Climbing the Mountain Top
Rich Rodriguez returned to his roots and has West Virginia on the fast track to national prominence.
Football Coach Rich Rodriguez
By: Kevin Newell
COACH: You grew up a Mountaineers fan, having been raised in Grant Town, just a half-hour away from West Virginia's Morgantown campus. Tell us about your childhood.
RODRIGUEZ: I grew up in a coal mining camp. My dad, Vince, was a coal miner. I have great respect for the mining profession. All the kids my age - even though you could make good money going into the mines after high school - we could see what a tough life style it was and that only athletics and academics could keep us out of the mines.
We would go to school and play ball until it got dark, and then, hopefully, we didn't have chores to do after we got home. It was kind of neat to grow up where there weren't the bright lights and distractions to detract from school and athletics.
COACH: In 1981, you graduated from North Marion (WV) High where you played four sports and were an all-state football and basketball player. You then were admitted to WVU where you walked on to the football team and earned a scholarship under then-coach Don Nehlen. Playing as a defensive back, you registered 54 career tackles over three seasons. What kind of player were you and expound upon your work ethic?
RODRIGUEZ: I was fortunate enough to play for a great high school program. Coming out of high school, I wasn't sure what sport I was going to play in college. Whether it was football or basketball. But I wanted to play on the biggest stage and try and prove myself there. Even though I had some Division I basketball opportunities, I thought if I had a chance to play for the home state university, to play in a new stadium, and my family could swing it financially, I would do it. I had a really good GPA, a 4.0. So I received some academic assistance. And my dad had been laid off from the mine at the time, so we got some federal assistance as well.
Actually, I felt pretty confident for the first few weeks. I said, ‘Hey, maybe I can fit in with these guys athletically.' I had to get stronger and all of that. But Coach Nehlen gave me a shot and it worked out great for me. I wasn't the fastest guy, but I felt I understood the game pretty well. And I liked the physical aspect of it. I always looked at myself as being kind of physical. I didn't start any games until my senior year but I was able to play on special teams because I liked to run around and hit people. I wouldn't say I was a student of the game, but I understood a lot of the things we were trying to do schematically and I think that helped me get on the field.
COACH: Having attended and later coached as a student and volunteer assistant at West Virginia, you are very familiar with the expectations for the football program. Did you feel that would be a burden before accepting the head coaching position at your alma mater?
RODRIGUEZ: It was good and bad to come back. It's good when it's going good but it's probably worse when it's going bad because you feel like you let so many people down. I wouldn't say that there was more pressure coming back, but there were certainly more expectations, especially being a local guy. You have so many people that are rooting for you that are expecting things to go well right off the bat. I think there's a process, no matter where you go, if you're a new coach or new staff coming in, just to implement your program and system. We certainly did that when I came back to West Virginia.
COACH: How have you been able to cope with the outside pressure? How important is maintaining the program's tradition to you?
RODRIGUEZ: Obviously, the tradition here is very important. Our goal was to build on that and take another step. As far as the expectations, every coach has to have a balance in their life - not forget about their families and the things outside football. It's a pretty competitive profession in all sports, at all levels. But particularly at this level it can be so competitive that you sometimes lose touch with what is really important. We always try to make family a big part of our emphasis here, not with just our team but with our personal families. I think one of the reasons we have maintained the continuity on our staff, despite the hours we work, is that we always remember our families.
COACH: You began your coaching career at Salem College (now Salem International University) as secondary coach and special teams coordinator. In 1988, you were promoted to head coach, becoming the youngest college head coach in America at the age of 24, a year before the program was dissolved. What do you remember about that experience and how did it prepare and shape you for the future?
RODRIGUEZ: It was great experience and I learned a lot. But I always joke that I was the youngest coach in America at 24 and the youngest fired at 25, when the school got bought out and they dropped football. The one thing I learned is obviously it is a fragile profession. When the program is dropped and you lose your job two weeks before your wedding, that's not a lot of fun. I also learned that I had a great wife who is very understanding, because she still married me after all of that. And I also learned a great deal during my seven years as head coach at Glenville (WV) State. That was a great experience for me as far as developing the philosophy and the system and the things that we still use today.
