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8 Upper

Smells Like Team Spirit

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/17/2001

Eleven months ago, when the University of Maryland fired football coach Ron Vanderlinden, I took the news with skepticism bordering on nihilism. The best new coach for Maryland, I reasoned, would be no coach at all. "The University of Maryland is not a football school, and it has no hope of becoming one," I wrote. "Maryland has a better chance of catching Duke in the U.S. News rankings than it does of catching Florida State in the AP poll."

Well. On Oct. 11, coach Ralph Friedgen's Terps went down to Georgia Tech and, playing on national television, pulled out a 20-17 overtime win against the 15th-ranked Yellow Jackets. The win--Maryland's first victory over a ranked team in 11 years--ran the Terps' record to 6-0 and made them the first team in the country to be eligible for a bowl game. Two days later, the Miami Hurricanes beat Florida State, in Tallahassee, 49-27.

The Terps have not only caught Florida State in the sportswriters' poll, they've passed them. This week, they jumped 10 places in the Associated Press list, to No. 12. And Florida State, with a 3-2 record, fell to No. 21. In the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll, the Terps are No. 14 to FSU's No. 22. The computer at The New York Times, which is programmed to have no institutional memory, puts the Terps at No. 6. (Then again, the Times computer puts undefeated, poll-consensus No. 1 Miami at No. 19--behind 4-3 North Carolina, which has been outscored overall this season.)

The Terps are also ahead of Auburn, Colorado, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Mississippi--to say nothing of the winless, tattered remnants of mighty Penn State. They are not just at the doorstep of the Big Time, they are standing in the foyer, looking for a coat rack and a drink. The team that wins the Atlantic Coast Conference will be rewarded, under Bowl Championship Series rules, with a top-of-the-line bowl game. And right now Maryland sits alone atop the conference, a game ahead of North Carolina and a game and a half ahead of Clemson and FSU.

The first thing the longtime Maryland observer wonders is, if the Terps beat Florida State on Oct. 27, will the fans storm Cole Field House and cut down the nets, like they tore down the goalposts when the men's basketball team beat Duke? The second question is, what is up with this Ralph Friedgen guy?

Some of the credit has to go to Vanderlinden. Just before he got axed, the old coach swore his five-year rebuilding plan was about to bear fruit. These are Vanderlinden's recruits miracle worker Friedgen is working miracles with. Maybe if the previous administration had stayed, the Terps would have scraped out seven or eight wins this year and gone to a bowl game anyway.

But there's no way Vanderlinden would have won that Georgia Tech game. His specialty was the moral victory--hanging in with a high-scoring, nationally ranked team like Tech or Virginia, then succumbing to superior forces. This year looked like the same: Against Tech, the Terps carved out a 14-0 halftime lead, then fell behind 17-14 late. Nice effort, kids. Except then, at the last possible moment, the Terps marched 59 yards in 1:18, kicking the tying field goal as time expired. A field goal and a Tech fumble in the bogus penalty-shootout overtime, and the Terps were victors.

Friedgen has real coaching juju. This team's first win, over North Carolina, was pretty much built around punter Brooks Barnard and the defense, in that order, with miniature running back Bruce Perry providing the offense. The next few weeks, Perry's running led the team, while a passing game developed to compliment it. When Georgia Tech stuffed Perry, the passing took over--assisted, at game's end, by a previously nonexistent kicking game.

Piece by piece, it's come together. The Terps play strongly in the fourth quarter, a sign that they're in better shape than their foes. They force turnovers and protect the ball themselves. Friedgen--finally a head coach, after decades as an assistant--sounds almost tearful with pride and love when he talks about his players; the players, after years of losing the close ones and fading in the big ones, sound the same when they talk about their coach.

Unfortunately, it's not all Mr. Chips-meets-Rocky down in College Park. Friedgen has demanded, and gotten, a commitment to football from the administration: a $700,000 computer system to break down games, major raises in coaching-staff salaries, new facilities, all-you-can-eat breakfast for the players. Lord knows, they're big young men and they need their nutrition. But at a school once notorious for its laissez les bon temps roulez approach to athletics, it has a bad echo.

Friedgen, though, is not worried about appearances. He's already called for the school to relax its extra academic requirements for athletes, so the team has a better chance to compete with big-time programs. When star linebacker E.J. Henderson was charged with a DWI before the Virginia game, Friedgen swiftly and sternly banned him--for the first defensive series. Then the big fella was back, leading the team to victory.

Hey, why be a stickler? Sixteen years ago, the basketball Terps had trouble making curfew. It didn't stop them from having a big-time season. Why, one of the players on that team was the most magnificent hoops star Maryland had ever seen. What was his name again? And whatever happened to him?

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