At Maryland, fun is just beginning

JOHN EISENBERG

November 15, 1992|By JOHN EISEMBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- Now it can be told: Rookie Terps coach Mark Duffner has survived an eight-loss season without sticking his head into a film projector or leading blocking drills without a helmet or whatever it is that these young, work-addicted football coaches do when they lose their marbles.

An act of self-destruction seemed imminent when he cried after losing the first two games, then needed just 35 days to lose as many games at Maryland as he did in six years at Holy Cross. But, by golly, he came around. A telling moment occurred last week, when even the 69-spot Florida State dropped on his club didn't reduce him to jello wearing a headset.

Whether this was the result of crisis counseling, yoga therapy or just less caffeine is unclear, and, actually, watching him joyously head-butting helmeted players during the Terps' upset of Clemson yesterday, there is reason to believe that eight wins might cause him more harm than eight losses. In any case, somewhere along the often dispiriting line of a 3-8 season, Duffner managed to get happy.

At least as happy as any football coach can get.

And he should be happy. He won by losing this year. Won big. Big enough to scare up the idea that the Terps could be turned around into a winning program, a bowl program, in three years. You heard it here first.

Forget the eight losses. Forget the four blown fourth-quarter leads. Forget that deposed coach Joe Krivak would have won as many games. Forget 69-21. None of that matters. Duffner was coaching Krivak's players. He had no defense and, by the end of the season, no running back.

What matters is style points, not wins and losses. What matters is that, in coaching the Terps to their sixth non-winning season in seven years, Duffner still performed the small miracle of turning Maryland into a place where recruits will want to go.

Obviously, he needs better players to make a better team. And yesterday's startling shredding of Clemson, complete with fourth-down gambles and "fumblerooskies" and all sorts of hullabaloo, will give Duffner a game film to show in living rooms all winter. But the season was a major success as a recruiting vehicle long before the 53-23 win.

From the first play of the first game, it was apparent to anyone who paid attention that Duffner was young (39) and frighteningly energetic and in possession of an original football mind, and that his team was going to play flat-out exciting football or gosh-darn exciting football or whatever it is coaches say.

A no-huddle offense. Trick plays. An attacking defense. It's post-modern football, a players' delight. Combine it with a beautiful new team complex and a young coach so into it that he catapults around the sidelines, brings horses into practice and works seniors into a froth before their last game with personalized music videos (true story), and recruits start doing weird things, like postponing visits to Michigan so they can check out Maryland.

There's a blue-chip running back from Pennsylvania named Keno Shawell who recently did exactly that, and though it's just one example, you get the idea. The word is that Duffner has legitimate designs on one of the two dozen-best recruiting classes in the country. Serious, big-time recruits.

"They're bringing in these guys for visits, and I'm looking at them, and these are some seriously big, fast guys," senior offensive lineman Ron Staffileno said yesterday. "The coaching staff is young and players can relate to them, and the football they play is exciting, and it doesn't take much imagination to see that there are going to be some good teams here real soon."

It's not a complicated business. The Terps went 2-9 in 1991 and quit on Krivak, a wise coach and decent recruiter who couldn't connect with his players. Duffner knows how to make the game fun. That was his magic this year, and it will serve him well in the wars this winter. For the first time in a while, there's a real reason to go to Maryland.

"This has been a great year," receiver Marcus Badgett said. "The only bad thing was the record, the losses. But the games were fun. The practices were fun. The enthusiasm and the emotion were a lot of fun. We had a great time. It was like being resurrected for my senior year."

And if he happened to be a high school senior right now . . .

"I'd be licking my chops. We're throwing the ball all over the field, attacking, having fun. Kids are going to want to be a part of that. I think it's going to get real interesting around here."

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