Ishowed up at the Randy Edsall “Be a Better American” seminar Tuesday and — miracle of miracles — a college football media day broke out.
After so many dispatches about controlled environments and limited access to student-athletes, I was surprised to find real, live players who were not programmed just to say what the new head football coach at Maryland told them to say.
Except for their matching red polo pullovers and the absence of bling in their ears and around their necks, individual expression was not frowned upon.
Like Dennis Rodman, one Terrapin had even dyed his closely cropped ’fro blonde for training camp. Two others were permitted to wear dreadlocks, including already graduated wide receiver Tony Logan.
“Well, I had to keep it nice and neat and make sure I shampoo them,” Logan said, smiling.
His and other players’ diamond-stud earrings were eventually removed the past few months, when Edsall kept shooting them these quizzical looks, pinching his ear with his thumb and forefinger to remind them not to break a team rule and wear jewelry while representing Maryland athletics.
“He would actually pluck my ear sometimes,” Logan said of Edsall, who, okay, has a little of that nun-smacking-you-with-a-ruler countenance about him.
But what do you want? Mike Leach? No. You didn’t want him.
He would have been trouble.
Ralph Friedgen? That wasn’t happening. The moment the new sheriff in town, Kevin Anderson, balked at extending Friedgen, who understandably didn’t want to be a lame duck after 11 years at his alma mater, the Fridge era was committed to memory.
What Maryland got in these uncertain times is a by-the-book guy who says he has not taken a swig of alcohol during a football season the past 17 years.
“I like beer and wine, but I just feel if I’m asking my players to not drink during the season, I shouldn’t drink either,” Edsall said, sitting in a film room at the Gossett Field House on campus Tuesday. “Yeah, I told them that. Is it going to happen? Probably not. But I’m telling them.”
What Maryland got is a Tom Coughlin protégé, who played for the New York Giants’ coach at Syracuse and later coached on two of his staffs.
Edsall comes from the One Voice coaching tree of Coughlin, Bill Parcells, Bill Snyder, Ron Prince and anyone else who might take the names off the back of players’ jerseys to drive home the unity theme, as Edsall is doing this season with Maryland (with very mixed reviews from boosters).
A.J. Francis, Maryland’s junior defensive lineman, summed up the new era in College Park best: “Coach Friedgen would ask you to do everything on the field and in the classroom. Coach Edsall asks you to do everything on the field, in the classroom . . . and in the dorm, on Route 1, at the [Student Union], when you go home . . . a lot more structure, more regimented.”
What Maryland got is a man who has slept the last nine nights on a blow-up, rubber mattress in a 12 x 12 windowless basement in Gossett he calls his locker room. His assistants have sworn off the creature comforts of their own homes, including the four he shows you that have mattresses on the other side of their desks in their offices during a tour of the facility.
“If I’m going to make my players sleep at a dorm during [training camp], we need to show them the coaches are willing to make the same sacrifice,” he said.
Part of you wants to tell Edsall he can’t turn College Park into Pleasantville, that Danny O’Brien, his sophomore quarterback, is not Tobey Maguire. Part of you wants to tell him, for all the nice talk of academics first, that he was hired to win football games and pour money into Maryland’s bare coffers, that every game should be played for wrestling or tennis or competitive cheerleading or whatever sport the Terrapin athletic department needs to cut.
But that’s hard, because Edsall has won with the same formula everywhere he’s been. He genuinely believes his job is to make better people before better players.
Edsall estimates between a dozen and 15 players were on the academic fault line when he took over. Tuesday, he said, one kid is ineligible and the rest make up the highest football team grade-point average for a semester in the past 71 / 2 years at Maryland.
“First is God or your faith,” he says of his football team principles written in red felt in the room he sleeps in. “Second is family. Third are academics. Fourth is football. And fifth is social.”
Edsall has made some tactful calls since his hiring, including stepping away from the year-end team banquet. That was Ralph’s night, his final farewell to his players.
“When I went to Connecticut from Georgia Tech I was in a similar situation,” Edsall said. “Skip Holtz had left for South Carolina and he didn’t come back for the banquet. It was an awkward thing. If something like that ever came up again, I always said that would be a night for the previous coach. This was Ralph’s team. I knew that. I wasn’t going to go. I didn’t think it would be right.”
Asked whether he regretted leaving his Connecticut players like he did, after their Fiesta Bowl loss to take a flight to College Park and take the job instead — the Huskies found out over the plane’s loudspeaker that he wasn’t their coach anymore — Edsall paused and thought.
“Is it a regret?” he said. “A regret isn’t the right word. I was disappointed I couldn’t see them and tell them face-to-face. Deep down in my heart, I wanted to. But given situations in life, there’s only certain things you can do.”
If transforming U-Conn. — Edsall’s former school — into a BCS school was a chore, this is clearly his toughest challenge. Edsall not only has to win over the remaining Ralph martyrs, he has to win over the unrealistic boosters and alumni who view the Terps as just a couple recruits away from petitioning for their own SEC realignment.
From the moment he stepped on campus in College Park, Edsall has been unfairly judged as the guy he’s not — the It Coaches Who Were Courted Before Him and the Former Coach Whose Departure Was Messy, at the least.
Before he is truly judged, though, let Randy Edsall be himself first.