Back in 1984, Stan Gelbaugh considered himself just another talented University of Maryland quarterback trying to help the Terrapins win, while hoping to survive long enough to throw a football for a living in the NFL.
Gelbaugh would go on to draw a paycheck for 11 seasons, primarily as a backup in Buffalo and Seattle. And by the time he retired in 1996, Gelbaugh knew he had blossomed at an unlikely time, during an era that smiled unusually on the quarterbacks who paraded through College Park.
Do you remember when people commonly referred to Maryland as Quarterback University?
Sandwiched around Gelbaugh were Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Neil O'Donnell, Scott Zolak and Scott Milanovich, each of whom played in the NFL. With the exception of Milanovich, each stayed in the pros for at least nine years. Esiason, Reich and O'Donnell played in Super Bowls with Cincinnati, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Now with the Tennessee Titans, O'Donnell is the only one still active.
"It's amazing that we ended up having six [quarterbacks] go through and make it [in the NFL]," Gelbaugh said.
Esiason started the run, which began under former coach Bobby Ross in 1982, with major help from offensive assistants Joe Krivak and Ralph Friedgen, the former offensive coordinator who is now Maryland's head coach.
"The coaches will tell you they were lucky to have us, and I'll tell you as players we were lucky to have them," said Esiason, who was a four-time Pro Bowl pick during his 14-year pro career and now calls Monday Night Football games for CBS Radio. "We weren't the greatest athletes. We were tough guys who understood what Ralph wanted. Ralph knows the quarterback is really where the heartbeat of the team is."
Gelbaugh and Esiason played at a time when the Terps were living the golden years, as perennial Atlantic Coast Conference contenders with Top 20 rankings, bolstered by those big-time arms.
Gelbaugh bided his time behind Esiason and Reich, while Esiason was becoming a two-time All-American who set 17 school records and led Maryland to the ACC title and a berth in the Citrus Bowl in 1983. He watched Reich engineer one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history in November 1984, erasing a 31-0 halftime deficit at Miami. When Reich went down with a shoulder injury that year, Gelbaugh led Maryland to four victories, helping its march to the ACC crown.
As a one-year starter a year later, Gelbaugh guided the Terps to the ACC championship and a victory in the Cherry Bowl, propelling him to the big leagues.
"We didn't know they were the glory years. We were just fighting like hell to win and to keep our jobs," said Gelbaugh, 38, who lives in Potomac and is a partner in a technical consulting firm. "Boomer, Frank and I never let up on each other for a moment. We wanted to beat each other as badly as we wanted to beat the other team.
"Back then, I was just trying not to lose my scholarship. Until Boomer and Frank went to the pros [in 1984 and 1985], I had no idea that I'd have a chance to be in the pros. ... There was a lot of luck there. And you had some very competitive guys who fed off each other."
Friedgen is the man of the future and a vital link to Maryland's glittering past. A Maryland graduate and the fourth coach to lead the Terps in the past 11 years, he already is causing a buzz around a program that has enjoyed only two winning seasons since 1985. The Terps are off to a 5-0 start and are atop the ACC standings.
Back in the days when the recruiting pipeline was humming with strong prospects and victories were the norm, Friedgen began carving a coaching name in College Park. With a huge assist from then-quarterbacks coach Krivak - who later would succeed Ross and run the Terps for five years - Friedgen fashioned a blueprint that made the offense go and helped to create Quarterback U from 1982 to 1986.
Watching Maryland's offensive scheme now is like taking a trip back in time. And although Friedgen says he must rebuild a talent base with recruiting classes yet to come, his fingerprints already are obvious.
Dropping back, with freedom
The Terps are running the same, pro-style attack of the 1980s. The foundation is a two-back set that features shifts, men in motion and a host of formations. The offense is geared toward a balance between running and passing. The quarterback must master dropbacks of three, five and seven steps and work equally hard on short, medium-range and long throws. Friedgen places a premium on decision-making, such as reading defenses accurately before the snap or making the correct throw in the face of a blitz after it. He allows his quarterbacks to call their own plays.
"If you are a good high school quarterback and you have visions of playing in the NFL, you'd like to be in an offensive system that's going to prepare you for that. Ours comes from the pro offense," said Friedgen, under whose tutelage Joe Hamilton and Shawn Jones thrived at Georgia Tech.