Detroit Free Press sports columnist Michael Rosenberg’s first book, War as They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a time of unrest, will be released September 10.
I sat with Rosenberg this weekend after the Utah game. In Part I, the focus of the conversation was on the book. In Part II, we talk about his recent column where he sharply criticized Rodriguez, some of this thoughts on the Utah game and the rest of the season and close with a few more thoughts on the book.
In a column earlier this year you went after Rich Rod pretty hard, you called Rodriguez ‘bullheaded’, you characterized him as a ‘serial job shopper’. Has your view of Rodriguez changed at all since you wrote the column?
Rosenberg: No. But let me clarify a few things here. I do think he’s bullheaded. I think in some ways I think that’s helped him in his career, but I think he’s bullheaded.
My issue is not that he was looking at other jobs. My issue is that this is his alma mater, he’s telling them publicly and privately how much he loved it there, and he’s going to be there, he made a big thing about turning down Alabama, and he’s going to stay there and show you can win national championships at West Virginia. The reality is that after two or three years he was just trying to get the hell out. So if you’re going to be trying to get out, don’t pretend that you’re not. That’s more my issue, which I didn’t make as clear as I should have in my column.
If you look at Beilein, he almost got the Indiana job when Sampson got hired. When he got the Michigan job here he did not engender one percent of the animosity that Rich did because of the way he handled it. I know West Virginia is a pretty dysfunctional school with athletics in a lot of ways but put yourselves in their shoes a little bit. This guy’s been telling you one thing and he’s really been shopping around – how would you react?
The other thing I’ll say, and I haven’t read all the comments [on freep.com], if you take away all the West Virginia and Michigan State fans that emailed me, from the ones that I’ve read, I would say maybe 30-40 percent of the Michigan fans who emailed me liked that column. And you might be surprised, I can’t say who, at some of the people around here who liked that column and are still coming up to me. I talk to a lot of people, I do my research. I don’t have any regrets about the column.
Some people love him, some people swear by him. I don’t want to make it sound like everyone feels this way. I never said he wouldn’t win, I never said he wouldn’t succeed, but this is a very different guy than they’ve ever had here and a very strange fit. People are going to realize that over time.
Have you had any reaction from Rodriguez?
I have not talked to him about it, no. I’ve been there and he’s had his chances to talk to me about it if he wanted to. But I don’t feel he’s obligated.
There are rumors out there occasionally about the athletic department freezing out access for reporters. Do you ever worry about that kind of retaliation when you write a harsh article? There were rumors that this happened to Jim Carty last season, which Carty said it just wasn’t true. Do you worry about that when you pull together a column?
Rosenberg: No, I don’t write for access. I try to be fair; I think I’ve been very fair. Over the years there have a lot of people at Michigan that are happy to talk to me, there still are to this day. There are people that have had problems me. For some of them, based on some of the things I’ve written I wouldn’t necessarily talk to me either [laughs]. But I’m alright with that. I’ve always felt like if you’re fair that people will respect that and ultimately you’ll be able to talk to people. I haven’t had that problem at all.
And when you talk about access, they’re not going to ban someone from a press conference. And if they were going to do that they’re going to get Drew [Sharp] before they get me [laughter] I mean, let’s be honest. He’s got many more violations on their record.
It’s more about whether people will return your calls and can you build sources. No, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I feel like I know how to do my job. You know what? Sometimes there are athletes in Detroit who don’t want to talk to me because of something I wrote, but I’m not going to lose everybody because I’m not the kind of columnist who just rips everybody or just does things for effect. I say what I mean.
There are people at Michigan who didn’t like that column and have told me that. They tell me they didn’t like it, but they’re still talking. They respect how I do my job.
You mention in the column your concerns about the strong language [used by the coaches], and really, the way the coaches degrade and belittle the players. You wrote, “those who have attended practices say” that they’ve heard this. Have you heard it, have you been there, have you seen it happen?
Rosenberg: No, I haven’t been to a practice. Mostly because of my work with the Red Wings and the NCAA tournament and then I was just in Beijing so I’m not avoiding practice.
I knew that that part would get some reaction because I can’t say what I’ve heard, but I’ve also heard too much from too many people. And Rich was called in at West Virginia to talk about his language. That happened. So it’s not like this came out of thin air.
There’s a spectrum there and Rich is on one end of that spectrum. Some people think it’s fine and I understand that. Some people say, ‘Well Bo was like that, too’. I don’t know that Rich is as capable of reining it in, I think he has an issue with that. And some of things he’s said, if I were 20 or 21 years old I wouldn’t want to hear it either. People can call you names or whatever; I think most of us will agree that it’s a matter where you draw the line. Some people will say ‘He’s a faculty member, he shouldn’t be doing this.’ That’s one end of the spectrum and I’m not at that end of the spectrum. Some people say everything’s ok. From what I’ve heard, he’s on the other side of the line.
I knew throwing that out there was get me some heat, because people don’t know the words, but I feel comfortable saying he goes too far with that. And I see why some people disagree.
Brian Cook at mgoblog did a blow by blow rebuttal on your column, did you read that post?
Rosenberg: The Darth Vader one? I did read it, it was a couple weeks later after my vacation. I don’t have it in front of me. Is there anything in the rebuttal you want me to rebut? [laughs]
I obviously didn’t agree with it, I remember that. Fans are all entitled to their opinion, that’s fine, I don’t mind getting some criticism. I don’t mind being criticized in the public forum because I criticize people in a public forum, so it’s all fine. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and say I was wrong. I talked to a lot of people. So, I feel comfortable that my opinion is grounded in reason.
