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For University of Maryland Coach Randy Edsall, the Clock Is Ticking
In just his second year of a six-year, $12 million contract, Edsall has already had a contentious tenure. By Brett Haber
Photograph by Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback.
Comments () | Published September 20, 2012

The circumstances under which Randy Edsall arrived at the University of Maryland in January 2011 were strange—strange because nothing appeared to be outwardly wrong with the program. Then-head coach Ralph Friedgen had just led Maryland to a 9-4 record and had been honored as 2010 ACC Coach of the Year.

Friedgen, a decorated Maryland alumnus with a famously expansive waistline, had shepherded his alma mater to 75 victories during his decade-long tenure in College Park, developing a cult following among students and alumni. But days before his team’s appearance in the 2010 Military Bowl, new Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson shocked Terps fans by announcing that Friedgen would be dismissed. The 21 months since have brought a torrent of strife, upheaval, and on-field failure.

Edsall, hired away from the University of Connecticut to replace Friedgen, couldn’t have had a more disastrous first season in College Park. After contending for an Orange Bowl bid the previous year, the Terps regressed to a mind-numbing 2-10 record. Attendance at Byrd Stadium last season slipped to historic lows. By late October, when the team had fallen to 2-5 and it was clear the season was dead in the water, just 29,945 people showed up for a game against Boston College. It was Maryland’s smallest official gate in more than a decade—and some estimated the actual crowd to be barely one-third that size.

Fans weren’t the only ones deserting the team. Since Edsall’s arrival, 25 Maryland players have left the program, including starting quarterback Danny O’Brien, who 17 months earlier had been named ACC Rookie of the Year. While several of the departures resulted from discipline and academic problems on the part of players, and others stemmed from the inevitable disgruntlement that occurs when a new coach redefines roles on the team, 25 is an undeniably high number.

The ordeal has left portions of Terps Nation disconsolate—an odd position for supporters of a program that just two years ago seemed on its way to greatness.

“We have no excuses,” says Anderson, who replaced Debbie Yow as Maryland’s athletic director in September 2010 and made Edsall his first big hire. “I’ll be the first one to say that 2-10 is not acceptable, and Coach Edsall and I are both disappointed. But I believe he is going to build and sustain success for the long term.”

Anderson’s belief is not without foundation. The 54-year-old Edsall—born in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, seven miles north of the Maryland border—has an impressive record of building football programs from the ground up. In 1994, he was defensive-backs coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in their inaugural season as an expansion team. Just a year later, Edsall and the Jags were in the AFC Championship game. At Connecticut, Edsall undertook more football nation-building, leading the Huskies from 1AA status in 1999 to the top echelon of college teams a decade later.

It’s hard not to like Randy Edsall. One on one, he comes off as earnest and personable—qualities that have made him a successful recruiter during three decades in college football. (He was an assistant coach at Syracuse, Boston College, and Georgia Tech before going to UConn in 1999.) He is, as they say, a closer in the living room.

But the past 21 months have left him with an air of defensiveness. He sits in the spacious head coach’s office in the Gossett Team House, the same space Friedgen occupied only two years earlier. The office has large picture windows overlooking the east end zone of Byrd Stadium—a view that provokes constant flashbacks to the misadventures of last fall. Edsall tries to relax, but he’s wary of reporters now, having received less-than-kind treatment from them so far during his tenure. “The negativity has taken me by surprise,” he says.

In fact, he was so frustrated with his coverage that he launched his own website. Its aim: to bypass the media and reach out to Maryland fans directly with blogs and videos conveying positive news about Maryland football.

At our meeting, Edsall wears pressed shorts, a golf shirt, and leather loafers without socks. As we chat, he attempts to find the delicate balance between explaining away the shortcomings of his inaugural season and giving the impression that nothing is really so wrong.

“If you’re going to establish a program, it doesn’t happen in just one year,” he says. “You’re talking about this enormous undertaking that encompasses a lot more than I think people really understand about intercollegiate football.”

Edsall is a compelling orator, but not everyone is swayed by his rhetoric.

“I don’t think he should be fired because he went 2-10; I think he should be fired because he went 2-10 and none of it was his fault,” says author and columnist John Feinstein, who has covered Maryland athletics for more than a quarter century. “Everything that I saw and heard from him was passing the buck when things went wrong and throwing people under the bus—and it’s really hard to throw Ralph Friedgen under the bus, but he managed to do it.”

Feinstein and others also believe that Edsall’s militaristic approach to discipline has contributed to the exodus of players. Many have cited as an example Edsall’s stern rules against players wearing caps and jewelry when in the football facilities or on other football-related business. Some believe his manner reflects a lack of connection between the coach and the young men he’s attempting to recruit and retain.

“He’s very structured in that way,” says Tony Logan, a receiver and kick returner who graduated from Maryland this spring, having played his final season under Edsall. “He might rub some people the wrong way, especially if they don’t come from a background where they had a lot of structure in their life.”

Discipline is hardly a foreign concept to football players. It’s ingrained in them from the moment they start playing. But Edsall’s detractors find his brand of discipline somewhat arbitrary. It’s one thing, they argue, to make a player run a lap after he fumbles the ball—that reinforces the notion that there are negative consequences for making mistakes. But Edsall’s rules strike them as stemming from a raw desire for control.

Critics also point out that while Edsall has set high standards for integrity, he has failed to meet those standards himself. When he left UConn to accept the job at Maryland last January, he told his Connecticut players about his departure via a conference call. This seemed rather impersonal, especially in light of the order he had given one of his players in the locker room after Connecticut’s bowl game. After runningback Jordan Todman told Edsall he intended to leave the program for the NFL, Edsall insisted that Todman stand up and announce his departure as he faced his teammates.

