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(Courtesy: West Virginia)

Rich Rodriguez and wife, Rita, during the 2005 Sugar Bowl festivities.

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(Courtesy: West Virginia)

Rich Rodriguez and wife, Rita, during the 2005 Sugar Bowl festivities.

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SPECIAL REPORT: How and why Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan

MORGANTOWN, W..Va. — Before the death threats to his brother’s children, before the letters to the editor that rage against him in his local paper, before the destruction of his mailbox, and the printing of anti-Rod T-shirts, and the affixing of mocking posters to his gate at the end of his driveway, Rich Rodriguez was the most popular man in West Virginia.

And it wasn’t even close.

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He was a coal miner’s son who grew up in a holler just down the road from the focal point of the state: West Virginia University’s football stadium. He had walked on at that school and eventually earned a scholarship. He had devised an innovative offense at tiny Glenville State, a Division II college with a dismal football program in one of the poorest counties in West Virginia, turning the school’s games into a happening. He had returned to his alma mater as a kind of football savant.

Earning more prestigious bowl bids. Playing consistently on national television. Further branding the word Mountaineer — the school’s nickname. Spurning Alabama after that tradition-rich football college tried to lure him away last year.

And then, a week ago today, word got out that Rodriguez was leaving. For the University of Michigan, one of the haughtiest, and most successful, programs in the country.

Some 28 days after Lloyd Carr announced his retirement at U-M, a replacement had finally been found.

It was the end of a search that many alumni and fans said embarrassed the university. Still, U-M had plucked a hot young coach to lead it into the 21st Century, seemingly closing an unfortunate little chapter.

In West Virginia, however, the story was just beginning. Depending on the point of view, this past week unfolded in a tale of conspiracy and anger, ambition and treachery, big business, rabid fans and a local boy who grew up to be a hero only to become a traitor.

The level of vitriol has surprised even Rodriguez, whose guilt and empathy are slowly turning into defiance. What irks him the most is a theory bubbling from the hollers to the Capitol to the campus bars in Morgantown. A theory that suggested he threw the Dec. 1 game against Pittsburgh — the school’s traditional season-ending rival — to avoid a berth in the national championship game. Pitt was a 2861/27-point underdog. If West Virginia had won, the school would have earned its first shot at a BCS title.

But if the school lost, the theory went, Rodriguez would be free to pursue the Michigan job, because no coach would walk away from a championship game.

“Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about their anger, because that just shows their ignorance,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been” coaching “here seven years. If they don’t know me by now … ” And he stopped himself, stunned at the accusation.

Even in a message-board filled, blog-crazed, 24-hour sports culture, the audacious conspiracy theory knocked the wind out of Rodriguez and his supporters.

“It is part of the grieving process,” said David Alvarez, a West Virginia native, Mountaineers booster and close friend of Rodriguez. “This is like a labor uprising. I feel sorry for everybody in it. Do I agree with all this? No. But I understand it. Hell, I didn’t want him to go.”

Why he did is the question everybody wants an answer to these days. The easy answer is glory and prestige and money. The more complicated answer starts with a journey back to the hollers, where a young boy with an insatiable drive knew his life wasn’t going be lived 100 feet below the ground.

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Grant Town is an old mining camp 45 minutes southwest of Morgantown. It is a melting pot of Italians and Germans and Spaniards, immigrants from all over Europe who arrived looking for work. At one time, there were restaurants and beer halls.

Joe Weir, an early Rodriguez mentor, coached football back then.

“When you won, everyone invited you in, offered you whatever you wanted,” he said. “But when you lost, you hid.”

The community lived for sports. It just so happened Rodriguez was a natural at them. He lettered in football, basketball, track and baseball in high school. His father had made him a deal: “You study or you practice and you don’t have to pick beans in the field. But you are not going to sit around and do nothing.”

Rodriguez didn’t mind the work, but he craved competition. The choice was easy.

“I remember we used to put a blanket over his head when we drove home after losses,” said his mother, Arleen Rodriguez, who still lives in Grant Town, population around 650. “We didn’t want to see what was coming out of him.”

