The dismay being expressed by the University of Maryland football supporters over what very likely will be a losing season for the Terrapins is stunning in its lack of perspective, and evidence that the college football community is more disconnected from reality than followers of any other major sport.
Three years straight, Ralph Friedgen coached Maryland to 10-win seasons, and instead of being grateful for one of the best runs of football success in the school's history, many fans figured the team would win 10 games and go to a New Year's Day bowl every year, a sentiment shared elsewhere by fans who regrettably try to judge their school's place without looking at the entire landscape of the sport.
Maryland isn't going to win 10 games every year, or nine every year. It's a nice goal, but it's virtually unachievable. It's not going to happen at Virginia either, and this isn't an indictment of Friedgen or Al Groh, two of the best coaches not just in the region but in all of college football. It's a realization that most fans, and some university presidents and athletic directors, are slow coming to: College football isn't going to be dominated by just a handful of schools anymore. Ten-win seasons aren't guaranteed to anybody -- not Notre Dame, not Nebraska, not Michigan, not Southern Cal, not Oklahoma, not Ohio State.
Perhaps it's wise to make an exception for the Florida schools -- Miami, Florida State and Florida -- because they sit on the most fertile recruiting ground in the sport's history. But that said, things can go wrong: Florida's Ron Zook could easily find himself out of a job at the end of the season. Who knows what kind of transition Florida State will make when Bobby Bowden retires.
Anybody else who thinks a certain program will live in the top 10 and go 10-1 or 10-2 every year is delusional, and that applies even to college football royalty.
Notre Dame, the school a certain TV sports-talk co-host likes to call "the University of Football in America," has won 10 games only once since 1997, and that was two years ago. In the same time frame that Notre Dame has had one 10-win season it has had three losing seasons. This is a school that has virtually every game on TV -- not cable, but network.
This isn't a criticism of Tyrone Willingham, the current Irish coach, or Bob Davie who preceded him in South Bend. It's a new world order in college football that doesn't allow for any exceptions. Nebraska fired its coach, Frank Solich, after a 9-3 season, feeling the school should do better. So, after being turned down by a couple of candidates who could see the expectations they would have been facing, Nebraska hired a coach who installed a shiny new offense -- and promptly lost, 70-10, to Texas Tech on Oct. 9.
Football boosters, those who support programs with financial contributions and jet to games on private planes on football Saturdays, hold way too much sway on many campuses -- more than athletic directors and even school presidents. These boosters are too oblivious to anything going on outside their own schools to be aware of the decentralization of college football.
Maryland is struggling, just like Ohio State is struggling, just like Penn State and the once great Joe Paterno are struggling, just like Alabama is struggling. Being a big school with resources and some history of football success guarantees you nothing anymore. North Carolina hasn't been any good in years. Clemson, which won a national championship in 1981 and was at or near the top of the ACC for 15 years, has won one game this season and is every bit as desperate as Maryland, its opponent today.
Two years after winning a national championship, Ohio State is 3-3 with three straight losses, one on national TV to Northwestern, which is also 3-3. Penn State, bless Paterno's heart, looks like it could crater. Remember when Washington, U-Dub, was a powerhouse? The Huskies lost to Boise State a few weeks ago, and while that's enough to send Nebraska's boosters into depression, the fact is Boise State is as good as just about anybody in Division I-A. And if the Boise States and Fresno States ever received the television dollars and exposure the big boys enjoy, the old guard would be in even more trouble -- which is why the inequitable Bowl Championship Series was created in the first place, to keep the littles in their place.
Southern Cal looks great now, but why do you think Pete Carroll got this gig in the first place? Because the Trojans had lost at least five games for five straight seasons under John Robinson and Paul Hackett. Oklahoma, post-Barry Switzer, had gone five years without a winning season before Bob Stoops got there. But before you suggest that Stoops is going to keep OU in 10-win land forever, remember the same thing was said two years ago about Ohio State's Jim Tressel, who despite winning the 2002 national championship, hasn't dominated his region in recruiting.
Kids aren't going to sit on the bench anymore just to say, "I went to Penn State" when the Nittany Lions aren't on TV any more frequently than, say, Louisville. You can be on TV, get playing time, and have a good shot at making the NFL from just about anywhere because so many of these schools have good coaches and talented players with whom to compete. The people who don't understand that nobody is going to dominate the rankings, the TV appearances and the recruiting anymore are as naive about their sport as the folks who keep thinking American basketball players are more skilled than players elsewhere in the world.
Maryland, as glorious as its three-year run was, is in the same dogfight as every other Division I-A program, a competition that gets better as it becomes more inclusive.