Duffner's pick is fairest -- for Terps

September 28, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

The belief here was that Brian Cummings should start at quarterback until the time was right for a change. But that opinion was written the night Cummings played his heart out in Maryland's 41-28 victory over Duke. Heat-of-the-moment stuff.

Not even the meanest, most cynical columnist would have dumped on a kid who said he was "in the glory of my life." But Maryland coach Mark Duffner is right. Scott Milanovich must play, starting tonight against Georgia Tech.

The best coaches rise above the fray, deciding not just what is best for today, but for tomorrow. What Duffner has done is end this controversy before it starts. All he needs now is for Milanovich to play well, and not another peep will be heard about his quarterbacks.

Will Milanovich play well? Maybe not tonight, when he figures to be rusty in his first game in 10 months. But eventually, the Maryland offense is going to click even more than it did in its first four games. And when it happens, Duffner will look that much smarter.

To think, this was a coach who appeared on the verge of getting fired when this season began. Granted, Maryland is now 4-0, but how many coaches -- secure or insecure -- would risk disrupting their first success in four years? You see it all the time: Coaches stick with the hot hand.

Indeed, another coach might have forgotten the assurance he gave Milanovich to keep him from entering the NFL supplemental draft. Hey, this is big-time college football. Promises are made to be broken. Heck, college coaches are among the biggest liars in sports -- ask their recruits, their administrators, the NCAA.

Duffner didn't lie, when he had every reason to be angry at a player who conceivably could have cost him his job. What if Maryland had gone 0-4 while Milanovich served his gambling suspension? What if the entire season had been doomed?

These were not unreasonable questions at the start of the season, and only now is the entire program off the hook. But rather than hold a grudge, Duffner kept an open mind, which, of course, is what you should do with a 22-year-old kid.

It turns out Milanovich came around -- Duffner called him "a real giver to the team" at Tuesday's news conference. To his credit, Duffner never let it get personal. Think of all those coaches and managers who make ill-advised decisions out of mistrust and fear.

No doubt, Duffner is doing what's best for Duffner -- Milanovich is the better quarterback. Still, starting Cummings would have been fair. A two-quarterback system would have been fair. But playing Milanovich is fairest to the team, and thus fairest to all.

How in the world can you bench Cummings? That was the question we posed Sunday morning, but Duffner, mindful of the big picture, saw beyond Cummings' brief, shining moment. The truth is, the kid might never play a better game. And he played it against mediocre Duke.

Duffner knew it, everyone knew it -- Milanovich had to play eventually. And if Cummings had started tonight, the uncertainty would have lingered. Duffner went through that last season, when he alternated Milanovich and Kevin Foley. Evidently, he learned his lesson.

Again, he protected his self-interest -- Cummings is a sophomore, and unlike Foley, he isn't about to transfer. But the point is, Duffner acted boldly and decisively. He didn't pander. He didn't waffle. He didn't allow the controversy to linger.

This is what a coach is supposed to do -- act presidential. Duffner knows he will be heavily criticized if Maryland loses tonight. And Maryland could lose -- Tech had last week off, and the Terps will be on the road after three straight home games, with only four days of preparation.

It doesn't matter. Duffner is enough of a risk-taker to go routinely for first down on fourth-and-short. And this isn't that big of a risk. Duffner is playing his best quarterback. End of controversy. End of story.

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