Randy Edsall’s first season fractured Maryland football; can he repair it?
By Eric Prisbell,
Maryland football coach Randy Edsall knows he has a problem, and it’s much more extensive than the 2-10 record the Terrapins finished with in Edsall’s first season in College Park.
As Maryland struggled on the field, the school’s football community fractured off it. Eight players have left the program for various reasons since the season ended, making the total 20 since Edsall was named coach in January. Some parents grumbled about what was lost in the transition from former coach Ralph Friedgen’s regime. As Edsall was assailed in the media, fans lamented his hiring.
Edsall’s detractors, who grew more vocal as the season spiraled, painted him as an arrogant and out-of-touch authoritarian more interested in making himself the face of the program than in putting the players he inherited in positions to succeed.
All of which, according to Edsall, couldn’t be further from the truth.
“The perception of who Randy Edsall is is not who I am,” Edsall said. “It is not who I am.”
One year ago, Edsall was preparing his Big East champion Connecticut team for an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. This week, he conducted a three-hour interview during which he expressed regrets over his handling of some specific events and pledged to be more transparent in an attempt to rewrite the public narrative.
Edsall and the school know they won’t have another chance to win a football game for nine months, but they must begin to win back the hearts and minds of their fan base now.
The letter, which called the second 10-loss season in school history “unacceptable,” appeared to be an acknowledgment of the discontent within the fan base and seemed to be an attempt at intiating a fresh start for Edsall with Maryland supporters.
The aftermath illustrated what Edsall and Anderson are facing: After many negative comments were posted — and subsequently deleted — on the Facebook page, the letter was taken down shortly after it was posted.
Problems beneath veneer
Edsall inherited a team that finished 9-4 in 2010 and returned the ACC rookie of the year, quarterback Danny O’Brien.
But a 38-7 home loss to Temple in the third game was an early indication that such success might be difficult to replicate.
Whether Edsall did more to mitigate or exacerbate Maryland’s transitional struggles is open to debate, but some problems lurked beneath the surface. More than a dozen individuals in and around the program helped shed new light on a troubled locker room. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some Maryland starters were in perilous academic situations when Edsall arrived, and despite the team making significant progress under Edsall, academics continued to be an issue for some important players throughout the season. At one point, a prominent player was caught lying about missing an important academic assignment.
In addition, multiple players were disciplined for failing drug tests, including at least one who failed multiple tests. And multiple players cursed out Edsall to his face in the Gossett Team House in separate incidents: one when Edsall met a player about academics and another when Edsall urged a player to eat in the team house.
One well-respected player’s father privately said that several upperclassmen had a sense of “entitlement” and “inflated egos.” And one person within the program said football became a “chore” under Edsall. By the time Maryland played Towson on Oct. 1, the locker room was fractured.
Leadership was another issue. Defensive lineman Joe Vellano, who earned second-team all-American honors this season, was the team’s most consistent performer.
But its vocal leader was senior offensive lineman Andrew Gonnella. When Gonnella suffered a season-ending knee injury Oct. 8, a listing ship lost its rudder.
Toward the end of this season, some players on their Twitter accounts referred to the Gossett Team House as “GSP,” a reference to Gossett State Penitentiary. Edsall said he was aware of the reference but said some players told him players had been using the “penitentiary” reference before he became the coach.
Announced player suspensions for unspecified rule violations combined to put Edsall’s strait-laced approach at the forefront of discussions about the program. What some viewed as refreshing discipline, others saw as old-fashioned naivete. As the losses mounted, the issue helped to make Edsall a polarizing figure.
Philosophy or code?
At a time when a new college sports scandal emerges almost every week, Edsall shakes his head over being criticized for instilling too much discipline. He said he has two rules — be on time, and do what’s right.
The coach said his goal is to prepare his players to live as responsible adults. Few would quibble with such a mission, but some of Edsall’s specific guidelines have raised eyebrows.
Edsall does not permit team members to wear hats or earrings in the football building. Players are not permitted to wear earphones while lifting weights in the team weight room.
“We make sure everyone is dressed the same, so we are not individuals,” he said. “The same thing when we go on the practice field. All we did was bring some uniformity to practice, just like every other team in the country.”
Regarding earphones in the weight room, Edsall said there are safety concerns and added that “it’s not Gold’s Gym” and that music plays in the weight room.
Edsall indicated his overarching philosophy on building men with good character has been wildly misinterpreted as a set of draconian rules.
Told that one parent said players were allowed to enter the team house only through certain doors, Edsall said: “All I know is that there are eight doors. If you come in at a time when it’s not unlocked, you’ve got to come in where you punch the keypad to come in. I’ll tell you what: There are some guys who come in through the gate up top and come down and walk through.
“This is unbelievable.”
Told that another parent said that Edsall told players that, if all things were equal ability-wise between two players, he would favor a player without dreadlocks over another who had them, Edsall looked toward the ceiling and laughed loudly.
