Why Michigan 2008 isn’t Nebraska 2004

The first in a series of dispelling comparisons to other historically bad teams at major college football programs. If you have a suggestion of a team with whom to compare the 2008 Wolverines, leave it in the comments.

In 2004, Nebraska’s legendary football team was under the tutelage of first-year coach Bill Callahan. Callahan was replacing Frank Solich, who was a lifer in Nebraska, first coaching high school there, then being an assistant for 19 years under legend Tom Osborne, before replacing him in 1998. Solich was a multi-time Coach of the Year finalist, but after the huskers faded in 2002 and 2003, he was fired when AD Steve Pederson infamously stated “I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity.”

This sounds similar to, if not quite the same as Lloyd Carr’s departure from Michigan. After several strong years with the program, the final days of his tenure saw 7-5 and 9-4 seasons, bookending an 11-2 year, and highlighted by losses to Minnesota and Appalachian State. Carr, though he was the protege of a legend, has become something of a Michigan legend himself, and left the Wolverines on his own term through retirement, rather than being fired and returning to the sidelines in Athens, Ohio.

Now that we’ve seen Rodriguez and Callahan entered their respective schools with somewhat similar situations, let’s take a look at what each man did before. Prior to becoming the headman in Lincoln, Bill Callahan had been an offensive line coach for Wisconsin in the early 90s, before becoming a coach in the NFL for 10 years. He was cited as an offensive genius in the west coast system, becoming offensive coordinator and eventually head coach for the Oakland Raiders. After two years as the Raiders’ had coach, Callahan was fired after going 4-12 in 2003. Rich Rodriguez’s situation here is entirely different. Rod has never coached in the NFL, and has been a head coach at nearly every college level. Most importantly, Rodriguez has never been fired for lack of performance by his teams. He has won at every single coaching stop.

In their first year at their respective schools, both men failed to achieve a bowl – which the fans, alumni, and administration found to be unacceptable. Even in the previous coaches’ worst years (a 7-7 effort in 2002 for Solich, and a 7-5 2005 for Carr), they had managed to make it to bowls, though neither won. Both were trying to install new offensive systems, coincidentally going in opposite directions (Callahan replacing the option with a pro-style offense, and Rodriguez replacing a pro-style offense with option schemes). The Nebraska offense was a cornerstone of their program, and even ingrained into the state identity. Was Michigan’s pro-style offense the same way?

The fundamental difference between Callahan and Rodriguez is an inability (or lack of desire) by Callahan to embrace tradition and run his team like an NFL franchise. Rodriguez, for all his faults, has done everything he can to try not to step on the traditions of Michigan, even if he’s needed a little prodding at times. He invited the 1968 team to speak to his Wolverines this summer, in contrast to Callahan’s ordering the removal of all the All-American plaques from Nebraska’s football offices. Even if Rodriguez doesn’t quite know all of Michigan’s traditions, he understands that they are important in the college game, and is trying to catch up as fast as he can.

Michigan is also upgrading its football program in numerous ways concurrently with the takeover of the Rodriguez administration. New facilities are going up, luxury boxes are being added to Michigan Stadium, and Rodriguez himself replaced a stagnant weight training program with one of the nation’s best Strength and Conditioning Coordinators in Mike Barwis.

In 2004, Nebraska as a program changed its whole identity. However, unlike the Huskers, I Michigan’s change is far more likely to be successful.

Posted under Coaching, Football
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5 Comments so far

  1. AC1997 says...

    I like the idea of this post. You cite some excellent examples of why the programs are different. But could you add more “on the field” comparisons?

    Certainly the issues with Calahan that you mentioned were part of the problem, but what held him back on the field? Recruiting? Scheme? Talent? Stubborness?

    Can we look at Nebraska and say that you can turn the direction of a large, slow-moving program if you do it correctly?

  2. Tim says...

    Thanks for the suggestion, AC. The main thing I wanted to do was point to the factors that caused Nebraska to fail, and how Michigan is different from Nebraska in those ways. Most of Nebraska’s (and Callahan’s, specifically) failing were off the field, not on the field. When I do other comparisons in the near future, on-field issues will be far more prominent (such as the Alabama 2007 comparison, which is almost entirely based on on-field issues).

  3. West Texas Blue says...

    I’m sure Nebraska 2004 didn’t have its two main QB options be a redshirt freshman who has went through 4 offensive coordinators and a walk-on. Sure makes a big difference.

  4. Griffin Fraley says...

    You know what would be interesting…Michigan 2008 vs Tennessee 2008

  5. Dale says...

    Not only all of the above, but I do not think every one from top to bottom even the fans liked what they saw or bought in to it.

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