ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Rich Rodriguez walked through a flashlight-lit locker room, down a darkened tunnel and stepped onto the Michigan Stadium field for the first time.
"It's beautiful," he said with snow covering his dress shoes.
A new era began at Michigan on Monday. The winningest program in college football ended its first coaching search since hiring Bo Schembechler nearly four decades ago by luring Rodriguez and his spread offense from West Virginia.
The process probably lasted longer than the school wanted and it might not have landed its first choice. Yet, Rodriguez didn't have a problem with getting the job after LSU's Les Miles and Rutgers' Greg Schiano turned down reported opportunities to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr.
"(I) might have been my wife's third choice, too," Rodriguez joked.
He is ending a seven-season run at West Virginia, a year after turning down an offer to be Alabama's coach.
Rodriguez said it took an opportunity of Michigan's caliber for him to leave his home state and alma mater.
"It was a very difficult decision to leave a place where I grew up," said Rodriguez, who was born in Grant Town, W.Va., five miles from the birthplace of famed Michigan coach Fielding Yost and about 20 miles from the West Virginia campus. "It was going to take a very special opportunity and a very special place, and I think that's what this is."
Rodriguez doesn't expect to coach West Virginia when it plays Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
"My focus is going to be on the University of Michigan," he said. "I don't think it best serves West Virginia if I'm thinking about the Big House."
Rodriguez, who was to fly back to West Virginia on Monday, hopes school officials agree that letting him leave right away to assemble his new staff, recruit and evaluate the Wolverines with eligibility remaining is best for both parties.
Rodriguez is the first head coach to come outside the "Michigan family" as athletic director Bill Martin put it, since Schembechler was hired away from Miami of Ohio in 1969.
"Do you have to be a Michigan man to be a Michigan coach?" Rodriguez asked. "Gosh, I hope not."
Even though the Wolverines didn't bring back one of their own in Miles, who played at Michigan and coached under Schembechler, they landed a coach who is much more than a consolation prize.
The 44-year-old Rodriguez built West Virginia into a Big East power, winning the conference championship this year for the fourth time in five seasons and going 60-26 overall. He helped the Mountaineers earn six straight bowl bids and made them one of the most potent offensive teams in the country.
Rodriguez is considered one of the Godfather's of the spread offense that's become the rage of college football. The spread will be a dramatic change for Michigan, a school that's been locked into a more traditional offense and relied on drop-back passers for years.
"I think it's a great hire," said Carr, whose 13th and final season as head coach at Michigan will end Jan. 1 at the Capital One Bowl against Florida. "He's a young guy with great passion and enthusiasm.
"I think everybody that loves this place is excited."
Rodriguez's hiring marks the second time in eight months that Michigan lured a coach away from West Virginia, following basketball coach John Beilein's Morgantown-to-Ann Arbor path.
"There are intangibles in some coaches that make them win wherever they are, and he has them," said Beilein, who lived three houses away from Rodriguez in West Virginia. "Rich was born to be a football coach."
Michigan athletic director Martin and Rodriguez's agent, Mike Brown, said they still have to work on contract details before a deal is signed.
After Carr announced his retirement Nov. 19, Martin said he was prepared to roughly double what Carr made annually by giving the new coach as much as $3 million a year.
Alabama's interest in Rodriguez last year wore on the Mountaineers for several days before he agreed to a one-year contract extension through 2013. The deal included a $4 million buyout clause if he leaves before next September.
Like Beilein, Rodriguez will make enough money at Michigan to cut West Virginia a big check.
"The lawyers are working on it," Rodriguez said.
Michigan is paying Beilein $1.3 million a season, plus bonuses, as part of a six-year contract.
When Michigan lured Beilein away from West Virginia last April, his contract had a $2.5 million buyout clause. Under an agreement with West Virginia, Beilein agreed to pay $1.5 million to the WVU Foundation.
Martin and university president Mary Sue Coleman talked with Rodriguez, his wife and agent Friday in Toledo, Ohio. West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong met with Rodriguez on Saturday, saying they talked about general issues within the program.
Pastilong had said he was unaware Rodriguez went to Toledo and declined to disclose whether he had given Michigan permission to talk to the coach.
"We're not going to talk about the process at all," Martin said.
West Virginia's defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Gibson is certainly pleased with the end result. He's committed to join Rodriguez in Ann Arbor and he already sounds like a local.
Gibson hummed "The Victors," as he took a tour of Michigan Stadium's locker room with Rodriguez and his wide-eyed contingent from Morgantown.