Rodriguez denies allegations

Published 2:23 am Tuesday, September 1, 2009

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Rich Rodriguez gripped the podium, bowed his head, paused and appeared to fight back tears. The click-click-click of cameras was the only sound.

Instead of being peppered with quarterback questions five days days before the season opener, the Michigan coach on Monday found himself addressing allegations that the Wolverines have been violating NCAA rules relating to how much time they spend training and practicing.

He insisted, repeatedly, that college football’s winningest program has followed the rules since he was put in charge 20 months ago.

Email newsletter signup

Rodriguez became very emotional when he talked about the perception that he and his staff do not care about their players.

‘‘That is disheartening,’’ he said, then paused before looking up to finish his thought for dozens of reporters and a long line of TV cameras. ‘‘To say that is misleading, inaccurate and goes against everything that I have ever believed in coaching.’’

The school launched an investigation on Sunday after the Detroit Free Press published a report in which players from the 2008 and 2009 teams said the amount of time they spend on football during the season and in the offseason greatly exceeded NCAA limits. The players spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions from coaches.

Big Ten compliance officials arrived on campus Sunday to assist with the investigation, according to two people at the school. One person, who spends a lot of time with the team, said the school’s compliance office often makes unannounced visits to make sure the program is following the rules. Both people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the school will not publicly discuss the case until the probe is completed.

‘‘Our office does not conduct investigations in situations such as this,’’ the Big Ten said in a statement. ‘‘As that task is undertaken by the institution and — depending the circumstances — the NCAA. To the extent we get involved, it is purely in an advisory capacity.’’

Rodriguez suggested the complaints were an attempt to ‘‘tear up’’ the effort to rebuild a program that lost a school-record nine games last year. It was Michigan’s first losing season since 1967 and its first without a bowl in 34 years.

Michigan athletic director Bill Martin announced the school investigation, saying the allegations were taken seriously. He said the school believed it has complied with NCAA rules.

Martin, who hired Rodriguez away from West Virginia in a contentious move, said he was surprised by the newspaper’s report, but said he fully supports Rodriguez.

‘‘I’m all in for Rich Rodriguez,’’ Martin said after the news conference.

Like Rodriguez, the university’s compliance director, Judy Van Horn, has denied that the football program violated NCAA rules.

Those regulations allow players to spend eight hours a week on mandatory workouts during the offseason. Players told the Free Press that they have spent two to three times that amount on required workouts.

The players said the amount of time they spent on football activities during the season exceeded the weekly limit of 20 hours and often exceeded the daily limit of four hours. They also said quality-control staff often watched seven-on-seven offseason scrimmages that are supposed to be voluntary and that only training staff are allowed to attend.

Detroit Lions rookie Carson Butler, who played at Michigan, said he didn’t think players had to do a lot more work for Rodriguez last year when compared with previous seasons under Lloyd Carr.

‘‘It was just a different structure,’’ Butler said.

Butler said it didn’t seem as if the players were forced to spend excessive time training and practicing.

‘‘I don’t know all of the exact rules, but I don’t remember anything that seemed like it was too much,’’ Butler said. ‘‘If the weight room was open, you went. If there was a run, you went. It’s just what you do to be a better football player.’’

Rodriguez opens the season Saturday at home against Western Michigan, planning to play three quarterbacks, and said he is not worried about the allegations becoming a distraction.

‘‘Nothing is going to change their focus,’’ Rodriguez said.

Linebacker Obi Ezeh said the report will only make the team’s bond stronger.

‘‘We were really tight coming out of training camp,’’ Ezeh said. ‘‘I think things like this kind of help us to grow stronger.’’