Out of their shells, Terps show turtle power at 4-0

October 06, 2001|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN COLUMNIST

To understand where the University of Maryland's football team is headed, let's travel back with the program since 1986, the year coach Bobby Ross resigned and the Terps' life as a national power came to an end.

From 1987 to 2000, the Terps had three coaches and only two winning seasons. They played in one bowl game (thank goodness for the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl), and had only 31 players drafted by the NFL.

That's basically all you need to know.

But today, the Terps (4-0) can further erase the stigma associated with 14 years of losing when they meet Virginia (3-1) at Byrd Stadium.

Not only does a win give Maryland sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it also puts the Terps on the threshold of something big.

"Did you see who was on the front page of USA Today yesterday?" asked former Terps quarterback Neil O'Donnell yesterday, as his Tennessee Titans prepared for tomorrow's game against the Ravens. "Imagine that. Who would have thought that?"

"If we win, it puts us on the brink of breaking onto the national scene again," said former Terps guard Rich Nelson, who is part owner of PCM Services construction company in Beltsville. "We win this one, then that national game Thursday night at Georgia Tech becomes really big."

Pardon O'Donnell and Nelson for becoming so excited, but they can't help themselves. You see, they were on the first team A. R. (after Ross). They were both finishing their third seasons when Ross resigned.

They had slowly watched the program crumble.

"We had a pretty good system going," said O'Donnell about Ross, who started at Maryland in 1982 and led them to three ACC titles and the national rankings. "But we were disappointed about Coach Ross leaving because we had Ralph Friedgen as the offensive coordinator, Joe Krivak as the quarterback coach and Ross overseeing it all. But then it all changed."

Ross went to Georgia Tech and took Friedgen with him. Meanwhile, the Terps took a tumble under Krivak until he resigned after the 1991 season. Krivak's best season was 6-5-1 in 1990.

Krivak had an excellent football mind and brought back integrity to the program. He was honest and straightforward. Downright blunt at times.

But he couldn't motivate his players. A Knute Rockne he wasn't.

What Krivak was, though, was a lame duck. He became head coach shortly after the death of Terps basketball star Len Bias. The university received a lot of negative publicity, and there were sweeping academic changes.

"It didn't work for Coach Krivak, but a lot of it wasn't his fault," said O'Donnell. "He came in at a time when the athletic department and the academic support group were going their separate ways. We had a lot of kids transfer from the program because they couldn't make the grades."

"It was an adjustment period," said Mike Jarmolowich, a Terps linebacker from 1989 through 1992 who now works for Lehman Bros., a New York investment banking firm. "The university had a black eye. They wanted to make Maryland the Stanford of the East. The same guys we couldn't get in, we had to play against at Carolina or Virginia on Saturdays."

Those same academic standards still cause the Terps to miss out on quality players. From 1971 through 1986, 49 players from the university were drafted. Since then, only 31 have been selected, 15 of those recruited by Ross.

Also, look at the school's quarterback situation. At one time, Maryland was Quarterback U., with Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Stan Gelbaugh, O'Donnell and Scott Zolak. But Zolak was the last one drafted, back in 1991.

Terps officials thought Mark Duffner might be a much-needed spark, so they hired him as Krivak's replacement. He was supposed to be the anti-Krivak. Young. Enthusiastic, a real cheerleader. But he won only 13 games in five years. His run-and-oh-shoot offense was exciting but truly comical to watch.

Next up was Rah Rah Ron Vanderlinden, whose biggest problem was a terribly weak coaching staff. The first sign of his demise came in his first two years when assistants kept resigning for other jobs. Either the money wasn't good, or Vanderlinden didn't have a clue.

It turned out to be both.

But that has all begun to change. The Terps have modern facilities and a coach who has a reputation of building highly productive offenses. Friedgen is a tough guy with a no-nonsense attitude, and athletic director Debbie Yow gave him money to hire quality assistants. In less than a year, he has the Terps headed in the same direction as Ross and the late Jerry Claiborne, two former quality Terps coaches.

The ACC has been basically a four-level conference, with Duke, Wake Forest and Maryland on the bottom, N.C. State and North Carolina on the next tier, then Virginia, Clemson and Georgia Tech on the next level and finally Florida State at the top.

That can change, though, today.

A Maryland win puts it on top of the ACC, and at least shows the Terps narrowing the gap between themselves and Florida State, even though Maryland has a way to go before it reaches that point.

"They have an attitude of wanting to win," said Jarmolowich. "When I was there, we thought we would win, but there was always doubt. These guys don't have any doubt. When I looked at some of these guys during the summer, I was impressed with their body builds."

"I hoped they didn't look like Tarzan and play like Jane," said Jarmolowich. "They are playing like Tarzan; they are rocking the jungle. There is a feeling there that wasn't there when I was at Maryland. It's awesome. You've got to fear the turtle now."

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