I don’t want to say that I know more about it than someone else, because that’s not necessarily accurate or fair, but I may know more about it than some people give me credit for. Sometimes there are things you don’t write but they influence your opinion.
I think my track record is pretty clear that I wouldn’t just throw something out there to rip somebody just to make a name for myself, I’ve just never ever done that. And even in that post, he kind of acknowledged that I’m not like that if I remember correctly.
He did, he had something nice to say about you. [Cook wrote ‘Over the past few years he’s been one of the few Detroit sports columnists worth reading’]
Rosenberg: Bob Knight had a great line at the Final Four in the early eighties, he said, “I don’t even agree with everything I do.” So, I try to agree with everything I write and that’s very important to me. If someone disagrees with me that’s ok.
To me, there are millions of people who have a vested interest in Michigan football, who care about it, right? Some of them care desperately about winning. Some of them only care about how the program represents the University. Most people are on that scale somewhere in between. I think it logically follows that people on message boards or someone who has a blog about the football team who is putting as much work into as Brian does, is going to care desperately about winning and losing. Naturally the most passionate fans are the ones that are going to be into it all year round and following recruiting and posting about it or trying to make a career of it. I think that’s fine. There are a lot of people on the other end of the spectrum, and those people are going to count too.
A lot of those people are already concerned about Rich. All he’s done in my opinion is given himself a thinner margin of error. Lloyd gave himself a wider margin of error than almost any coach because everybody knew he had an affection for this school, everybody knew he was trying to win but also have a program that would represent the school in a certain way. No one could question his love for it. Rich has done a number of things that have made his margin of error slimmer. That doesn’t mean he can’t win, that doesn’t mean he can’t be here for 20 years.
So, if you’re on the internet and you’re saying a lot of people are killing me, I what guess I’m saying that’s not a representative cross-section of Michigan people. I’m not saying that cross-section is wrong, but that’s where they are. Don’t get me wrong, fans are great, they pay my bills. There are faculty here that live and die for the program but there are faculty here that don’t want a football program, they think the University would be fine with out it, they’re not going to win that fight and they know that.
My heart just stopped.
Outside the president’s house after they cancel football
Rosenberg: I know. I don’t think you have to worry about it.
The other thing about it and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. But I’ve got a book coming out that I’ve spent three years of my life on, about Michigan-Ohio State. It is not economically smart of me to piss off a lot of rabid Michigan fans. I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t believe what I was writing. You talk about making a name for yourself and a career for yourself, this is hurting my career if anything [laughing], writing a column like that. People can disagree I just hope they don’t question my sincerity.
We each saw the game yesterday, I read your column, you agreed that Threet showed a bit more than Sheridan yesterday.
Rosenberg: It was not about effort or anything like that, but there was a very visible difference, to me. Rich Rodriguez knows way more football that you or I do, so imagine he’ll see it on film. You saw in Threet a guy with the potential to make plays, and with Sheridan…things seemed to be overwhelming for him.
What’s going to define success in this point in the season? Is to get to a bowl?
Rosenberg: The bare minimum is get to a bowl, that streak means a lot. I’m actually curious to see because all these Michigan fans said they were fine with the transition, I think they meant a transition of like three possessions [laughing] and everything would be fine.
At some point you start losing people. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but if this team goes 5-7 and they’re breaking in a quarterback, like Forcier, and then they struggle, you can’t tell me in year 3 people will say ‘that was just transition.’ Michigan fans are not a patient group. So, I think the minimum is that they have to do is make a bowl.
Another thing for Rich. You’ve got the three big rivalries here. You can’t go 0-3 in those games this year. Some people gave Lloyd a hard time for that although his record against Michigan State was great. If they ever had stretch where they lost their last three games to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, people who go nuts. That stuff builds up. It built up for Cooper, it built up for Bo at one point until he turned it around. It built up recently for Lloyd although he won 5 of his first 6 against Ohio State which people don’t seem to remember.
Do you watch the game as a fan or is this pure business for you?
Rosenberg: I love my job. I don’t love going to the game as a fan. I like good games and it’s exciting for me. I’ve never in this job walked out of this building and said, ‘why didn’t that team win, I wanted them to win.’ Sometimes for selfish purposes I want to go to this city or not go to that city for a playoff run. To be honest, that Red Wings finals game where they lost it at the end of regulation, I didn’t want to go back to Pittsburgh. Most people don’t understand that. To me, it’s journalism. I think some writers have a hard time with that but for me, it’s not hard for me at all.
Are you going to write another book? Any ideas?
Rosenberg: Yes. But I don’t know on what. One thing I learned, and I learned so much from this experience, someone told me early on that you have to write books that you want to write because even a bad book is way too much work. I’ve really got to find the right project and dive in.
I don’t know if this book is going to sell a lot of copies but I’m proud of it. So that makes it worth it to me. I don’t want to spend two years on something and not feel good about it.
Is there any kind of message you want to give to folks that might buy this book- what’s your elevator pitch for this book?
Rosenberg: I guess it’s two things I’m trying to get across to people. One, this is a much more three dimensional, interesting and complete portrait of Woody and of Bo than any of the other books that have been out there. That was what I was trying to do, people can tell me if I succeeded.
The other thing is that I tried to write it almost like a novel, and with the backdrop of the story being what was happening politically, in a way, I hope it will appeal to people who aren’t football fans, let alone Michigan or Ohio State fans. People who just occasionally watch a football game, I hope, will really enjoy the book too.
Those are things I was shooting for, people like you can decide if I succeeded. This is a different book from many of the books on the same shelf at the store.
[You can order ‘War as they Knew It’, here, or you can visit Borders or other area bookstores on Wednesday, September 10th].