SHREVEPORT, La. -- Scott Whittier holds a singular distinction. Only he, among all the players on both squads who will clash in the Independence Bowl tomorrow night, can talk of a previous bowl experience.
Louisiana Tech's players were in grade school when their school last sampled a bowl game 12 years ago. When Maryland beat Syracuse in the 1985 Cherry Bowl, all of the current players were still in high school, with the exception of Whittier.
The Maryland linebacker realizes his bowl experience wasn't much. A freshman that year, he was being redshirted. He didn't play; he didn't even dress.
Matter of fact, he has lost his Cherry Bowl ring. But that didn't break his heart because the ring was cheesy, in keeping with the way the Cherry Bowl people operated. They never did give Maryland all of its promised share of the loot.
"They took all the scholarship players and those of us who didn't play just had a good time," Whittier said. "It was like a paid vacation. All I remember is cold weather and strip bars. It was cold that week in Detroit and we went across the U.S.-Canadian border to Windsor in buses to the strip bars."
Now 23, Whittier is in his sixth year at Maryland. After his freshman redshirt season, he lettered as a special teams player in 1986 and '87. He started nine games at linebacker in 1988 and was a medical redshirt last year following surgery for removal of a cyst on his spine.
Tomorrow night's game has special meaning not just for Whittier, not just for the other seniors, but for the entire university. The bowl is like an injection of confidence for a school with a battered image that had lost much of its self-esteem.
Since Maryland was rocked by the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias in 1986, the Terps have gone through two athletic directors. One football coach resigned in frustration and his successor struggled to right the program. There were basketball recruiting scandals. The athletes were left to make the best of a sorry situation.
"We thought it was a tragedy for a young guy with everything to look forward to, to die like that," said center and fifth-year senior Frank Namath. "But we never saw it as something that would follow us. You just don't think that so many people would have to pay for one person's mistake."
Coach Joe Krivak regards the bowl as a boost to the university in general and to football recruiting in particular.
"TV will carry the game into about 90 cities coast to coast," Krivak said. "It's been demonstrated many times that athletic success has an impact on a university. It's the cheapest form of publicity you can get.
"We're back in the bowl picture, yes, but a lot depends on where we go from here. It's important right now in terms of recruiting."
Whittier considers the Terps' 6-5 record -- their first winning season since 1985 -- and the accompanying bowl as a step toward restored health.
"We're back on the map," Whittier said. "When I came here we had a physical team that left opponents hurting after a game. We're back now, not all the way, but we're competitive."
Maryland accepted the bid even though the bowl falls during exams. Krivak says at least 10 players are taking exams during the trip under the supervision of academic adviser Gerry Gurney.
"If we hadn't been allowed to come, that would have been another negative," Whittier said. "It was good that the academics people let us know how they feel about football. And the students, they can go home and say Maryland has a good football team."
Just as the Independence may have more meaning to Maryland than any bowl in which the Terps have played, it is special to Louisiana Tech for other reasons.
Money, for one. Maryland will be fortunate to break even, but Tech, located only 70 miles away in Ruston, will make money because its travel expenses are lower.
The Bulldogs are the new kids on the Division I-A block. This is only their second year in I-A, and the bowl is a statement that they've arrived. Athletic director Jerry Stovall has observed pointedly that Tech is the only school in the state in a bowl game.
"This is a giant step for Louisiana Tech," Stovall said.
And for the University of Maryland.
Tech player to sit out Bowl
SHREVEPORT, La. -- Louisiana Tech coach Joe Raymond Peace today suspended starting freshman defensive end Eric Shaw from tomorrow night's Independence Bowl game with Maryland for not paying damages he caused in an off-campus altercation last month. Police said Shaw, 19, fired three shots into the door of a Ruston apartment, constituting a violation of Shaw's probation. He is serving three years' probation for a cocaine distrubution conviction in Florida.