In Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, the key word is “crucible.” If there’s a single takeaway from John U. Bacon’s account of his three years embedded in the U-M football program, it’s that college players work incredibly hard—and their coaches work even harder.
Bacon vividly describes Rodriguez’s discovery of the spread offense, his contentious climb up the coaching ranks, and his bitter defeats and (rarer) jubilant victories at Michigan. But some of the book’s most revealing scenes take place off the field, in glimpses of the team’s daily life.
Looking at Rich Rodriguez’s three seasons as head coach, it’s not hard to divine dozens of lessons—starting with the perils of arrogance on just about all fronts—but none of them would resolve college football’s central conflict: It’s a billion-dollar business whose revenues can fund entire athletic departments and whose leaders personify our biggest universities, but it’s all built on the backs of stressed-out coaches and amateur athletes.
The contemporary college athletic department now resembles a modern racehorse: bigger, faster, and more powerful than ever but still supported by the same spindly legs that break with increasing frequency. Michigan’s $226 million renovation of its stadium, the spiraling salaries (Rodriguez made $2.5 million a year at Michigan, the market rate), and the seemingly insatiable desire for new facilities for the university’s twenty-eight other varsity programs all depend on selling football tickets, seat licenses, luxury suites, and TV rights.
And all that still depends on the arm of a nineteen-year-old quarterback and the foot of a twenty-year-old kicker.
Dumb Football Players
“We’re getting a lot more questions [from classmates] this year,” lineman Ryan Van Bergen said over Sunday pizza. “This year, you’re a status improver. They not only want to see you, they want to be seen with you.”
Mark Huyge laughed at that. “Not on North Campus, man.” That’s where Huyge studied naval architecture and marine engineering. “I don’t think people up there even know what football is. The professors definitely have no idea.”
“Yeah, well that’s better than having them hating on you,” Van Bergen said.
For Patrick Omameh, a 6′ 4″, 299-pound redshirt freshman lineman with a 3.4 GPA, anonymity was the ideal. “I never wear my letter jacket,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m a football player. And I can usually pull it off.”
“I just want to be there to learn, man,” Mike Martin said. “I don’t like people knowing who I am. I get sick of it.”
“I don’t like people knowing I’m a football player,” Van Bergen agreed. “I’m less likely to speak up. Because if I get one wrong, it’s not just wrong, you’re a dumb football player.”
“Exactly, man,” Martin said. “That’s exactly it.”
Over dinner one night, lineman Mike Martin and friends told me a story about the “40 complex,” a diabolical weight training regimen that requires you to do eight upright rows, then go right into eight clean and jerks, eight simple jerks (over your head), eight more clean and jerks, then finish with eight bent-over rows. You have to do all of it without ever letting go of the bar or putting it on the floor. You drop the bar, you have to start the entire set over until you finish it the right way.
I knew that drill too well. Mike Barwis, Michigan’s conditioning coach, ran me through the Wolverines’ training regimen for six weeks. He paired me with Larry Foote, the former All-American linebacker turned two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steeler. Foote was one of more than two dozen professional players who came back to work with Barwis, who refused payment.
Foote, no stranger to hard work, asked me while we were warming up one day, “Hey Bacon, can you count to forty?”
A week earlier, I would not have paused. But three workouts with the Barwis crowd had me doubting just about everything.
“I think so,” I finally muttered.
“Well, you’re going to find out.”
Having finished the first four sets, I forgot about the last set and dropped the bar. I will never forget assistant strength coach Jim Plocki screaming in my face, “NOOOOOO!”
I have never dreaded anything more than picking up that bar and doing it all over again. There is a reason why these football players could not sleep the night before a big workout. They’re scary.
The players were done for the day, but not the coaches. On this warm, sunny day, twenty-nine walk-on wannabes showed up to run, pass, catch, and kick in front of the coaches for forty-five minutes.
The group looked like an intramural flag football team—and not a great one, at that. But Rodriguez noticed a tight end with a Division I build who made a great diving catch. On his next route, he strained for another high pass, tipped it, and then gathered it on the way down, with the defender hanging all over him.
“There you go!” Rodriguez said. “Good job catching my eye! Come over here!” Rodriguez wanted some basic information: Mike Kwiatkowski. Macomb County, Michigan. A 3.4 GPA, majoring in neuroscience. Bingo.
After Kwiatkowski made another strong catch, I asked Rodriguez, “Did he just make the team with that one?”
“No,” he said, then turned to me. “He made it on the last one.”
Months later, I was riding up State St. with quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner when they passed Kwiatkowski. He had just won Scout Team Offensive Player of the Week.
“Hey, that’s Mike, the walk-on,” Denard said.
“Yeah, tight end,” Gardner added.
“He can play!” Robinson said. “Got the body, too.”
“Now you got to wonder,” Gardner said. “How does a guy like that get missed by everyone?“
Twin City Socks
Michigan football players get very little free time, but what they get, they savor.
Friday afternoon is one of those times. After a walk-through, they have about forty-five minutes to hang out in the locker room or the players’ lounge watching TV, playing Ping-Pong or pool, or sitting upstairs on the square of couches, where one kind soul leaves three big aluminum trays of his wife’s famous supersize cookies. They evaporate quickly.