Edsall’s first-year failures were set against a much smoother coaching transition in Maryland’s men’s basketball program. Mark Turgeon took over for retiring Maryland legend Gary Williams, and the passing of the baton was seamless. Williams publicly blessed Turgeon’s hiring, then returned in the fall when the court at Comcast Center was renamed in his honor. It was straight out of the textbook on how to make a coaching change.

Friedgen, by contrast, didn’t retire. He was axed with a year left on his contract. Some are still wondering why.

On November 18, 2010, as Friedgen was leading Maryland to an 8-4 regular season and earned a bid in the Military Bowl, Anderson, who had been hired just ten weeks earlier, announced that Friedgen would be retained for 2011. But in the weeks that followed, Friedgen campaigned for a long-term contract. He told people inside and outside the university that he felt his authority to recruit players and to hire and retain staff would be compromised if he had only a one-year leash.

Anderson, who thought he needed more time to evaluate Friedgen before committing to a multi-year extension, is said to have felt betrayed by Friedgen’s public campaign and began seeking his replacement.

Friedgen, who graduated from Maryland in 1970, may have overestimated his clout with boosters and alumni. Former Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason—who played 14 years in the NFL and was instrumental in Friedgen’s hiring in 2001—says the coach assumed he would be a Terrapin for life: “He was Fridge. He was ours. He was the big, heavyset coach who was running over and singing the fight song with the students. I think Fridge looked at himself and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to last as long as I want to last here at Maryland because I took this team to bowl games. I put us on national TV.’”

Friedgen was so shocked and offended by his dismissal that he claimed to have burned his Maryland diploma—though he later recanted that assertion.

The turmoil that has befallen Maryland football couldn’t have arrived at a worse time. In 2007, the school embarked on an expansion of Byrd Stadium, adding 500 mezzanine seats, 64 luxury suites, and an upgraded press facility at a cost of $50.8 million. Then-athletic director Debbie Yow, blessed at the time with a still-burgeoning economy and a commensurate level of alumni giving, felt that the expansion was not only financially feasible but necessary to remain competitive with other schools in the conference and the region. Yow further believed that Maryland’s continued success on the gridiron would lead to all those new seats and suites being sold.

It didn’t happen.

Five years later, with both the economy and the team faltering, it’s unclear whether Maryland football can generate sufficient interest to support the expansion. In 2010, season-ticket sales dropped for the fifth consecutive year.

The question remains: Is Maryland trying to create a nationally elite program in a market where the conditions don’t support it? Like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia—none of which boast elite college-football programs—Washington has long been considered a professional-sports town, and the region hasn’t shown sustained interest in Maryland’s gridiron success.

When we do turn our attention to College Park, it’s usually for basketball. Like many of its ACC brethren, Maryland has historically been thought of as a basketball school. The national championship Coach Williams helped secure in 2002 did nothing to dispel those notions. Even Duke, with its sterling national reputation and prodigious endowment, has failed to produce a consistently successful football team or a fan base that cares much about it. Some believe Maryland is destined for the same fate.

But inside the Maryland athletic department, that sort of talk is sacrilege. From university president Wallace Loh to Anderson to Edsall, the watchword is championships—plural. Edsall continues to insist that everyone associated with the program be “all in,” even though the phrase has become a cliché used by many to mock the coach’s gung-ho myopia.

In Maryland’s favor is the fact that Kevin Plank is “all in.” The Washington native, who played as a walk-on for Maryland’s football team in the early ’90s, is now CEO and chairman of Under Armour and one of the most powerful men in sports.

In 2003, Plank made Maryland football the backdrop for his company’s first television ad campaign (in which Friedgen and others popularized the mantra “We must protect this house.”) In 2008, Under Armour became the exclusive outfitter of all Maryland teams, signing a five-year deal that paid the university more than $17 million. On a philanthropic level, Plank has directed more than $1 million in donations to the athletic department, along with the use of a private airplane for recruiting.

Last year, at Plank’s direction, Under Armour introduced the now-infamous “Maryland Pride” football uniforms. The garish designs were the subject of national ridicule, but they placed Maryland’s brand on the national stage, and that seems to have pleased all parties involved.

Some believe that Plank and Under Armour can do for Maryland what Phil Knight and Nike have done for the University of Oregon. Knight, who ran track at Oregon before founding Nike (then known as Blue Ribbon Sports) in the mid-1960s, has been Oregon’s chief athletic benefactor for decades. His generosity has transformed the unassuming state school in the tiny town of Eugene into a college-sports powerhouse with the finest facilities in the nation. Oregon’s football team has won five conference titles in the past 12 years and was ranked number one in the nation for part of 2010.

If Plank is frustrated with Edsall’s performance so far, he hasn’t shown it. In May, the coach was Plank’s guest at Under Armour’s hospitality reception at the Preakness. By June, Plank was encouraging Maryland fans to get behind the coach. “At least just stop rooting against him,” Plank told the Baltimore Sun. “You know, give the guy a chance.”

Despite that support, the clock clearly is ticking for Edsall. While he is in only his second year of a six-year, $12 million contract, Maryland officials will be under immense pressure to buy him out of it if this season turns out to be a repeat of last.

Still, amid the turmoil and tension, Edsall prefers to dwell on loftier ideals. “To me, my job as a coach is to develop these young men holistically,” he says. “I need to prepare them to be successful.”

When I point out the harsh truth that holistic development notwithstanding, if Maryland doesn’t win a few more football games in the near future, he’s not likely to be here very long, Edsall responds carefully: “I know that.”

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Posted at 10:45 AM/ET, 09/20/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs