ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez reached into the middle drawer of his desk and pulled out 10 large index cards filled with notes.
One outlined problems to fix, another was changes to make and one included items to address with the athletic director.
The 45-year-old Rodriguez started organizing his thoughts this way two decades ago at tiny Salem College and continued to do so at Glenville State, Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia.
"This year, there are more notes and cards than I'd like, " Rodriguez said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. «I've gone through years with one card. Now, I've got 10 cards here. That tells you what kind of year we've had.
»It's been as tough as any season I've had in coaching. "
Michigan's year will mercifully end soon, but not until playing Saturday on the road against rival Ohio State.
The Wolverines (3-8, 2-5) have already broken a school record for losses, had their first losing season since the pre-Bo Schembechler era and will be relegated to watching bowl games for the first time since 1974.
It has been an miserable season for the once-proud program, which hit rock bottom last month when it lost to Toledo. Against the 10th-ranked Buckeyes, who are favored to win by a rivalry-high 20 1/2 points, Rodriguez and the Wolverines can either salvage some pride or add a gloomy final chapter.
"I'm disappointed in the season we've had, but I'm not deterred or discouraged about the direction we're headed, " Rodriguez said. «We had more things to get shored up than I originally expected, but none of them are daunting.
»I'm still as excited about the future as I was three months ago. "
Rick Leach, Michigan's quarterback from three decades ago, is also fired up about how he believes the new-look program will evolve under Rodriguez.
Leach started watching Rodriguez's high-tempo workouts last spring and has been a regular visitor this fall, standing on the sideline during practices and sitting with Rodriguez during a recent lunch as they swapped hunting stories.
"I loved it when we hired him and I love it more now after spending time with him and getting to know him pretty well, " Leach said. «There have been a ton of players who have been through this program and they all have the right to an opinion about him, but personally, I'm proud he's our coach.
»It's painful for a lot of people to see Michigan lose like this, but the wins and losses go on his record and so you can multiple the pain he feels. Nobody has taken more of a brunt for this year than coach, but this wasn't going to be an easy job for anybody. "
Lloyd Carr, who announced his retirement a year ago, left behind an experienced defense and an NFL-depleted offense.
Rodriguez has tried to install his renown spread, but he didn't have much to work with at quarterback, receiver or on the offensive line and the unit has outscored only Purdue in the Big Ten.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose staff visited Rodriguez in West Virginia a few years ago to learn about his scheme, has no doubt the Wolverines will eventually find a groove on offense.
"Everyone in the country that's been around coaching would agree that Rich Rodriguez has been one of the most creative and really one of the founders of the spread-style attack, " Tressel said. «You know that he's building one building block on top of the next.»
Michigan's defense has been disappointing, giving up 28 points a game to rank 10th in the conference, and woes on special teams have led to some of the setbacks that have stunned a school, program and fan base.
Rodriguez has kept his composure for the most part in public, where his every word is dissected, but he has lost it at times privately.
He ranted and raved at his players, without lashing out at individuals, in particular after losses at Notre Dame and Penn State.
"What made him so mad after those games was that some people weren't running hard enough to make plays even when the game was on the line, " defensive tackle Terrance Taylor recalled. «The fight wasn't there within some guys and that obviously bothered him a lot. I was frustrated about it, too.»
Rodriguez, though, is not about to hide from a challenge or critics.
Instead, he'll just keep picking away at the to-do lists on his index cards to restore Michigan to a national power.
"Some of these problems can be solved quickly, " said Rodriguez, thumbing through the 5-by-8 inch cards. «Some will take years, like having quality depth at every position so that the first, second and third guys are so good you could play them all.
»We're not there yet, but we've got a plan to get there. "