CHARLOTTESVILLE,VA — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - If Mark Duffner, the new Maryland football coach, came looking for disciples, he landed in the right place.
Duffner, after all, is the Prince of Positive. And Maryland football players, after years of disappointment, have hungered for someone, anyone, to tell them it's going to be all right.
So Duffner issues a football-team constitution that mandates player happiness (really). He tells his players it has to be all right. It's the law.
The players want to believe Duffner. Of course they do.
And when they score the first touchdown Saturday night in the season opener, to take a 6-0 lead over Virginia, the players rush XTC en masse into the end zone to celebrate as if they'd just been told midterms were canceled.
They were penalized for too much celebrating (how's that for taking the joy out of college sports?). They didn't care.
"We got the penalty, but the important thing was we were all down there together," said defensive end Mark Sturdivant. "I don't think the coach liked the penalty, but I know he liked the enthusiasm."
More than the new, no-huddle, run-and-shoot, 53-passes offense, the attacking defense, Duffner is selling enthusiasm. He knows there's a marketplace. Maybe it was a lack of enthusiasm, not a talent differential, that caused all the losses in the past at Maryland. That's something to believe in -- if you were a part of all the losses.
Asked to describe his coach, wide receiver Marcus Badgett said: "What's the word for someone who resurrects the dead? That's what he's here to do for Maryland football."
Duffner is relentlessly, intensely, positively upbeat. You know the kind. He talks a lot about pride. Coaches and generals talk about pride. He talks a lot about attitude. Attitude can be a peculiarly football-specific word that is supposed to mean a lot of things -- most of them to do, I think, with blocking and tackling and sacrifice and teamwork. It certainly isn't about bad attitude.
This is football-coach stuff. Duffner, for better or worse, is a football coach. I don't know the man, but I know enough to know that. I know his reputation -- the strict, yet fatherly, disciplinarian who graduates most of his players and who, at Holy Cross, lost five games in six years. He figures to lose more than that in his first year at Maryland.
"We're going to get better," he says.
He came to the post-game interview Saturday after a 28-15 loss to Virginia in which Maryland had led, 15-12, early in the fourth quarter and said those words, or words like them, over and over. We're going to get better, he kept saying, like a mantra.
It had been raining all game, and Duffner walked in, his shirt drenched, his hair matted to his head. He probably hadn't noticed. What I noticed were the piercing eyes, the kind people describe as steely. Yes, he's intense. He reminds me a little of Dick Vermeil. He is supposed to put in the same kind of hours.
On the sidelines, he was prowling, patrolling, never still. There was a guy with the telephone line trailing him, trying to keep up. It looked funny, but I didn't see Duffner smiling. He was clapping a lot. He was slapping kids on the back.
And, after the game, he talked about effort. "We have a lot of work to do," he said, biting off the words, "but the effort was there. You could see it." Duffner talked about effort a lot.
So would Joe Krivak, his predecessor. So does every football coach. But where Krivak was low-key, Duffner, 39, is clearly high-energy. Maryland is hoping this will make a difference. One of his players said it seemed as if Duffner was on a natural high.
"He's a fighter, a competitor," quarterback John Kaleo said of his coach. "He never gets down. You saw how we got behind and came back. He's not going to have a team that folds up and dies. We're the kind of team that's going to fight for 60 minutes."
It's the kind of stuff you expect to hear after the first game of a coach's tenure. The Terps played pretty well. They played exciting ball. They went for stuff on fourth down. They took chances. And they had a chance to pull an upset. Instead, they made some important mistakes, but you're going to make mistakes.
What does it all mean?
You know better than that. It's one game. Maryland still looks like a 4-7 team this season. And who knows what the future holds? Duffner still has to prove himself on this level.
What's clear is this: The players desperately want to believe it's going to work out, and Duffner is more than willing to encourage that belief.