COACH: You are known as an innovative offensive mind, evidenced by the prolific numbers established as the head coach at Glenville (WV) State College (NAIA), and offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson. That said, what are the keys to exploiting match-ups when devising a game plan?
RODRIGUEZ: A lot of things comprise a system - what formations and plays you run. I think what's more important than that is the execution and the efficiency with which you run it. If you have something unique on offense or defense, and you can execute it, then maybe you can have success. The biggest key to success is having talented players that can execute and be efficient. I have been fortunate to be around a lot of great players and around a lot of great coaches and teachers that know how to make our players efficient and be able to execute our system.
COACH: Are there certain defensive alignments, be it the 3-4, 4-3, 4-4, 5-2, or 46, that cause more problems than others for an offense? What are the positives and negatives when facing each alignment?
RODRIGUEZ: Usually the ones that give me the most trouble are the ones who have a whole lot of talented players. That sounds like coachspeak but the players who play fast and play hard, you can put them in any alignment and they will have success. What you are seeing nowadays, and every college coach can tell you this, is that the game has evolved in variety on both sides of the ball. If you look back at a classic game between Michigan and Ohio State, say from 1975, you won't see the variety in offense, defense, and special teams that you see today. Now, you may have a team that says they're 4-3 defense but they'll line up playing some odd fronts or eight or nine different coverages. It has forced coaches to really be on their toes and be able to adjust. And it's forced players to do that as well. I think players are so much smarter now, in game situations and things they have to learn, than at anytime in the history of football.
COACH: That Tampa 2 Defense has been popularized on the pro and college levels over the recent years as it blends the Cover 2 and Cover 3 shells. Do you face much Tampa 2 coverage and what are the keys to beating it?
RODRIGUEZ: Everybody at this level, and certainly the pro level, sees that form of the Tampa 2. The keys to beating it are not to get into 3rd and long because obviously it is a pass-oriented type defense with defenders dropping into just about every hole that you want to throw to. What they do with a Tampa 2 is they force you to throw the ball underneath and rally and tackle you before you get a first down. You don't see a lot of Tampa 2 on 3rd and 3 but you will see a lot of it on 3rd and 10. So if you're in that situation, you have to do a lot of different things. Hopefully, you will be able to run the ball at times. What you really need to have are guys that can run north and south with the football and make sure they know where the first down is.
COACH: Has your technical approach to the game changed in any way since you became a head coach? Do you find yourself getting more involved on the defensive end?
RODRIGUEZ: Not really. Since I've been a head coach, I've always been geared toward the offense in that regard. As a head coach, you don't want to neglect any part of your program. Not just offense, defense, and special teams but any aspect, whether it's academics or your strength program. I make sure that I spend a little time in all phases of our program. Not just so I know what is going on but to make sure the players get the attention they need.
COACH: Who are some of the offensive coaching minds that have influenced you?
RODRIGUEZ: I spent four years with Tommy Bowden, and I know the Bowden family very well. There are a lot of guys out there who are friends of mine and to whom I speak every year. Urban Meyer at Florida is a great friend and we run a similar system. Jeff Tedford at Cal, even though we run a different system, is a very good friend. And I still keep in touch with Tommy Bowden. I've been using this system for 15 years. My offensive staff and I bounce a lot of ideas off each another.
COACH: What offensive and defensive systems do the Mountaineers employ?
RODRIGUEZ: Our offense is a spread. It started 15 years ago as an offshoot off the run and shoot but we've kind of expounded on the run/pass aspect a little more. And we do a lot of shotgun-spread look. Our biggest thing offensively is trying to get our guys to play fast and involve all of our skill players. They all have a chance to run the ball and touch the ball, including our quarterback. We don't want our guys to be limited. We want to use all of the abilities of our skill players on offense.
On defense we run an odd stack, which is basically a 3-3-5. A lot of people do that now as a third down defense. We do it as an every down defense. That's what makes us a little bit more unique. We'll use a three-man front on first down and play a lot of games off of that. The difference between our odd stack and others, is that we will not only use it as our base defense but we will blitz any of the back eight guys at any time.
COACH: Do you believe in taking what the defense gives you or devising a scheme that contradicts that principle and attacks and scores?
