Maryland’s season opener against Miami on Labor Day night included all the trappings of a big-game atmosphere, as a raucous crowd of 52,875, the seventh largest in Byrd Stadium history, turned out to see bold uniforms, an up-tempo offense and the start of a new era.
But one of the challenges that first-year Terrapins Coach Randy Edsall faces — attracting and maintaining fan interest — likely will be evident on Saturday, when Maryland hosts Boston College. Regardless of who is coaching, the age-old question in College Park is whether fans will show up when the matchup lacks sizzle and when the Terrapins are in the midst of a sub-par season.
Maryland (2-5, 1-3 ACC) and Boston College (1-6, 0-4) have combined to defeat just one Football Bowl Subdivision team — the Miami team that was without eight key players because of suspensions. Expecting fans to shell out money for tickets in a sluggish economy remains a nationwide issue. And the weather forecast for Saturday’s game could not be more ominous: cold rain with the possibility of snow.
Said Tim Downs, Maryland’s fifth-year long snapper, who attended high school near Pittsburgh: “I think Maryland fans can be like the Pittsburgh Pirates’ fans. When they win, they are your best friend. When they lose, there is nobody there.”
Downs made clear that when he looks up in the stands during pregame warmups Saturday, he expects to see a nearly filled stadium because attendance in five home games has been “phenomenal.”
The 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium has been almost 89 percent full this season, compared with 76 percent during the resurgent 2010 season. After school officials watched season ticket sales decline during the final years of Ralph Friedgen’s 10-year tenure, they saw a modest improvement for Edsall’s first season.
The Terrapins have also been aided by an attractive home schedule that included a national brand in Miami, a longtime regional rival in West Virginia and undefeated Clemson. The Miami and West Virginia games drew two of the eight largest crowds in stadium history.
Edsall said he has been pleased with this season’s attendance. When asked why fans should show up Saturday given the team’s record, he pointed to Maryland’s offense, which has at times been exciting if not always effective; a defense that has scored touchdowns; and what he called a consistent high level of effort by players.
“These kids are going out there and are giving everything that they can for Maryland and for the people in the state of Maryland,” Edsall said. “That is the thing that I think they should be rewarded by people coming and watching them play.”
On Saturday, when temperatures are expected to plummet into the 30s, Maryland officials will be able to take the temperature of its fan base.
“A Clemson fan on one of the message boards I think had it right when he said the reason Maryland won’t ever sustain a long-term top 25 program is because the local fan base throws in the towel way too soon and starts bashing the program at the drop of a hat,” Erik Greenstein, who played center for the Terrapins in the mid-1990s, said of Maryland’s fans. “We’re too quick to thumb our noses when we should do our best to support the program through both the good and the bad.”
This week, e-mail correspondence with more than 50 Maryland fans and season ticket holders revealed a more nuanced picture of the fan base than what can be gleaned from the usual message-board banter. The majority of fans reached through e-mail expressed concern and a lack of enthusiasm about the direction of the program. But a minority conveyed a wait-and-see attitude about Edsall and praised him for instilling discipline.
Matt Mandel, a Gaithersburg resident and 1999 Maryland graduate, believes Edsall will win at Maryland, although Mandel has been frustrated with Edsall’s one-voice policy and his refusal to disclose the nature of injuries.
“Although these are all little things, it adds up, and when you aren’t winning, it’s annoying and looks petty,” Mandel said. “Ultimately, I think he can turn Maryland into a consistently competitive and credible team that will go to bowl games and periodically compete for conference titles and steers clear of NCAA violations. That should be enough for Maryland fans. It is for me.”
Vincent Piperni, a 1999 Maryland graduate and Alexandria resident, is unhappy with the current state of affairs but has no plans to drop his 10-year membership in the Maryland Gridiron Network, the main booster club for Maryland football. He vividly recalls the emotion he felt on a cold afternoon last December, nearly losing his voice chanting, “Thank you, Ralph!” from his seats at RFK Stadium after the Terrapins sent Friedgen off with a victory in the Military Bowl. But he also remembers boiling over during this season’s disheartening 38-7 home loss to Temple on Sept. 24.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Major League 2’?” Piperni said. “I snapped like the fan in the outfield did during that movie and just started heckling all over the place. I started asking Randy what uniforms we were wearing next week. People three or four sections over turned their heads. Simply put, I see Edsall as another [Mark] Duffner/[Ron] Vanderlinden-type coach,” a reference to Maryland head coaches who combined for a 35-64 record between 1992 and 2000.
Neal Topf, who was raised in College Park on a steady diet of Lefty Driesell-coached men’s basketball teams and now lives in Weston, Fla., calls himself a “proponent of discipline and order, but those concepts have not translated into wins,” he said. “I would much rather have less discipline, a winning record, more luxury suites sold, and chances at going to a good bowl game. And these preferences are much stronger than whether players are wearing do-rags or earrings.”
There remains a simple solution to most issues:
“We’ve got to win,” Terrapins quarterback C.J. Brown said. “No one wants to go to [see] a team that is losing. It’s hard to support that team. . . . We have to show up and give the fans what they want to see, and that’s a win and a great game. But we definitely need their support out there.”