But before the players do any of those things, they stand in line at the equipment managers’ window to get the gear they deem most important. It’s not the $257 helmets or $330 shoulder pads or even the $150 jerseys.
Nope. It’s the $4 socks. But not just any socks. Twin City socks—the thickest you can find.
Center David Molk, at the front of the line, handed me a pair. They are so dense, you could wear them as slippers around the home—or fill them with water.
“Best part of being a Michigan football player,” Molk said, holding up a pair, “is these socks.” Every one of his teammates—and I mean every one—agreed with that assessment.
At dinner Molk approached linebacker Jonas Mouton, who was enjoying a huge helping of pretty much everything.
Molk asked Mouton if he knew where his Twin City socks had gone.
“I don’t know, man,” Mouton replied, taking a bite out of his drumstick and chewing very slowly. “Go see Big Jon.” Falk, that is, the equipment manager.
“It’s dinner,” Molk said. “He’s not here.”
“Go see him tomorrow,” Mouton said, picking up a roll.
“I want them now.”
“Guess you’ll just have to wait, then.”
After Molk turned and walked to the back of the buffet, ticked off, Mouton leaned forward and said, “I’m wearin’ ’em.”
A Catchable Ball
Rodriguez moved Sunday’s offensive film session from its usual spot at 1 p.m. to 10 a.m. The reason had nothing to do with their upcoming game at Indiana. His son Rhett’s second peewee football game was scheduled for 2 p.m., and his dad figured this might be his only chance all season to see him play.
After getting his work done, Rodriguez huddled in the cold with his family in the stands. Rhett failed to duplicate the magic of his debut, when he’d scored touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams. He did, however, connect on all three of his passes—to the other team.
“The bad news is, I threw three interceptions,” he told his dad afterward. “The good news is, I can clearly throw a catchable ball.”
Rodriguez liked the line so much he repeated it with a few friends that week.
After the game, Rodriguez walked out to the parking lot with his arm draped around his daughter Raquel’s shoulders. He had a relaxed smile few fans would recognize.
Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner shared an apartment in Ann Arbor and hotel rooms on the road. The night before the Indiana game, they were killing time in their room in Bloomington. The TV was tuned to ESPN, and they were twirling shiny game balls in their outstretched hands, back and forth, like basketballs. Seeing this, you appreciate just how many hours those hands have held footballs, like world-class pianists mindlessly playing around before a big concert.
I asked what they would be if they weren’t football players.
“An A student,” Gardner quipped.
That was not an idle boast—Gardner is an excellent student.
”I’d probably be running track or playing baseball,” Robinson said. “I love all sports. But football was always my favorite. At first I was a running back. I always wanted the ball in my hands. But quarterback is best. It’s what I always wanted to play. There’s no other feeling like this. The best part? That’s easy: winning!”
“Best part?” Gardner said. “Playing on TV.”
“Yeah, that’s cool,” Robinson said. “But I don’t like being noticed.”
Right on cue, ESPN’s Mark May said, “Denard Robinson is the most outstanding player in the nation.”
“There you go!” Gardner gushed, bolting upright, knowing how much his roommate hated it. “Heisman hopeful, Denard Robinson!”
“Aw, man! Why you always gotta bring that up!” Denard asked. “Now everyone’s doing it!” When Gardner quit laughing, he admitted, “People say I’m arrogant or aloof. No, I’m not. I just don’t like talking to random people. I just don’t.”
“I love people, that ain’t a problem,” Robinson said. “But it’s just like, don’t be trying to act like you know me when you really don’t know me. What’s scary is when they know my birth date and all that.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you’re a Heisman hopeful.”
“Will you stop with that?” Robinson said, threatening to throw the football at Gardner’s head. “The other day I thought the waitress was bringing my check, but she wanted my autograph.”
“Have you no shame?” Gardner asked.
“Then a lady was following us around the mall,” Robinson said, “and she said to her little daughter, ‘You better get that autograph, or I’m going to take away everything I just bought you!’ This lady just really said that!”
“Have. You. No. Shame?” Gardner repeated.
“So the mall’s almost off-limits. But I can still go to the library.”
“Class is fun,” Gardner said. “We’re good there.”
“We don’t even go out, anyway,” Robinson said. “Except to go bowling.
“My parents call me every day just to tell me, School, school, school. ‘They can take football away from you, but they can’t take your education!'”
Gardner chuckled at the imitation. “Ohhh, yes. One does hear that! The hardest part about this is time management.”
“The hardest part, for me, is rest!” Robinson said. “We don’t go home until nine or ten o’clock, every night, earliest. And you want to have fun sometimes, and you can’t have fun. Sometimes you just give up having fun.
“They get mad at us at the Academic Center when we’re laughing with other people, but they don’t realize, it’s because we’re happy to see other people! We’re happy to see other people!”
Gardner laughed at that. “Too true, too true. Other students can all do whatever they want. We actually can’t. We have curfew six days a week. People think we just got it made—’You guys get all this stuff’ —but if you had to do all this, you’d give all the stuff back and pay for school yourself.”
Ann Arbor native John U. Bacon is a writer, commentator, and speaker. Click here to order Three and Out from his website.