The Earth isn’t flat. The weird light in the sky isn’t an alien spaceship. Bigfoot didn’t get into your garbage. Paul McCartney isn’t dead. 2Pac isn’t alive.
And Rich Rodriguez didn’t throw the 2007 game against Pitt.
The calendar reads 12-1 today, but for Mountain State fans, 12-1 will always be known as 13-9. That was the final score of the 2007 version of the Backyard Brawl. It’s the worst loss in West Virginia University sports history. Whatever is second isn’t close.
It’s impossible to state how much history was changed on that fateful night in Morgantown. But here is a short list of the resultant fallout from that loss to a 28-point underdog.
- WVU squandered a chance to play in the BCS national championship game and probably win its first football national championship.
- Rodriguez shocked his home state by bolting his alma mater to take the head coaching job at Michigan about a week later.
- The WVU athletic department would replace Rodriguez with one of the most bizarre coaching searches/hires in college football history.
- Whatever chance the Big East would survive, long term, as a football conference, was gone.
- An oddly large segment of Mountaineers Nation would hold the belief for years that Rodriguez intentionally lost the game.
The second and fifth bullet points on that list are obviously intertwined.
Let’s strap on our tin foil hat and take a stroll down conspiracy theory lane. Conspiracy theory in italics
In this supposition, Rodriguez had, before the Pitt game, set up an arrangement to become the next coach at Michigan. But, because WVU was ranked No. 2 in the BCS poll, Rodriguez would be obligated to stay with the Mountaineers through the BCS national championship game. This wouldn’t be acceptable for Michigan as the university would want to hire its coach before the bowl games to get him started on recruiting and filling out his staff.
It’s quite the dilemma. If the Mountaineers could somehow lose to their rival in the season finale, then WVU would be knocked out of title game contention and the golden gates to Ann Arbor, Mich., would swing wide open. Unfortunately, Pitt s 4-7 and not very good. Sure, maybe the Panthers will give an effort, but they’re no match for the powerhouse and lightning-quick Mountaineers led by Pat White and Steve Slaton. Oh dear, it appears poor Rich Rod is stuck in his home state and at his alma mater for at least another year.
But Rodriguez has proven he’s nothing if not resourceful and inventive. Those skills are what took him from Salem College to the pinnacle of college football. Knowing a victory over his Backyard Brawl rival will forever close the Michigan job to him, Rodriguez hatches a plan. Coach to lose the game. It will take quite the effort to pull off, with his Mountaineers being a four-touchdown favorite and the players surely giving their maximum effort for a chance to win a national championship. But it’s his only chance.
So that’s what he does. Rich Rod only really oversees the play-to-play operation of the offense, so that’s where he will have to make his move. And he’s right. The defense upholds its end of the winning bargain, including pulling down an interception on the game’s opening drive.
Rich Rod goes to work. His play calling stymies the Mountaineers explosive offense all game. White is injured and is replaced by adequate backup Jarret Brown. Brown isn’t White, but he’s replaced White in games before and the Mountaineers prevailed.
Rodriguez does what few have been able to do: His tanking play-calls contain the WVU offense. West Virginia does score a touchdown, but that isn’t enough to thwart Rich Rod’s master plan. The college football world is shocked (of course Rodriguez isn’t, master plan and all). WVU loses, Rodriguez bolts to Michigan as quickly as Dorothy clicks her heels and leaves Oz, and the ultimate college football conspiracy is complete. Brilliant.
Ok, that was exhausting. Now, to quote Eminem in Lose Yourself, “back to reality.”
The loss to Pitt is available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vE3dptNYjQ. You can watch the entire game. What, exactly, did Rodriguez do in this game that was drastically different from the rest of the year (South Florida held the WVU offense to just 13 points in the Mountaineers other loss that season)? For Rodriguez to keep the Mountaineers so quiet against an inferior foe, he would have to drastically change his play calling. Is there any evidence from that game that he did? There is not.
And the motivation for Rodriguez to throw the game doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either. Yes, he did leave a week later for the Michigan job. But the assumption that he was so desperate to separate from WVU that he would go to unfathomable lengths doesn’t jibe with actual events.
A year earlier, Alabama had a deal in place to make Rodriguez the Crimson Tide’s next coach. Alabama is a better job and Michigan and a much better fit for Rodriguez. But Rodriguez backed out at the last minute. A combination of his affection for his alma mater and home state, combined with the promise of the 2007 team, were the impetuous behind the about-face.
If he wanted to lead WVU to the promise land so badly that he turned down one of the best coaching situations in the country, would he really throw that away just as he was on the precipice of achieving immortality in his home state? And he would do so by committing the unforgivable sin of sports all to take a lesser job than he had earlier turned down?
No conspiracy guy, West Virginia didn’t lose to Pitt that awful December night because Rodriguez threw the game. WVU lost because Pitt played its best game in years. Because White missed most of the game and Brown wasn’t able to ride out the storm the way he often had in the past (White also was hurt in the USF game, the Mountaineers other loss that season). Because Pitt coach Dave Wannstadt was familiar with WVU’s high-tempo offense through years of battles. Because, sometimes, the Rich Rod offensive juggernaut would occasionally just bog down for reasons that are inexpiable besides it consists of 18-22 year-old kids who don’t always perform their best. Because sometimes the USA hockey team beats the Soviets. Because sometimes these things just happen.
Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one.
Like most things, it applicably applies here.