In eyes of Terps, weed of a bowl is a fine flower

John Eisenberg

November 24, 1990|By John Eisenberg

No, it isn't a joke. It really is called the Poulan-Weed Eater Independence Bowl.

Or the Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl.

Either way.

"It isn't the beaches of Florida," said Maryland linebacker Scott Whittier, "but that's OK."

It doesn't rank with the Mobil Cotton Bowl, Eagle Aloha Bowl or Federal Express Orange Bowl. It doesn't rank with the Domino's Pizza Copper Bowl, Sea World Holiday Bowl or Uncle Ben's Long Grain Wild Rice Shrubbery Bowl. It doesn't even rank with this year's new bowl, the Blockbuster, in which you get a free two-point conversion for every three rentals.

(Wait a minute, you say. You hadn't heard of the Uncle Ben's Long Grain Wild Rice Shrubbery Bowl? Coming next year to a grassy knoll at the James Fenimore Cooper rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. In late December. Call your travel agent.)

The Poulan-Weed Eater Independence has been around 15 years and scheduled name teams from Texas A&M to Clemson to Washington, but of the 19 bowls on the 1990 docket, it ranks in prestige only above the California Raisin Bowl, in which the host team is a collection of cartoon characters. Otherwise, it looks up to every branch on the Byzantine bowling tree. Sad to say, but more people probably know about Bud Bowl than the Poulan-Weed Eater Independence.

Maybe it's the sponsor's name, eh? Makes it difficult to start traditions. When a team makes the Orange Bowl, fans throw oranges on the field. When a team makes the Peach Bowl, fans throw peaches. When a team makes the Poulan-Weed Eater Independence, as the Maryland Terrapins did this week, do fans litter the field with electric garden tools? They certainly can't throw any independence.

Ah, but you know what? The Terps don't care. About any of this. They don't care that their bowl is the definition of minor, or that the name sounds as if it came from a Jay Leno monologue, or that they might get bombarded with appliances. They're thrilled. Ecstatic. No one, perhaps, has ever been more excited about a trip to Shreveport, La.

"I think it's great that we're going," Whittier said. "People are excited. I've been getting a lot of calls. It's a bowl. I don't think anyone cares what name comes before it."

No, don't tell the Terps about the meaninglessness of minor bowls. It isn't meaningless to them. Making a bowl means that, in the final scoring this year, they rate in the top third of Division I. That's a giant step up for a team that hasn't caused a blip on the national screen since 1985, a team for which 2-9 predictions were routine last August.

Back then, the Terps cast a pallid picture. They were coming off a three-win season and had neither a proven quarterback nor star runner. They did, however, have one of the nation's toughest schedules. And a coach in trouble. Back then, anyone who suggested this team was bowl-bound was dismissed as a crank.

"People said we couldn't win two games," Whittier said. "To win six, and to beat some ranked teams, we accomplished a lot. Making a bowl is justice served for what we've gone through."

They went through a lot. This was a team that took steps backward easier than forward; most wins were narrow and nerve-racking, most losses big and easy. But the players persevered and painted their boldest stroke on the last Saturday of the season, upsetting Virginia to finish 6-5. They surprised even themselves.

"Before the Virginia game, we talked mostly about pride," Whittier said. "I've been around a while, so I can be realistic. Virginia has some talented people. Our main idea was to go down there and hit them. We knew we might not be able to win, but we wanted to go away with our pride. When our offense started to roll, we knew we could win. We just needed our confidence back."

Most of the players thought they'd played their last game. "Afterward, lot of guys were saying, "Now we can party," but I said I wouldn't until after this weekend," Whittier said. "Crazy things have been happening since I've been here. I don't know, I thought something might happen. And we slipped in there. It was weird."

Whittier, a sixth-year senior, is the only player who was around when the Terps last went bowling in 1985, to the late, lamented Cherry Bowl, outside Detroit. "It was pretty horrible as far as having fun, and like 10 degrees every day," he said. The weather should be warmer in Shreveport, but the budget-wary Terps will not arrive until 72 hours before kickoff. They have no illusions.

"[Going to] this bowl isn't [for the players] to have fun," Whittier said. "It's more of just another game. But it's a real bowl, been around 15 years. We can look back on it and say that at the end of our senior year, we went to a bowl. That's going to be the main thing we get out of it. And considering what we've been through, that's not bad."

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