“Holy geez, that’s unbelievable,” he said. “My job is to put the best guy on the field regardless. Okay. Because if I would do that, then I would be cheating these kids. And that’s one thing: I am not going to cheat. The best guy plays regardless of freshman, sophomore, junior or senior; they are from Maryland or Pennsylvania or Virginia; tattoos, no tattoos, all those things. It’s amazing, because I don’t remember any parent ever sitting in any team meeting.”
Speaking more broadly on the topic, Edsall said he emphasizes the need to stay “neatly groomed” but that he has no problems with dreadlocks.
“My only thing is that I just try to coach them on their appearance and how their appearance can affect how people think about them,” Edsall said. “Troy Vincent [a former NFL player whom Edsall invited to speak to the Terrapins in the spring] told them the same thing when he came here. You get back to perception. A lot of times somebody comes in for a job interview, the guy with the dreads and the guy that doesn’t have them, the guy that doesn’t have them might get the job because he doesn’t have them.”
Regarding Vincent, Edsall added: “He talked to our team about that and told them the NFL people don’t like to see those things. Employers don’t like to see those things. They don’t like to see all the people tatted up. They don’t like to see the people with the dreads.”
Coach as caretaker
Over the past month, parents of eight Maryland players, including several prominent starters, have approached The Washington Post with concerns about Edsall. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions for their sons. None of their sons is among those who have been suspended this season, and all but two of the parents are expected to have sons on next season’s football team.
Altoviese Hogan, the mother of wide receiver Adrian Coxson, was planning to speak with Anderson about Edsall’s communication style before her son decided to transfer Wednesday. Hogan said her thoughts did not necessarily represent those of her son.
“I feel as though he [Edsall] does not know how to speak to the players . . .” said Hogan, who added that she did not speak to other parents about her concerns. “They are not a family like they were last year, and that’s not fair to the players. . . . I don’t like the way he talks to them. What he is doing is just not acceptable. Just because they are young adults does not mean they are always wrong. I sent my child off to college. I expect Edsall and the staff to treat my child like their own.”
Hogan’s comments echoed those of some other parents, who described Edsall as a heavy-handed coach who destroyed the team’s family atmosphere and sapped some players of their enthusiasm for the game.
One father said his son now hates football. The parent of one starter in November gave The Post a 1,600-word letter outlining specific concerns with Edsall, who acknowledges that he is blunt and at times brutally honest with players about their development and reasons for playing time.
Edsall said this week’s interview was the first time he had heard of any such complaints from parents.
“Why they would go to you? I don’t have any idea,” Edsall said. “I think that anybody that knows Randy Edsall, who has been around Randy Edsall, who has played for Randy Edsall knows that all he is going to do is work to develop these young men so they can be successful when they leave in four or five years. And while they are here, Randy Edsall is going to do everything he can to make them better in the classroom, better on the field and better as people.”
Edsall said when he talks with parents of recruits, he tells them that he will always be available to talk about their son’s progress socially or academically. But he also makes clear he will not discuss playing time with parents because “their son knows why they are or are not playing.”
Similarly, Edsall said he encourages players to advocate for themselves.
As an example he cited a recent incident in which a player’s father called to ask whether the player, who was injured, could temporarily leave the team for an early Thanksgiving gathering. Edsall granted permission with one requirement: The player himself needed to ask for it.
“These kids are now 18- to 22-year-olds and they have to learn how to address people and talk to people and ask for things,” Edsall said. “. . . This is not Little League or Pee Wee where everybody gets to play and everybody gets a trophy. This is real life.”
Edsall said he regrets never gathering parents to inform them collectively of the program’s new expectations.
“I wish that I would have found a way, should have found a way to get all those parents together some way, some how and really explain everything in terms of everything we do here and how this program is set up to help them,” Edsall said. “Technically, we become the parents away from home.”
Edsall also acknowledged some mistakes in his handling of the media in his first season at Maryland. He said the local media market is unlike any he has experienced.
“There was not anything I was doing to try to alienate the media, the fans or anybody,” Edsall said. “Maybe one regret that I have is being too honest . . . People might have thought I was criticizing other people, and I could have taken more of the burden. But I think I am too honest to a fault.”
Edsall said he expects to feel more comfortable with the media his second year. After prohibiting assistant coaches from speaking to members of the media after the team’s August media day, he said next season coordinators will speak to reporters each Wednesday.
He also promised to spend a large chunk of his offseason meeting face-to-face with fans, civic groups and media organizations. He said he would visit with the editors of local newspapers.
He has designs on improving internal relations, as well. He plans to ask players to draft teams among themselves and will award points to each team for various accomplishments, including academics. To improve camaraderie, Edsall plans to have players interview one another each week.
“In your first year, you’re going through it and you see the landscape that you are in, you get a feel for the surroundings,” Edsall said. “And then after your first year you tweak things, and you do things a little bit differently. And there are going to be some things that we are going to do differently.”
At the end of this week’s interview, Edsall stood and looked out the window of an office that overlooks a football field. Darkness had fallen. An offseason of selling a program and repairing a public image loomed. His resolve remained unshaken.
“I’ve gotten more letters from high school coaches saying, ‘Randy, we love what you are doing. We love the things you are doing,’” Edsall said. “‘Weather the storm.’”
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