After 5 years, Terps' Johnson finally a bowler


December 16, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

SHREVEPORT, La. -- Barry Johnson's first contact with the University of Maryland came five years ago, when he was a high school senior in Herndon, Va., and the Terps recruited him. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation in preseason that year. Johnson saw bowl games in his future. "I thought, 'Wow, a team like that, right in my back yard,' " he said.

His last appearance as a Terp came last night in the Independence Bowl -- his first bowl. Needless to say, his tenure has not been the bright-lights parade he expected. "We've had a lot of ups and downs," he said, "and more than our share of downs."

He was one of the few constants through the tumult of the past five years, a sure-handed, precise receiver who caught 106 passes -- two short of the school record. He will play in the Japan Bowl next month and, although a long shot for the NFL, will have his degree and a college career worth framing. "I've had a good experience," he said. "I just wish we'd won more games."

He sighs deeply when asked to reflect on his years. He is a bright kid, an agri-business major, who has had a good time going to college. But it's not that simple. "It's almost impossible to sum it up in a few words," he said. "So many things have happened."

The event that framed them all occurred, ironically, before he set foot on campus. He began his freshman season two months after Len Bias' death in June 1986. "And we're still talking about it five years later, whether or not the school has overcome it," he said, shaking his head. "It's absurd, really. Let the man rest in peace."

Except that it has indeed taken years for the school to adjust to the myriad changes brought on by Bias' death from cocaine overdose. In the beginning, there was the stigma. "My friends were saying, 'There's hard drugs flying all over the place up there; it's a hard-drug school,' " he said.

Five years later, he laughs. "It's so untrue. I haven't see one drug. It was just that it happened to one of the best athletes ever produced by the school, a god on campus. Everyone heard about it. But there was no way [drug abuse] could happen after that, not on this team. We were drug-tested left and right after that."

Such testing was just one of the changes that swept the athletic department. It was a critical one for the football team, though, for it prevented players from using steroids at a time when they became the rage of the sport. That, Johnson said, put the Terps at a disadvantage for years.

"A lot of other teams weren't being tested, and you could see the players were on steroids," he said. "I just remember as a freshman looking across the field at these superhuman bodies, knowing you couldn't get that in the weight room. It's gotten better lately, fairer, but it had an effect on us as far as wins and losses."

Another change was the toughening of academic standards, which included higher eligibility requirements and fewer special admissions, and did not make it easy for the Terps to live up to the name they made under Bobby Ross in the mid-'80s, when they won three straight ACC titles.

"People are always comparing us, but times were different," Johnson said. "Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of the tougher [academic] standards. I think it's right. And the drug-testing is fine, too. But these five years have been a time of great change on campus. And with change comes adjustment."

That there have been changes is indisputable. Since 1985, Maryland has had two football coaches, three basketball coaches and three athletic directors. The basketball team has gone on probation. A drop in revenue almost caused several small sports to be cut. The football coach's job was in jeopardy.

"Every time something happened, you just shook your head," Johnson said. "I don't want to say it was a tough time to be an athlete at Maryland. That's not right. I got a free education and a chance to play. It was great. But the turmoil was kind of depressing."

His solace was that he still had his sport. He was a starter his last three seasons, when the Terps went 5-6, 3-7-1 and then 6-5 this year, when he made first-team All-ACC. Picking out the lowest of the lows is, for him, difficult. Choosing the highest of the highs is easy.

"There never was a time when you just threw up your hands and said, 'It can't get any worse,' " he said. "But beating Virginia in that last game [this year], we're still floating high on that one. That it happened in my last game after five years is amazing. It's really a bittersweet ending."

He shakes his head. "The difference between winning and losing," he said. "If we lose that Virginia game, we finish 5-6, this senior class never has a winning season, who knows what happens to the coaching staff? Now we're in a bowl, which is a fantastic thing, something I never expected. And the coach is back for four years. Which is a good thing."

Whether the program is moving up again remains to be seen, of course. "I hope the bowl can be used as a springboard," Johnson said. "They're upgrading Byrd Stadium, which is a big deal. Recruits want to play in a nice place. We'll still have the academic requirements to deal with. But maybe the [period of] controversy is behind us. The new athletic director [Andy Geiger] is sharp. I'd like to think things are looking up. I would."

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