A coach driven by promise, passion Vanderlinden: The influence of longtime mentor Bill McCartney ingrained a work ethic and sense of competition in new Terps coach Ron Vanderlinden that have him thinking national title at Maryland.

December 08, 1996|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- When Ron Vanderlinden is asked to name the zenith of his football career, he goes to the 1995 season. Going to Pasadena, looking out across a Rose Bowl improbably bathed in purple and then up at the San Gabriel Mountains, who wouldn't want to talk about that?

Northwestern's rise in the Big Ten is one of the items on Vanderlinden's resume that led Maryland to put him in charge of a program that has been a bust the past 11 years. As pleasant as it is to reminisce about coaching Cinderella, however, Vanderlinden knows that his philosophy also was shaped by a time in Colorado where players were branded as a bunch of thugs.

"I've seen both sides," Vanderlinden said. "I've been through the hard times."

A month shy of his 41st birthday, Vanderlinden talked two days ago of the influences that led him to Maryland, and to a room with a view of 48,000-seat Byrd Stadium. This is his first head coaching position, but revivals are old hat for Vanderlinden, who learned from his father and assorted coaches along the way.

The most important lessons, including a few on balance, came in the form of cautionary tales courtesy of his mentor, Bill McCartney.

Crowds of 50,000 men attend rallies held by the Promise Keepers, the rapidly growing Christian men's organization that McCartney founded while he was still the coach at Colorado. No disciple has been more faithful than Vanderlinden, who is the ninth former assistant of McCartney to get his own major-college program.

From 1970 to 1991, Vanderlinden spent 13 of 22 football seasons with McCartney.

Vanderlinden's star rose at Northwestern, where he was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for Gary Barnett, but his first coaching acclaim came as a recruiter.

He was on the other end of that business in the fall of 1969, when the coach from one of the nearby Catholic high schools came by to talk up the eighth-grade CYO team from St. Michael's in Livonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. Vanderlinden and seven other kids followed the man, one Bill McCartney, to Divine Child High.

Vanderlinden was 27 when he began a nine-year stint as a Colorado assistant, but the college of coaches wasn't what it seemed.

"No one will admit it," Gerry DiNardo said, "but we had no idea what we were doing."

Now in his second year as the hot commodity at Louisiana State, DiNardo was among the assistants who stayed on after McCartney's first season at Colorado, 1982. The staff was shaken up, and Vanderlinden, itching to move up from his first full-time job, at Ball State, talked McCartney into giving him a job.

After a 1-10 record in 1984, Vanderlinden was made recruiting coordinator. It was an endeavor McCartney, who had inherited a 3-8 team, couldn't stress enough.

"Mac [McCartney] didn't care if we just had won 10 or 11 games," DiNardo said. "He wanted to know one thing, 'Who are you writing to [recruiting] now?' That was his genius. When you start thinking about out-coaching people and lose touch with the reality that it's the players who win, you're in trouble."

"What I remember most about him [Vanderlinden] is the guys he recruited, he had nothing in common with them," DiNardo said. "He came across as straight, spiritual, a man with a strong family background, and he's calling kids with all kinds of backgrounds. I used to wonder how those conversations went."

Soul-searching

Vanderlinden coordinated an influx of talent that led to an 11-win season in 1989, and a national championship in 1990. There was a price, however. A special report in Sports Illustrated slammed the Buffaloes, who had two dozen players arrested on an assortment of charges from 1986 to 1989.

" 'At What Price Glory?' that was the title of the article," said Vanderlinden, who had become a position coach in 1987. "We sat in the staff room for a week and half, and didn't talk about anything except who we were. Bill called us together and said we're going to become even more involved in the lives of our players than we had been.

"As time went on, Coach Mac tried to be more sensitive, to recruit young men who fit in. He tried to eliminate the guys who came in with baggage, with a history. Be firm, be fair, be consistent, and from that point forward, there were few problems. I let our players [Maryland's] know from the get-go, you step across the line, you're going to be dealt with."

When Gary Barnett left the Colorado staff in 1992 to take over Northwestern, Vanderlinden went east with him. There was no pressure in Evanston, Ill., and supposedly no hope either.

"I was told I was committing professional suicide," Vanderlinden said, "but I trusted Gary. I knew I could recruit, I knew he could recruit. We didn't say, 'Woe is us.' We wanted to compete against Michigan and Notre Dame for the best players in the Midwest, the best players in the country."

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