By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 11:59 PM
As many Maryland fans warm to the idea of Randy Edsall coaching the school's football team, scores of prominent donors continue to raise questions and concerns about the search process that led to the former Connecticut coach replacing Ralph Friedgen.
Telephone and e-mail conversations with nearly 100 Maryland donors this week helped paint a picture of a fan base that largely has taken issue with the leadership demonstrated by first-year Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, who shook up the football program and rankled fans three months into the job by firing Friedgen, the reigning ACC coach of the year, and making an unpopular head coaching hire.
No one contacted guaranteed they would cancel season ticket packages or halt donations, though some noted they would offer their money to the athletic department grudgingly for the time being. Almost all agreed on the importance now to embrace the new head coach. And many offered perspectives on an athletic director who, while interacting often with the fan base, keeps an inner circle that may include just two other school officials.
"The athletic director, while his intentions may have been good, I think handled it very poorly," John Llewellyn, a former president of the Terrapin Club, said of Anderson's performance the past month. "I think the university suffered because of it, its reputation and its competence. Not that Maryland can't recover from it; I hope Coach Edsall turns out to be a good hire. But I'm disappointed in the university."
Different versions of the decision to hire Edsall over former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach - the popular yet controversial finalist who also interviewed on campus - emerged after speaking with dozens of well-connected people inside and outside Maryland's athletic department. Some say Edsall had the inside track from the beginning despite media reports touting Leach. Others say opposition to Leach mounted after he interviewed on campus Dec. 30, the same day his wife, Sharon Leach, spent six hours with a real estate agent, at Maryland's urging, looking at houses around the area.
Separate from The Post's survey of nearly 100 donors, additional individuals close to the athletic department said high-ranking university officials had reservations about Leach because of his past: He was fired from Texas Tech in December 2009 for alleged mistreatment of a player, and Leach has lawsuits pending against ESPN and Texas Tech. One person familiar with the search said the school viewed the coaching job as the same as a faculty position at a research university and that Leach did not fit that profile. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to disclose their knowledge of the search.
Some say William "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, influenced the decision; others say Anderson made it on his own. In a telephone interview, Kirwan denied involvement. During Monday's news conference to introduce Edsall, Anderson made a point in his opening remarks - before being asked a question - of saying Kirwan was not involved in the decision.
Anderson said he had a "wonderful" discussion with Leach during the interview process but that Edsall was the best candidate - and that the final decision was Anderson's.
When asked about conflicting stories on why Leach fell out of contention, Anderson did not provide any clarity but offered the following observation: "The story conflicts from whomever you talk to about it. It's his story, her story, and somewhere in there is the truth. You hear whatever everyone says and there are a lot of conflicts."
The NCAA on Friday placed Texas Tech on two years probation following an investigation that found coaches in three sports - including football - committed recruiting violations involving text messaging. The football program's violations occurred during the period in which Leach led the Red Raiders. Maryland senior associate athletic director Randy Eaton, who chaired the school's search committee to find the next head football coach, said Friday evening he was not aware of the NCAA's investigation or findings regarding Texas Tech.
Ed Downey, a former Terrapin Club president who owns a suite in Byrd Stadium, harbored concerns that Leach would be hired without officials thoroughly vetting his background. But afterward, Downey, who was not consulted in the search, called the search a "well-considered process" and said Anderson "demonstrated that he is in charge and will make the right decisions."
But a vocal segment of the fan base feels Anderson led fans to believe he fired Friedgen so he could make an attention-grabbing hire - namely, Leach - to re-energize a diminished fan base. As some note, Leach was the only candidate Anderson was willing to mention by name during the Dec. 20 news conference announcing Friedgen's firing.
Some fans have been enraged. One of the seven members of the search committee received a harassing phone call from an angry fan at 3 a.m. Monday morning. There are two "Fire Kevin Anderson" pages on Facebook. Cindy Skiles, a 1985 Maryland graduate who annually donates at least $11,000 to the athletic department, is one of 101 people who "likes" one of the pages. Skiles, who felt the last few weeks have been "uncoordinated, unprofessional," had high hopes for the hire when Anderson fired Friedgen.
"When I heard we had hired [Edsall], I was like: 'Holy crap. Where did this come from?' " she said. "To me, it looks like we have thrown away our stable succession plan . . . and now we have tossed it all up in the air, and to some extent it does not look a whole lot better on paper. I am just really confused. I am disappointed. Part of me is a little mad. Why did you put us through all of this? Maybe we should just get over ourselves and say we are going to be mediocre."
Bud Adams, a Terrapin Club member who donates at least $5,500, said, "Why would you go and basically sever a relationship and let it be known and not know what the heck you're going to do, or at least have a good idea? To get cold feet with this guy, Leach, it just seems like [Anderson] is in over his head. I have not been impressed at all and really have not been happy with it, the way things have been handled."
Bernie Farkas, who said he has given multiple gifts of more than $100,000 to the Maryland athletic department, favored Leach for the job because he believes the football program needs publicity and Leach would have been the "football version of Lefty Driesell." Season ticket sales have declined for five straight seasons, and the school fell more than $500,000 short of season ticket sales projections each of the past two seasons. Even if Edsall is winning games, many question whether he can create enough buzz to fill Byrd Stadium, which was filled to 75 percent capacity only once this past season, when the Terrapins finished 9-4.
And still others believe it is time to move on. Larry Boyd, a 1972 Maryland graduate and 26-year Terrapin Club member, believes fans should trust the decision-makers. He compared the news of Edsall's hire to hearing that your 19-year-old daughter is pregnant.
"You are not happy, but there is really nothing positive you can do but support her and learn to love the outcome," Boyd said. "If he wins nine games, wins the ACC championship, plays in the Orange Bowl, all will be forgotten. It will have been the right decision. If not, we will all live with what happens, like a family would do with that new unexpected baby."
Maryland is considering holding town hall-type gatherings for boosters in an attempt to assuage fans, according to Joe Rockhill, a 1964 Maryland graduate and Terrapin Club member. Anderson said he knows he has to win back some fans, but he is undeterred by the immediate backlash.
"If I took this job and had a problem with people liking me or not liking me, I will fail," Anderson said, "I believe I made the right decision and I can go home and look in the mirror and feel good about that."
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.