THE BALTIMORE metropolitan area may not be a haven for the nation's best football players, but there is enough talent to have made the University of Maryland a national power in the mid-1980s and not enough to have saved Ron Vanderlinden's job last week.
During his four years at the school, Vanderlinden made some inroads into the Baltimore area for signing players, but it came about two years too late. Some of the players that got away, such as McDonogh guard Lance Clelland (Northwestern) and Milford Mill quarterback-safety Richard Johnson (Virginia Tech), might have put Vanderlinden over the proverbial hump.
Instead, he finished 5-6 for the second straight year and had a fourth straight losing season. Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow formed a search committee Monday to begin seeking a replacement for Vanderlinden, but she should strongly suggest a continued emphasis on local players.
It's not that Vanderlinden didn't work hard at signing local players, but he suffered through nearly two years of fallout from previous losing seasons at Maryland. The Terps have had only two winning seasons and one bowl appearance since former coach Bobby Ross left after the 1986 season.
"I think Maryland has been in a tough situation," said Edmondson coach Pete Pompey. "The Virginia Techs, Florida States, Penn States have come in while Maryland was down and taken away some pretty good kids over the years. It's tough for a good player to turn down a proven winner. Strong programs are built on hometown kids."
The Terps had 41 players (of a 104-man roster) from the state this past season, but it was more quantity than quality. A lot of the blue-chippers are still going elsewhere.
Oh sure, the Terps have signed such local standouts as Wilde Lake defensive back Tony Jackson, Aberdeen linebacker E.J. Henderson, Mount St. Joe linebacker Aaron Thompson and John Carroll wide receiver Scooter Monroe, but they have also lost out on Johnson, EVT safety Anthony Lawston (Georgia Tech), Meade running back Tarnardo Sharps (Temple) and McDonogh's Cap Poklemba (kicker at Temple) and Eric King (cornerback at Wake Forest).
The Terps can't win every battle on the home turf, but they've got to win most of them. When the Terps were a power in the mid-1980s, Ross and assistant Jeff Mann combed the area and won a lot of players. When the Terps lost a prospect like Aberdeen's Irv Pankey to Penn State, they signed the two Glamp brothers (Pete and Paul from North Harford) or Karl Edwards (Aberdeen), also out of Harford County.
Maryland ventured into the Baltimore city schools and signed players such as Vernon Joines (Southwestern) and Warren Powers (Edmondson). The Terps got such blue-chippers from Anne Arundel County as Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof (Northeast) or the big-name players from the private schools, such as Gilman's Mark Agent or Curley's David Amend.
The Terps were so entrenched in the community that they once signed Calvert Hall running back Richard Shure, a mediocre prospect who was the best runner in the area. It was a token gesture, but one Maryland had to make to always get the best players out of Baltimore every year.
Look at the powers in college football. Of the 88 players on Florida State' s roster, 50 are from Florida. Of the 90 players with Oklahoma, 65 are from the state.
Neither this state nor this area produces that quality or quantity of players, but Maryland offers a strong base for the Terps. This has to be their No. 1 recruiting ground, with a mix of players from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey or Ohio who are not going to the major universities in their states.
There is a lot to sell about the program. The university is in a great television market, has modernized facilities and plays in a conference that guarantees a shot at the potential national champion, Florida State, every year.
Critics will say the school needs a big-name coach to attract top-notch talent. That helps, but Frank Beamer wasn't mentioned in the same breath with Joe Paterno when he took over at Virginia Tech. Bobby Wallace has Temple on the move, and Chuck Amato has N.C. State improving.
Plus, no offense to Jesse Jackson, but did Bobby Bowden just wake up one morning and say: "I am somebody"?
He worked at it.
With teams like Duke and Wake on the schedule and the freedom to choose two nonconference foes, the Terps should win at least seven or eight games a year. They may never beat Florida State, but shouldn't get blown out by Georgia Tech, either.
Once the program re-establishes itself in the area, the next step is to have some success with those players, one of the greatest recruiting tools around. It's going to be hard for the next coach for another year, but he'll have a head start on Vanderlinden. According to several area coaches, a player doesn't have to honor his commitment to the university if the coach gets fired. Wilde Lake coach Doug Duval said yesterday that his player, Mario Merrills, a running back-cornerback, still plans to attend Maryland.
"I thought Vanderlinden was right on the edge of turning it around," said Duval. "I think he was on the verge of getting all the great kids out of Maryland. Mario is still going there, because he believes there is enough talent there to turn it around."
According to several high school coaches, Mike Locksley, the Terps' recruiting coordinator, has spent the past two days calling players who have committed trying to ease any fears about the program. Locksley was not available for comment yesterday.
But some players will change their minds. Who would blame them? The Terps are in a transition again. On Dec. 1, college coaches will be able to make visits and watch practices of prospective players.
By then, maybe the Maryland administration will have made a decision on a new coach. Regardless, a priority has to be getting most of the blue-chip players from the area.