Terps fail to back up coach's talk

October 30, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Almost two seasons into his attempted rebuilding of Maryland's football program, Ron Vanderlinden is still telling stories about Northwestern and Colorado.

You can't blame him. His part in those successful rebuildings got him the job at Maryland. Stories of his role in Colorado's 1990 co-national title and Northwestern's trip to the 1996 Rose Bowl keep Maryland fans, alumni and players believing in him despite his 4-14 record here.

The stories are his business card, his credibility, and it's fine except that you don't hear him mixing in many Maryland stories yet. That's what folks around here want to hear -- stories about Maryland's turnaround -- and Vanderlinden, 42, doesn't have many of those.

In two seasons, his teams have beaten only Temple, Duke and James Madison -- quality basketball wins, but not much to crow about in football.

This year, the Terps' position is unambiguous heading into tomorrow's game against Georgia Tech at Camden Yards. They're in last place among the Atlantic Coast Conference's nine teams, and No. 8, Clemson, beat them by 23 points.

At that rate, the statute of limitations is going to run out on those Colorado and Northwestern stories pretty soon.

Maryland's football constituency is going to stop listening until it starts hearing about a turnaround in College Park. If there is one.

"Next year is the year," Vanderlinden said earlier this week. "We could really break through [in 1999]."

He'd better.

Not because his job is in jeopardy; he has a five-year contract and unflinching support from athletic director Debbie Yow.

He also deserves another "free" year, to be fair; a coach taking over a losing program needs two years to install his system, three to get his recruits on the field and four to win.

"A lot of things needed to be upgraded," Vanderlinden said. "Academically, there were some problems. Discipline needed to be instilled. And the talent level, of course."

But whatever his explanations, at some point soon he has to become more than just the guy who knows what it takes to win, the guy who did it elsewhere. He needs to start doing it here, too.

Terps football has disappeared from the state's sports radar. Interest is way down. Yes, there are two NFL teams and two new stadiums in the area providing hurtful competition. But the Terps can't blame anyone else. Their program has stunk for more than a decade.

If Vanderlinden doesn't start winning soon, the bottom will really fall out. He'll be regarded as the coach who cried wolf.

Remember what he said when he was hired? That the Terps wouldn't be successful until they drove through Tallahassee and won an ACC title.

Remember what he said last August? That the Terps would soon tTC "rise up and take over" the ACC.

Now he's saying the breakthrough is right around the corner.

His optimism is refreshing, but he'd better start backing it all up soon or he's going to lose his credibility. At some point, you have to stop telling stories and making promises, and start winning.

You have to start letting your Saturdays do the talking.

"I think we're right on schedule," Vanderlinden said. "The time is right for this team to go forward. The table is set."

There he goes again. He obviously can't help himself. But that's all right. He also obviously believes in himself ("I'm a good coach," he said last year) and in what he is saying.

And hey, there are several reasons to believe that the Terps are, indeed, setting the table to win, however slowly.

They have established their running game this year, raising their per-game average from a dismal 88.5 yards last year to a solid 141.7 this year, with sophomore LaMont Jordan carrying the load. Having a consistent running game is the first step toward playing winning football. It's a big step in the right direction.

As well, the Terps may have uncovered a franchise quarterback, freshman Randall Jones, a playmaker from Frederick for whom Vanderlinden has redesigned the offense. Asked if he could become the program's signature player, Vanderlinden said, "Could be."

But although a quarterback and a running game are major pieces of the puzzle, a lot of the Terps' pieces still aren't in place.

They were horrifyingly flat against Wake Forest two weeks ago -- on homecoming Saturday, no less. They have lost three games in a row. Their preseason talk of a bowl invitation looks absurd.

"We're playing 32 freshmen and sophomores," Vanderlinden said. "We have to walk before we run and run before we sprint. But I feel terrific about the direction of the program."

He should know. He was there when Colorado and Northwestern were losing in the beginning. He has been in this spot before and escaped to win big.

But will that history repeat itself? Will Vanderlinden soon have Maryland stories to tell, too?

He wants you to believe he will. But how can we believe until his Saturdays start doing the talking?

Next for Terps

Opponent: No. 23 Georgia Tech

Site: Ravens stadium

When: Tomorrow, noon

TV/Radio: Ch. 24/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Georgia Tech by 12

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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