore (college or pro).
SEC Country offers a hypothetical “What If” for Alabama, Rodriguez and Saban … if the latter had never gotten a chance to become perhaps the greatest college coach of all time.
NORTHERN CRASH-TEST DUMMIES
Given his success at Tulane and Clemson (elite-level offensive coordinator) and West Virginia (60-26 overall) and Arizona (33-20 overall, one Pac-12 South title in 2014), Rodriguez is redoubtably a very good football coach.
But his up-tempo, spread-attack philosophy hardly syncs up with the brawny worlds of the SEC and Big Ten. Yes, Rodriguez passed on Alabama in 2006; but a year later, he was happy to take his brand of finesse football to Michigan, where the results weren’t good.
On any level.
Rodriguez had a 15-22 overall record with the Wolverines from 2008-10. Even worse, his clubs never tallied more than three conference victories during that span — including a 1-7 debacle in 2009, highlighted by seven straight Big Ten defeats to close the regular season.
The desultory effect of the RichRod firing lingered on past his dismissal after the 2010 season. For his three years on the job, Rodriguez targeted smaller, faster and more interchangeable offensive linemen during recruiting. Consequently, it meant that Brady Hoke — Rodriguez’s successor at Michigan — had to compromise his short-term vision of the Wolverines’ makeup in the trenches, knowing his most experienced players weren’t built to combat big, powerful offensive/defensive lines in the Big Ten.
Plus, Hoke (31-20 with Michigan from 2011-14) had to be patient with the major recruiting shift in those early years. In all, Rodriguez’s hire essentially put Michigan in a five-year holding pattern, although the 2011 Wolverines warrant praise for going 11-2 and knocking off Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. (It would be Hoke’s high point in an otherwise suspect U-M tenure.)
The same type of collateral damage could have been inflicted onto Alabama a decade ago, if Rodriguez had joined the Crimson Tide late in 2006.
On the plus side, a Rodriguez-led ‘Bama squad would have been ahead of the spread-attack movement in the SEC, which now runs prevalent with Ole Miss, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Auburn. On the down side, the deep and absurdly talented defensive lines of the Saban era — like the amazing front seven in 2015, anchored by future All-Pro A’Shawn Robinson — would not have been so formidable in the RichRod era.
Sure, Rodriguez would have landed his share of blue-chip studs along the offensive and defensive lines during recruiting.
After all, it’s Alabama!
But from a win-loss or championships perspective, the hypothetical results with the Crimson Tide — from 2007-11 (presuming five years on the job) — might have run a similarly shaky course to Rodriguez’s real-world results at Michigan. It’s an unavoidable consequence of pitting smallish linemen against NFL-caliber athletes in the trenches.
THE SABAN INEVITABILITY FACTOR
By our math, 17 days elapsed between the Rodriguez rejection and Saban hire (December 2006/January 2007) — which, in hindsight, qualifies as the greatest “limbo” period in Alabama sports history.
But even if Rodriguez had accepted the offer (at roughly $2.1 million per season — a top-of-the-market figure back then), it’s eminently possible that Saban would have been re-courted by Alabama, four or five years down the road.
After all, Saban was genetically predisposed to handle the pressures of coaching at Alabama. He’s the closest thing to a robot in college football — and that’s a good thing!
This begs the question: Was Saban — the highest-paid coach in college today — truly desperate to bolt the NFL’s Miami Dolphins after the 2006 season? Or was Alabama the only college consideration at the time?
If Saban had stuck with the Dolphins …
For the 2007 draft, the inconsistent Dolphins likely would have bypassed Ohio State receiver Ted Ginn Jr. at No. 9 overall, perhaps in favor of Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis (potential Hall of Famer), Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis (likely Hall of Famer) or Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn (career backup) in Round 1.
For Round 2, the Dolphins would have surely ignored BYU quarterback John Beck (1,417 career passing yards in the pros) at No. 40. But could Saban have resisted the allure of receivers Sidney Rice (South Carolina), Steve Smith (Utah) or Dwayne Jarrett (Southern California), along with noted defenders like LaMarr Woodley, David Harris or Charles Johnson?
Therein lies the crux of Saban even bolting LSU for NFL riches after the 2004 season: He passed on a chance to land Drew Brees in free agency (after the 2005 campaign); and as a double whammy to that, the 2007 draft was notoriously devoid of franchise-worthy quarterbacks.
(Let the record show: Saban and the Dolphins fell two draft slots shy of acquiring running back Adrian Peterson.)
As such, it would have been easy to envision Saban — after three so-so campaigns in the NFL — going all-in to the highest college bidder before the 2008 season.
And for this hypothetical, remember that Alabama would have already been aligned to Rodriguez as head coach.
In January 2008, these prominent schools were actively seeking head coaches: Baylor (eventual hire: Art Briles), Georgia Tech (hire: Paul Johnson), Ole Miss (hire: Houston Nutt), Nebraska (hire: Bo Pelini), Texas A&M (hire: Mike Sherman), UCLA (hire: Rick Neuheisel) and Michigan.
Looking at the list, Saban would have been the top candidate with each school … but the most plausible landing spots involved UCLA, Ole Miss and Michigan.
As in …
**Can you imagine Saban arriving in Los Angeles at the final high point of Pete Carroll’s dynamic tenure with Southern California? (Carroll, who won the national championship in 2004, went 12-1 four years later … but then left the Trojans for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 campaign.)
**What about Saban taking his perfect-pitch “process” to another SEC West haunt — beautiful Oxford, Miss? And keep in mind, the 2008 Rebels featured future NFL stalwarts like Mike Wallace, Peria Jerry, Dexter McCluster and Greg Hardy.
**Or what about Saban shirking 10 years of loyal service with Michigan State (five years as an assistant, five years as head coach) to take the Michigan job — a vacancy that Rodriguez never got a chance to fill in this hypothetical?
As a proud MSU alum … even I concede that Saban would have steamrolled all comers in the Big Ten, given his laser-like focus, maniacal approach to recruiting and supreme coaching acumen. Plus, he was a substantially bigger coaching rock star in 2008, compared to his dual stints in East Lansing (mid-1980s, late 1990s).
Of course, the flip side of this hypothetical exercise involves Alabama and its search for a new coach in 2011 — post-Rodriguez:
As luck would have it, Urban Meyer (national titles in 2006 and 2008) had just resigned from Florida a few months prior.
Now, that would have been interesting.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.