There’s a very funny Sesame Street bit made years ago in which Grover (the skinny blue monster for those of you without kids) re-enacts Hitchcock’s,“The 39 Steps.” Very slowly and carefully he makes his way up 39 steps, explaining as he goes just how exciting it is going to be when he has climbed them all.
“And now,” he says breathlessly as he reaches the top, “we have climbed the 39 steps and we see here the very amazing . . .” He looks in front of him, looks at the camera in disgust and says, “a brick wall? I climbed these 39 steps and all that’s here is a brick wall? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
After spending two weeks getting through the embarrassing way Ralph Friedgen was kicked to the curb, Maryland football fans braced themselves for his replacement to be named and were greeted by . . . Randy Edsall.
No one is saying Edsall can’t coach. Clearly he can. As Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said in his introductory remarks, Edsall took what was a division I-AA program and built a solid, consistent winner at Connecticut. He graduated a majority of his players and he took U-Conn. to a BCS game (where it got blown out) this season.
Edsall is a solid, safe hire someone who should be successful, given the good players Maryland has.
But is his resume much different than Friedgen’s? Edsall is just about everything Friedgen was except for being 11 years younger and considerably trimmer. He’s not going to sell tickets with his personality no matter how many Terrapin Clubs across the state he speaks to, and he probably has a lot of players wondering what Life After Fridge is going to be like after he ordered them to take off their caps and do-rags in their first meeting Sunday night.
Maybe Anderson got confused and thought he was back at Army when he hired Edsall. There is no do-rag issue there.
When Anderson pulled the plug on Friedgen, he called it a business decision. The unspoken premise was Friedgen had maxed out at his alma mater: that 9-4 and a trip to the frigid Military Bowl to play a stunningly mediocre East Carolina team was about as good as it was going to get and ticket sales likely would continue to lag as long as Friedgen was the coach.
That’s why Mike Leach seemed like a logical successor. In the business of sports, no one cares if you’ve stuck a player in a shed or if you’ve broken promises or if you’ve cheated (which Leach was never accused of doing). They care if you win and if your games feel like a place where people want to be.
Leach did that at Texas Tech. He won more often than Friedgen (84-43 to 75-50) in a tougher league over the same period of time. He had a team ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, and he cranked out outrageous passing statistics with a rotation of quarterbacks. Sure, there would have been some clucking and head shaking about Leach, but it would have gone away just as soon as Maryland dropped 50 points on West Virginia or in the ACC opener.
As another coach who got himself into trouble with his mouth and his actions on a few occasions once said: “I know as long as I win people will think me eccentric. If I ever start to lose, they’ll say I’m an embarrassment.”
Bob Knight had that right 25 years ago. If Leach had come in and won, he would have been eccentric, the wacky guy with the affinity for pirates who had a law degree and a genius for offense.
But when it came time to pull that trigger, Anderson wasn’t willing to take the risk. What if Leach came in and was no better on the field than Friedgen and stuck his foot in his mouth off it? What if his ego couldn’t handle the notion Gary Williams will always be the star in College Park?
Edsall became the safe hire. He has an established track record, and he isn’t going to refer to his players’ “fat little girlfriends” anytime soon, although he may make them take off their caps at a team picnic. He’s also coming in at a very good time for a new coach: Maryland has a lot of good players, including an excellent quarterback, coming back next season. The ACC isn’t very good, as was proven again Wednesday night when champion Virginia Tech was embarrassed in the Orange Bowl by Stanford.
During his seemingly endless recounting of Edsall’s qualifications, Anderson talked about how attendance jumped at Connecticut during his tenure, which it certainly did. U-Conn. also built a new stadium twice the size of its old one and poured huge money into moving the football program up to division I-A. And Edsall did a very good coaching job.
The Huskies also play in a state with no professional teams on the major league level. U-Conn. athletics — men’s and women’s basketball and, to a lesser degree, football — are the state’s professional franchise.
That’s much different from Maryland. If Anderson and Edsall and the powers-that-be in College Park expect full stadiums in this area, they’re going to have to do better than 8-5, Edsall’s record this past year, his signature season, at U-Conn.
Maryland fans can only hope that however this journey goes, the destination is more satisfying than the first steps have been.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com