Terps' next trick: Stay good

Outlook: Maryland is on guard to make sure it doesn't join the list of schools that fell hard after suddenly winning big.

August 30, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - When Maryland football players E.J. Henderson and Todd Wike went to North Carolina last month to meet with writers who report on the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the issues they kept addressing was the program's ability to build on the success they enjoyed last year.

The question: Was the 10-2 season of 2001 - complete with an ACC title and an Orange Bowl trip - indicative of better things to come, or were the Terrapins simply a flash in the pan, ready to head back into the oblivion of the previous decade?

"Everything you hear is people saying we're a one-year wonder," Wike said at the time. "So we're out to prove some people wrong."

One man's motivation is another man's reality check. Maryland isn't the first school to win big after being a doormat. Some, such as Wisconsin, use the experience as a springboard to bigger things - spurred by better facilities, better recruits and good fortune. Others, like Georgia Tech in the early 1990s, sink back among the sad-sack programs, hamstrung by the loss of a coach or the inability to build on the momentum of a great season.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen is familiar with the latter, having been at Georgia Tech when it went from a 3-8 record in 1988 to an 11-0-1 mark and a co-national championship under Bobby Ross two years later. The Yellow Jackets' prospects of repeating in the ACC, if nothing else, seemed bright with most starters coming back for 1991. But the focus was missing.

"Our problem was that [All-America quarterback] Shawn Jones got hooked up with [basketball stars] Kenny Anderson and Dennis Scott," said Friedgen, the team's offensive coordinator at the time. "He played basketball all summer and didn't throw at all. With some of the other guys, the `I' got involved. `How come I'm not getting so many carries?' We weren't as successful."

The next season, Ross and his staff were gone to the NFL, and Georgia Tech did not resurface as a Top 25 regular until George O'Leary's fifth season in 1998.

Barry Alvarez had a similar experience in 1993 when he coached Wisconsin to an 11-1 season and the school's first Rose Bowl in 31 years. The good news was Alvarez was used to winning seasons as a Notre Dame assistant. The bad news was his players weren't as prepared to follow up their dream season.

The nation's leading rusher from the year before, Brent Moss, was suspended midway through that season when he was arrested on a charge of cocaine possession and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, the most notable of several scrapes with the law involving Wisconsin players.

"The difficult part when you win big for the first time is teaching the kids how to deal with success," said Alvarez, who stressed that after his team had another big year in 1998. "With our kids, I took some things for granted. Our kids were treated differently. They took some things for granted and cut a few corners off the field."

Assuming the Terps stay focused, their ability to repeat or at least remain respectable depends on factors such as growth, talent, health, attitude and coaching.

On both sides of the ball, the Terrapins are developing. They are becoming more comfortable with the system of offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe and the defensive scheme chiefly engineered by Gary Blackney.

With players such as starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth, the team has more young talent, with several first-year players expected to make key contributions this season. The veterans such as Henderson and Wike - there are 16 players who started in the Orange Bowl - are more seasoned and confident than those from last year. And the players feel the spring and summer practices were as good as, if not better than, those of last year.

"It's more of a confident feeling - we know what we can do now," said inside linebacker Leon Joe. "We have the same work ethic, still working hard, and we still focus on the things we have to do."

At the same time, it was easy to wonder about Maryland soon after the team returned from Miami. Friedgen's dalliance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching job, however brief, didn't strike much of a blow for program stability. Nor did the loss of four reserves and starting linebacker Mike Whaley, all suspended for academic reasons.

Worse yet, a cloud of injuries has hung over this team during the offseason. Henderson's back needed surgery, and tailback Bruce Perry's abdominal injury from last season was slow to heal. Both sat out spring practice, which ended with quarterback Chris Kelley suffering his third knee injury in as many years.

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