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Oklahoma State football: Wild ride of Rich Rodriguez crosses paths with Cowboys

Rich Rod is working to improve his image and put Arizona Wildcats football on the radar.
by John Helsley Published: September 5, 2012

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.

Mike Gundy?

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.

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by John Helsley
OSU Reporter Sr.
John Helsley grew up in Del City, reading all the newspapers and sports magazines he could get his hands on. And Saturday afternoons, when the Major League Game of the Week was on, he'd keep a scorecard for the game. So the sports appeal was was...
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