The coach grinded away, yet comfortably it seemed, in his New York Yankees job.
A former player and alum, having elevated his school among the college football elite, delivering it to the doorstep of the BCS Championship game.
Coaching stock already high, yet rising still.
No, Rich Rodriguez.
And Rodriguez walked away form it all at West Virginia, his own college stomping ground located less than 20 miles from his hometown — lured away by mighty Michigan and its resources and tradition and power-conference appeal.
Two jobs and much stress and turbulence later, the man they call Rich Rod works to makeover his image and an off-the-radar program at Arizona. He's more than 1,900 miles from home and all that he once had, where Oklahoma State visits Saturday in a checkpoint game for both programs.
For the Cowboys, it's a necessary step in confirming a reload, rather than a rebuild.
For Rodriguez, it's an opportunity to remind the college football world that he's still alive — and well.
“Certainly, I feel good about where I'm at here at Arizona,” Rodriguez said this week. “Even though I've only been here 10 months, I feel like we have the capability to build a great program here.
“It's just going to take us a little time to get there.”
But wasn't Rodriguez already “there” at West Virginia?
Hindsight what it is, his move to Michigan in 2007 certainly appears to be a career misstep now.
Returning to WVU late in 2000, Rodriguez followed his coach Don Nehlen, who's successful run at the school had somewhat stagnated. The Mountaineers went 3-8 in his first season in 2001, then posted a drastic turnaround to 9-4 the following year. They never won fewer than eight games over the next six seasons, winning four Big East titles, reaching bigger and better bowls and posting double-digit win totals in '05, '06 and '07 with Rodriguez's innovative spread-option offense the program's signature appeal.
As the calendar flipped to December 2007, the Mountaineers enjoyed rarefied air, standing No. 2 in the BCS standings and needing but a win over 4-7 Pittsburgh to land in the national championship game.
Then Pitt went and altered the course for the Mountaineers and their coach, pulling off a stunning 13-9 upset in the Backyard Brawl, as Heisman candidate quarterback Pat White was limited after dislocating his thumb.
Pretty soon, Rodriguez was a Michigan man, while West Virginia prepared without him for a Fiesta Bowl date with Oklahoma.
Would Rodriguez have made the jump to Ann Arbor had the Mountaineers prevailed over Pitt and played for the BCS title? Surely not.
He'd flirted with Alabama the year before, eventually turning down the gig before Nick Saban took the job. The coal miner's son stayed home, telling the media: “We're not done here … you're stuck with me.”
Not long-term, it turned out.
During the Alabama negotiations, he'd secured booster-infused commitments from school officials for a pay raise for himself and for facility improvements, the latter a step he considered necessary to further the program's ascension. Then in telling his team of his departure to Michigan, Rodriguez reportedly told his players the administration had failed him and them, turning down essentially minor requests, like better pay for his assistants.
Many of the big-money boosters who had backed him a year earlier sided with Rodriguez.
“I tell you want,” Bob Reynolds, the former chief operating officer of Fidelity Investments told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I've never seen anything mishandled as much as this was. Here's a university that made a $200,000 decision — it probably could have cost less than that — and it's going to cost them millions” in booster support, potential bowl money and revenue.
“I've been in business 36 years, and it's the worst business decision I've ever seen.”
Gundy pushed the envelope on his own contract negotiations last offseason, calling for similar program-elevating commitments, before signing off on a new deal to stay at his alma mater through 2019.
The home state ties weren't enough to keep Rodriguez from exploring greener grasses elsewhere.
“I know Rich pretty good,” Gundy said. “At the functions we're at, over the last six or seven years, he and I always got along, sat around, had conversations. His wife (Rita) and Kristen have become friends.
“I've never asked him about any of that.”
Rodriguez said he admires what Gundy has done at OSU.
“I think every place and every situation is unique,” he said. “Mike has certainly done a tremendous job there. He's got great support, from both inside the university and outside. I think he's building one of the best programs in America.”
Rodriguez was doing that, too, at West Virginia.
Yet Rodriguez wanted more. Whether it was more commitment from his administration or more of everything that you find at a tradition-rich school like Michigan is hard to know.
“There's always a lot more behind the scenes than maybe people know,” Rodriguez said. “It may not be so much that the other school has so much more, but maybe you get concerned the school that you're at won't keep their commitment or won't be able to do the things you want to do to have success going into the future.
“Every situation is a little unique. As coaches, guys like myself and Mike, who have been around a little bit, we look at things like, ‘OK, what's the possibility that our program can elevate to be the best in the country and stay there?'”
Rodriguez speaks of no regrets, although his departure from West Virginia set off a wild misadventure that has now led him into the desert.
After leaving Morgantown, school officials claimed he either took or shredded files belonging to the football program. They also sued him for the $4 million buyout in his contract signed the year before, eventually settling for $1.5 million.
The Michigan marriage started well, with his arrival hailed as an inspiring hire for a program perceived with a stale offense.
At his initial press conference, Rodriguez spoke of his desire to retire at Michigan and even introduced his 9-year-old son Rhett, saying he'd pledged his verbal commitment to the Wolverines, class of 2017.
Verbal commitments are not binding, which now appears to be a good thing.
Rodriguez's time at Michigan was a mess, from his 15-22 record — including a 3-9 debut that ranks as the worst season in school history — to player defections and claims by some players that he violated NCAA rules by practicing them longer than the allowed 20 hours per week, leading to self-imposed sanctions.
There was even a tearful odd moment during a postseason Michigan football banquet where Rodriguez quoted the emotional Josh Groban song “You Raise Me Up,” and then had it played. He was fired in January 2011.
At Arizona, Rodriguez will have to raise himself up.
The Wildcats have no history of sustained success and have endured 11 non-winning seasons over the last 17 years. Some help is on the way, in the form of a $72 million football facility that will house coaching offices, locker rooms, a weight room, a cafeteria and meeting rooms.
As for his part, the 49-year-old Rodriguez has installed his spread option and is trying to instill a new level of toughness. His practices have been tough and he's been tougher, banning cellphones in the locker room and at the training table and creating the need for a “hard edge.”
“It means we're going to have to play with that edge and intensity,” offensive lineman Kyle Quinn told The Arizona Republic. “The ship has definitely tightened up. There's accountability now.
“Coaches are making sure guys are buying into the system and doing everything they can.”
Rodriguez is doing everything he can, too, to remind the college football world that he's still alive — and well — in the desert.
“It's a great town, really neat university, beautiful weather,” he said. “We've got some work to do with the football program. We understand that. But I really feel good about the staff and the kids are working hard.
“We're trying to put the foundation in place.”