He was like that from the beginning. He once won a local ping-pong tournament in junior high school. He got a big trophy.

After that?

“He didn’t care anymore,” said Vince Rodriguez, his father. “He was done with ping-pong and moved on to the next challenge.”

He attacked school the same way. In 12 years, his mother said, he earned one B. Everything else was an A. She remembers well the day her son got home with that report card.

“He was in a rage,” she said.

Perhaps more stunning was that they never had to tell their son to study. He used any free time to hit the books. Recess. Lunch. And then he hit the field, or the court, or the diamond.

Basketball was his best sport, and he had offers to play in college, but football was what he loved. And even though a few small schools were interested, he wanted to walk on at West Virginia.

“I wanted the biggest stage,” he said. “I wanted to prove I could play Division I football.”

He would earn a scholarship as a defensive back. When he finished playing, West Virginia coach Don Nehlen — who made the College Football Hall of Fame in large part for building the Mountaineers’ program — gave him a position as a student assistant coach. He moved from there to Salem College, which had 500 students and where, at 24, he was the youngest head coach in the country. A year later, the school dropped its football program. He returned to coach under Nehlen again, this time as a volunteer assistant.

His next move was serendipitous. Glenville State, about 90 miles south of Morgantown, needed a head coach. More important, the town had a wealthy, larger-than-life oil and gas baron looking for ways to spend his money. Eventually, he would take his helicopter from his driveway to Mountaineers games.

Ike Morris met Rodriguez in 1990, after his first year at Glenville State. Rodriguez had gone 1-7-1 and knew he needed kids from outside West Virginia to compete. That required money.

“So he came to me,” Morris recalled. “It took about 15 minutes to realize this boy was something special.”

Morris started funding recruiting trips to Florida and Texas and California. He started sinking money into the stadium. He started paying for scholarships.

“Anything,” Morris said, “that was legal.”

Rodriguez persuaded kids from around the country to make their life in a poor, rural county at a school their families had never heard of. Using the speed he recruited and a couple of ideas he got from the run ’n’ shoot offense, Rodriguez spread the field, and his teams began winning.

From there, he jumped on the Division I escalator with stops as a coordinator, utilizing his new high-powered spread offense, at Tulane and Clemson before returning to West Virginia as head coach in 2001.

He went 3-8 that first season. And then the victories began piling up, all just a few miles from where he’d grown up, where his parents lived, where his two brothers lived, where his wife Rita’s family lived. He was back in the hills.

From the beginning, though, he demanded that everyone in the program think beyond them.

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A week ago Saturday, Rodriguez spent hours on the phone with his friends and family discussing the offer U-M had made to take over its program. He was, by all accounts, an emotional wreck, conflicted, confused, fighting back tears.

No one wanted him to take the job. But few were telling him that. They knew that he had been battling with some in the administration at West Virginia. The issues were more personality clashes than anything else. After all, he had received a $1-million raise after turning down Alabama, bumping his annual salary to $1.8 million, which was $300,000 more than Carr made.

Rodriguez met with West Virginia’s president, Mike Garrison, last Saturday night. It didn’t go well.

“You had a young president and a young football coach backing each other into a corner,” said Bray Cary, president of West Virginia Media, a state communications giant headquartered in Charleston.

Cary, a West Virginia alum and booster, talked with representatives from both sides after the meeting. “They started kicking sand at each other,” Cary said, “like two kids at a sandbox.”

He said neither side would compromise and each side shared the blame for Rodriguez’s departure.

Michigan’s new coach has built successful programs in part because of the cult of his personality. But he can be abrasive and blunt.

“A wild man,” said his father, “that’s what he was when he was younger. Throwing clipboards. Stomping around.”

His parents and friends and fellow coaches say he has matured and calmed down considerably. But the drive remains.

“He’s the only coach I’ve ever had that hated losing more than me,” said Pat White, West Virginia’s star quarterback.

Rodriguez said in an interview Friday night at a Morgantown hotel that that was why he was constantly pushing the school to upgrade its facilities, to find more money for football operations, to budget more to pay his assistants.

