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Rodriguez has won respect of team |

Rodriguez has won respect of team

| Thursday, November 13, 2003 12:00 a.m

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When Rich Rodriguez was hired in 2001 to coach West Virginia, defensive tackle Ben Lynch didn’t know what to expect.

“We heard he was tough,” said Lynch, who was recruited out of Oil City by former coach Don Nehlen. “We were sort of lost when he was hired. We didn’t know what to expect and everyone was nervous.

“But he made an effort to meet with everyone. That eased the tension.”

Rodriguez is in his third season at West Virginia. His record at his alma mater is 17-16, but during the past two seasons the Mountaineers are 10-3 during the months of October and November.

The first season wasn’t too fun for Rodriguez and the Mountaineers. The players struggled with the new system and some were fighting the changes.

West Virginia finished with a disappointing 3-8 overall and was 1-6 in the Big East Conference. The low point to the season was a 17-14 loss to Temple.

But things turned around drastically last year. The Mountaineers were 9-4 and 6-1 in the conference and earned a bowl trip to the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. The highlights of the season were victories at Virginia Tech, 21-18, and at Pitt, 24-17.

“I don’t know how much smarter I was from the first to the second year,” Rodriguez said. “I guess we’ll see what happens this year. I wasn’t surprised with our success last year. We got a lot of leadership from the seniors and they performed well.”

Despite a slow start to this season, Rodriguez remained confident his team would rebound. The Mountaineers began the season with a 1-4 record. But it was during that fourth loss, at Miami, that things started to turn around for the Mountaineers.

They rolled off four consecutive victories, including an impressive 28-7 victory against Virginia Tech, which was ranked No. 3 at the time.

The string of victories has the Mountaineers in the thick of the Big East Conference race. Saturday, they try to claim a share of the lead when they play No. 16 Pitt at Mountaineer Field. Pitt is 4-0 in the conference and 7-2 overall. WVU is 3-1 and 5-4.

“Coach creates an atmosphere for us to have fun,” Lynch said. “He’s a great guy. But when he needs to make a point, he can become a coach.”

Lynch says a lot of the players respect Rodriguez because of his age (40) and because he was a player.

He knows what the players go through in college.

As a player at West Virginia, Rodriguez earned three letters as a defensive back and played on four Mountaineer bowl teams. He graduated from WVU in 1986 and later went on to earn a master’s degree in physical education from Salem (now known as Salem-Teikyo University).

“He’s been in our shoes before,” Lynch said. “He knows what we’re going through. He can relate with the players.”

Junior college running back Kay-Jay Harris was recruited by Rodriguez. He’s seen two sides of the coach, the nice guy and the motivator.

“When I first met him on my recruiting trip, he was one of the nicest guys,” Harris said. “He can be a good guy off the field. On the field, he is a very intense individual.

“He wants us to play to the whistle. We definitely have a lot of fun. He’s got us in shape and we’re starting to jell.”

Harris said he felt the wrath of Rodriguez at practice Tuesday. Rodriguez and running backs Calvin Magee were on Harris to play better.

Harris’ play had diminished the past few games and Rodriguez was using Jason Colson as the backup to starter Quincy Wilson.

“They told me I was soft,” Harris said. “I’ve never let a coach get under my skin before until Tuesday. Instead of snapping, I just showed them what I was made of. He’s pushes you to get to the next level.”

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