RODRIGUEZ: It sounds simplistic to take what the defense gives, but you have to be totally committed to doing that. And we think we have been. The initial concept of the offense was for us to be pass oriented but the last couple of years we've ran more than we passed. So we're not only geared to what the defense gives us, but around the offensive talent that we have. If we have guys who are better running it than throwing it, then we'll probably run it more - as long as we can. If we can't, then obviously we have to be willing and able to throw it some more.
COACH: How vital or useful has the new video technology been to you? Are you a proponent of the Internet and video exchange via the Web?
RODRIGUEZ: I think the technology today has made it so much better for coaches. Not only in game planning but in recruiting and preparing your players. We always tease my young college assistants about how it was in the old days. When we were coming up, we had to slice the 16mm film together in the darkroom and it was difficult to put cut-ups together. Nowadays they do it in 3-4 seconds with a touch of a button. The technology has been great for the game and I just see it getting better and better.
COACH: Why do you think there remains a segment of the coaching fraternity that remains hesitant in joining the 21st Century?
RODRIGUEZ: I think it's coming along, particularly at our level. I think initially there was a little bit of fear not knowing what was out there. And lot of it had to do with the fact they don't know how to do it. It's like text messaging. There are a lot of coaches in recruiting who are text messaging. In fact, a majority of them are. And most of them, like myself, had never done that until this past year. Now you have to learn because if you want to be competitive with your colleagues you have to keep up with the times.
It takes time and effort. I think once you learn it, you see how much easier it can make your job. That's not to say that's the only reason why they are hesitant. I think it still comes down to relationships and being able to communicate and teach well. But if there's method out there to help you teach and communicate well, then why not learn how to use it?
COACH: The Sago coalmine tragedy in Tallmansville, WV was ongoing during your team's Sugar Bowl game with Georgia last season. How were you able to balance your players' psyche knowing that the football game just served as a helpful diversion to the events taking place?
RODRIGUEZ: It was such a tragic thing. At the time, I remember (West Virginia) Governor Joe Manchin and his wife, Gail, had come down to the game. I've known them a long time. They're from a coalmining camp not far from where I am from. Joe had gone back to the state and Gail stayed in Atlanta. We all followed the situation, but at time the game was going on, there was still hope that the miners could get out. We said a prayer as a team that things would work out well. Our players were so focused on the game. Even though we had kids from West Virginia, we had a lot of kids who weren't. A lot of our staff and friends of mine grew up in coalmining communities and knew about what was going on. So, we thought about it before and we thought about it afterwards. But the game itself was a welcomed distraction.
COACH: In your opinion, what is the most important aspect in a player-coach relationship?
RODRIGUEZ: I think the ability to communicate is probably one of the most important things. Obviously, the coach needs to have the ability to teach and be able to understand a lot of things these young men are going through. Even though they have reached adulthood, a lot of them mature at different levels. You have to be able to communicate, get your message across, and get them all on the same page. The keys to success at the collegiate and high school levels is the ability of your staff to be able to not only communicate the techniques and the things they need to learn on the field but also the things they must do to have success off the field. Everybody who talks about coaching is teaching. Some of the best teachers I have ever known are guys that are great communicators. That's what we try to be.
COACH: There has been a lot said and written about regarding minority hiring's in the coaching ranks, particularly relating to the lack of African-Americans holding head coaching positions both on the collegiate and professional levels. Yet, there has not been much mentioned about Hispanic coaches, if at all. What is your position on this and do you perceive yourself as a role model to young, aspiring Hispanic football coaches?
RODRIGUEZ: There's always a little bit of a struggle when you get into college coaching, whether you're a minority coaching candidate or not. Because to become a college coach, you have to go through the normal grind of, like myself, being a volunteer coach then a graduate assistant coach and then a small college coach. There's always a little bit of a grind that you have to endure. You have to be patient and lucky at the same time, whether you're Hispanic or African-American, or not.
I think it's a lot better now than it was before as far as the opportunities that are out there. My advice to any young coach, regardless of race, is to be patient, get into a great situation, and treat every job as if it's the last job you will ever have. And if you do that, and you get a few breaks, you can move up.
About the Author
Kevin Newell is the Editor of Coach and Athletic Director Magazine.