He thought the school was missing the big picture. Some in the school thought he was ungrateful.

“An easy fix,” his friend Alvarez said. “It would’ve been an easy fix.”

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On the night of the Pitt game, Rodriguez sensed early that his team was in the muck. The Mountaineers, ranked second in the country, were playing hard, but heavy. Maybe it was the pressure. For whatever reason, they were playing the worst game of the season on the biggest night of their football lives.

When it was over, and Pitt had won, 13-9, and 60,000 Mountaineers fans shuffled into the night, Rodriguez sat in a corner in the locker room with a towel draped over his head. He couldn’t move. He didn’t know what to say. He was desperate to compose himself to address the team.

At 44, he was savvy enough to know what that night had meant to the state. It was the most devastating moment of his life.

“I know it shouldn’t be, because it’s just a game,” he said, “but it’s true.”

For days, he didn’t sleep. Forty-five minutes here. Thirty minutes there. He walked around as if he’d seen a ghost.

The stunning loss, coupled with the bickering at the school, opened him up just enough for Michigan to slip in. Arkansas had called the week after the Pitt game and he’d told the Razorbacks that he wasn’t interested. But Michigan? That was different. That was a place on the stage that he’d always worked for, that was the big picture, with big facilities and big donors.

Although his life was entrenched in the mountains, life at his alma mater was a kind of paradox. All you had to do was take a walk around West Virginia’s stadium. It was small but rimmed with suites. It was flanked by a state-of-the-art medical school and hospital but also with a trailer park.

It was home and that was great, but he craved a place with more vision. Still, his mother said, “he kept telling me he didn’t want to leave.”

In the end, she said, he had to chase it. Not because it was Michigan, but because it was out there. Which is why, his father said, that “I wouldn’t be surprised if Rich goes to the NFL someday. Because that would be the next level.”

Rodriguez is adamant that the move is in no way a rejection of his home. Asked whether he had any regrets how the final events unfolded — from calling a recruit about accepting the U-M job before telling his team to deciding against a farewell news conference in his home state — Rodriguez said he had none.

He said he didn’t want the recruit, the country’s top-ranked quarterback prospect, to find out from the media.

As for explaining to West Virginians his reasons for leaving?

“If I’d done that,” he said, “it would have been: ‘Why? Why? Why?’ And I wanted to focus on the future.”

Rodriguez wants West Virginians to understand it is a job, a career, and he moved just like millions of others do when they want a new challenge.

That message is lost at the moment. He is one of them. Part of the West Virginia family that is roughly 1.8 million strong, a family led by a football coach, the most important job in the state.

“He could’ve been a legend here,” Alvarez said. “Not the next Bo Schembechler, but the first Rich Rodriguez.”

Alvarez understands and he doesn’t. He knows the appeal of the block “M” and the 110,000-seat Big House, but he wonders whether his friend experienced a midlife crisis. Others aren’t so kind. Filling the airwaves with bile. Penning wicked letters. Drawing sarcastic political cartoons. Threatening his brother’s kids at school. Monitoring private flights. Camping out at his airport to yell “O-H-I-O.”

Cary said a lot of West Virginians with little means spent whatever extra pennies they had supporting Rodriguez and his team.

“His success wasn’t just a symbol of pride,” Cary said, “but it was a source of hope in a state that hasn’t had much luck the last 40 or 50 years in terms of its economy or its image.”

That still doesn’t explain the conspiracy theories suggesting an unimaginable breach of ethics.

“People are saying planes are coming down, that I knew about Michigan before the Pitt game; it’s ridiculous,” Rodriguez said. “No one from Michigan contacted me or anyone on my behalf until well after the game.”

And then he thought for a second.

“You create your own monster,” he said.

He gave a state pride because he won, because he returned home.

Now he is leaving, to a place where it’s less complicated for him, to a place where the governor won’t show up at practice or rip him in the newspapers.

In Ann Arbor, the only question that remains is: How often will he need a towel?

Contact SHAWN WINDSOR at 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com.

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