Sept. 6, 1999
by Jacob Barker
Ask any fighter pilot and they will tell you that the key to any combat mission is having a wingman that you can depend on. With the addition of Rich Rodriguez to his arsenal, head coach Tommy Bowden has his wingman. As Clemson prepares for combat on the gridiron, Rodriguez will serve as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
With Rodriguez serving as offensive coordinator the past two seasons at Tulane, the Green Wave put up numbers that resemble those of a video game. Over the 22-game stretch, Tulane averaged 39.7 points per game and tallied over 10,000 yards of total offense. Under the tutelage of Rodriguez, 1999 Tampa Bay second round draft pick Shaun King emerged as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. During his final two seasons he was named Conference USA Offensive Player of Year and led Tulane to a combined 18-4 record.
Due to King’s brilliant right arm, people often overlook Tulane’s impressive rushing statistics over the past two years. Along with 270.5 passing yards per game, the Green Wave averaged 183 yards per game rushing. Their 246 rushing first downs and 246 passing first downs further highlight the balance with which the offense operated during the past two seasons.
In 1997, Tulane finished with a 7-4 record posting the school’s first winning season since 1981. Although defense played an important role, Rodriguez and his offense were the key to the team’s resurgence. The Green Wave averaged 34.1 points per game and tallied 4,610 yards of total offense, including 236 yards per game passing and 183 yards per game rushing.
As impressive as the 1997 season was for Rodriguez and Tulane, the numbers put up by the 1998 edition of the Green Wave were even more mind-boggling. The 1998 offense averaged 45.4 points per game and racked up more than 6,000 yards of total offense, an average of 507.1 yards per game. They scored 40 or more points in eight games, and through the course of the season twelve different players scored touchdowns. The offensive numbers of Tulane were quite an accomplishment, but the perfect 12-0 record posted by the Green Wave team stand out in Rodriguez’s mind.
“We had guys that gave great effort and made plays when they had to at Tulane. Everything just seemed to fall into place. It is something that we can build on and reflect back to and try to do things close to the way they did it. If we go 12-0 at Clemson, we are not going to be playing in the Liberty Bowl, we will be playing in the big one,” stated Rodriguez.
How did this impressive wingman team with Bowden and land in Clemson?
Rodriguez attended West Virginia where he lettered three years as a defensive back and played on four bowl teams. He credits current and twenty-year West Virginia head coach Don Neyland with developing his skills as a player, but says that he also learned a great deal from Neyland in terms of organization. In 1986, Rodriguez graduated from West Virginia with a Bachelor of Science degree.
Later that same year, Rodriguez attended Salem College (now known as Salem-Teikyo) in West Virginia. There he served as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach while he pursued a master’s degree in physical education.
In 1988, Rodriguez was promoted to head coach at Salem. He was twenty-four years old at the time, making him the youngest head coach in college football. Ironically, he never got the opportunity to coach in a game due to a bizarre set of events that followed his promotion. Before the start of the season Rodriguez was informed by the school’s athletic director that a group of Japanese investors had bought the school, and that the football program was going to be dropped. Rodriguez, who had just bought a house and a car, and who was to be married in a week, was out of a job. “I called my wife and told her the good news is that we were still getting married, but the bad news is that we have no honeymoon.”
Now unemployed, Rodriguez remained positive and in 1989 finished his master’s degree at Salem. Later that year, he returned to his alma mater as a volunteer outside linebackers coach. That season, Rodriguez and the Mountaineers faced Clemson in the Gator Bowl. His most vivid memories of the game were of the orange clad, fanatic Clemson fans.
“West Virginia was well know for it’s fan following and we had heard Clemson was too,” explained Rodriguez. “When we got to the stadium and saw that sea of orange, I thought, holy cow, these people are into it! By the second quarter one of those linebackers from Clemson just about knocked Major Harris out of the game and I said this is going to be a long game. They just whipped us.”
Rodriguez spent one year at West Virginia and then in 1990 took over as head coach at Glenville State College in West Virginia. Over his six-year tenure at Glenville State, his teams won four consecutive West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championships, the school’s first league titles since 1959. In 1993, Glenville reached the NAIA Division I Championship game. In 1993 and 1994, Rodriguez was named NAIA National Coach of the Year. He also served as the school’s athletic director during those two years.
While at Glenville, his team led the WVIAC in total offense and scoring offense six of his seven years. In 1993 and 1994, his teams led the nation in those categories. Also at Glenville, Rodriguez coached former Pittsburgh Steeler Chris George, the all-time leading receiver in college football history. George finished his career with 430 receptions for more than 6,000 yards.
Rodriguez first began working with Tommy Bowden during the summers while still coaching at Glenville. He was invited to work at the Bowden Academy and it was during this time that he and Bowden began sharing offensive philosophies. When Bowden took the job at Tulane in 1997 he asked Rodriguez to take over a Green Wave offense that had been out gained by their opponents by almost 1,000 yards a year earlier. Rodriguez agreed, and the rest as they say, is history.
Rodriguez says that he and Bowden have such similar philosophies that the two can often read each other’s minds when it comes to play calling.
“On Friday nights before the games Coach Bowden and I write down the first twenty-four plays we want to call depending on down and distance and we don’t tell each other what we are going to write down,” Rodriguez said. “We then compare notes and last year, out of eleven regular season games, we probably matched no less than twenty-one of twenty-four plays and there were a couple of games where we had almost all identical play calling plans.”
Rodriguez compares his offensive system to the two-minute drill and feels that offense should be taught in the same way defense is taught.
“The best way to describe our offense is what a lot of teams have done in the two minute drill at the end of the half or the end of the ballgame, except that we do it for four quarters. We spread people out and we develop a sense of urgency, and we go at a faster tempo than you would traditionally see. We approach our coaching offensively the way a defensive coach would, in an attack mode, aggressive, and with high intensity. “
Rodriguez, his wife Rita, and their two children, Raquel (2) and Rhett, who was born in May, have successfully made the move from New Orleans and are now part of the Clemson family. With the reunion of Bowden and his wingman Rodriguez, Tiger fans everywhere will be flying high if Clemson can continue the offensive assault that has brought fear to defensive coordinators across the nation the last two seasons.
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