Terps' fans, team savor sweetness

Scene: Maryland is a 15-point underdog and all but ignored by the Miami news media, but players and alumni are relishing the school's first major bowl appearance in 25 years.

Orange Bowl

MARYLAND vs. FLORIDA

January 02, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - Growing up in Frederick, Randall Jones solemnly observed the changing of the calendar. Before meeting friends, he would attend midnight service at First Missionary Baptist Church with his family.

Jones had another quiet New Year's Eve on Monday, but an 11 p.m. curfew at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort was one of the reasons he'll never forget the arrival of 2002. The senior free safety is one of the 98 players from the University of Maryland and more than 20,000 of their fans who followed coach Ralph Friedgen on a most remarkable journey, out of the college football wilderness and into the 68th Orange Bowl.

"Every football player who goes to college expects to get to a bowl," Jones said. "When you don't, it's a hollow experience. The fact that we haven't done this before makes it all the sweeter."

When the Terps meet the University of Florida at 8 tonight in a nationally televised game before a sellout crowd of about 76,000 at Pro Player Stadium, it will be the first bowl appearance for Maryland since 1990 and its first at one of the major bowls in 25 years.

Fifth-ranked Florida was the Associated Press' preseason choice to win the national championship. None of the AP's 72 writers and broadcasters mentioned No. 6 Maryland among their initial Top 25, and why would they? Only once in the previous 10 seasons had the Terps won more games than they lost, and a 6-5 record in 1995 did not merit a bowl.

Friedgen, the consensus national Coach of the Year, guided Maryland to a 10-1 record and the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in his first season as head coach at his alma mater, but oddsmakers have made Maryland a 15-point underdog and the Miami news media have turned up their noses at the Terps.

In South Florida, UM means the University of Miami, which will play for the national championship tomorrow in the Rose Bowl. For the past three days, The Miami Herald's Bowls Extra sports section did not have a Maryland story on its front page, but the Terps fed on being underestimated in the ACC, where they were picked to finish seventh, and their fans are giddily soaking up the bowl scene nonetheless.

When Maryland's basketball team reached the Final Four for the first time in March, its reward was a trip to the frozen north country of Minnesota. In Miami, New Year's Eve was chilled by rain, but it beat Baltimore - or Shreveport, La. That's where Maryland played its last bowl, in 1990, when the Terps and fewer than 900 fans went to the Independence Bowl. Bernie Walter, Class of '63, was among the unlucky.

"My expectation of a bowl game was that it would be exciting, and that wasn't the case," said Walter, an Arundel High School teacher and coach who has built the state's best high school baseball program. "Shreveport's a farming community. I paid to change my airline reservation and get out of town early. I went to every Terrapin Club party there. There isn't enough time to go to all the functions here."

Maryland players strayed no farther than their balconies overlooking the Atlantic on Monday night, but their fans found hundreds of ways to welcome in the new year.

They could pay $150 for cocktails, filet mignon, shrimp and champagne at the Terrapin Club's New Year's Eve party at the Loews Miami Beach; watch the Adult Duo Act Maiden America and their Osama bin Laden-themed performance at Tootsie's Cabaret in North Miami; or sit in the rain on Biscayne Boulevard and cheer the University of Maryland Marching Band as it got soaked in the Orange Bowl Parade.

Kathy Swingle, a resource teacher with the Howard County schools, played euphonium with the Maryland band at three bowls before she got her degree in 1980. Now, she's one of the band's six Cannoneers, the men and women who ignite the cannon at Byrd Stadium when the Terps score.

"They told us we couldn't bring the cannon," said Bruce Robins, who joined the Cannoneers after retiring from the College Park campus police last year. "We're going to yell boom when something good happens at the game."

Swingle, Robins and fellow Cannoneer Twink Starr dried out from the rain yesterday morning in chic South Beach, where Maryland fans seemingly outnumbered Florida's 10-1. Former Congressman Tom McMillen, a Terps basketball All-American in the early 1970s, chatted with fellow alums outside the News Cafe, a 24-hour landmark. Ocean Drive, closed to vehicular traffic, was flooded with in-line skaters, bicyclists and folks in red checking out palm trees and art deco architecture.

Temperatures returned to the 70s yesterday. The scene was reminiscent of the boardwalk in Ocean City, except that everything from rooms to T-shirts to beer is more expensive.

Price tags were not an issue for Maryland players, who were given new sweat suits, shirts, hats, a per diem and an invitation to fun. Aaron Thompson, a senior linebacker out of Mount St. Joseph High, didn't go parasailing Saturday at the official "Team Beach Party" at the 21st Street Park, but he did enjoy his own personal watercraft.

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