Coach Randy Edsall brings a finely crafted plan to Maryland football

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 1:40 AM

When Randy Edsall was a boy, he had a newspaper route, but more important he had a specific manner in which he was to execute the delivery. He could place the paper at a doorstep or in a mail slot - whichever the homeowner preferred - but simply chucking the rolled-up paper onto a front porch was out of the question. His father would not accept such indolence.

Edsall, 52, now is in the business of delivering wins rather than community updates, though paying meticulous attention to process remains paramount. His unshakeable confidence is based on a belief in detailed preparation. Edsall and those who know Maryland's new football coach best believe he will succeed in College Park because his way consistently has delivered results.

It was no small irony, then, that Maryland's decision to hire Edsall away from Connecticut, where he'd transformed a division I-AA afterthought into a division I-A Bowl Championship Series qualifier, initially was met with a wave of apoplectic shock by fans that craved - or at least expected - a more alluring successor to former coach Ralph Friedgen.

In the coming months, Edsall will attempt to woo Terrapins followers with character traits - reliable, calculated, organized - better suited to molding steady foundations than to filling seats and luxury suites in an often lonely stadium on fall Saturdays.

Seated in an office that looks out into Byrd Stadium one recent weekday, Edsall said his methods might not arouse the masses, but he's convinced the end product will.

"People are entitled to their opinion, and a lot of people are going to have knee-jerk reactions to things because they have something set in their mind," Edsall said. "They can say what they want to say. . . . If you take a look at my record and what I've done and things like that, I think substance is more important than glitz or glamour, okay? Because to me, substance wins out in the long run. And that, to me, is really what it's all about. . . .

"To me, it's just about having a plan, working hard, executing that plan and making sure that the people that you surrounded yourself with know that you care about them and that you're going to push them to a level that they never thought they could get to."

Inherited traits

For Randy and Duke Edsall, brothers separated by 19 months who nearly always played on the same teams, the drill following every athletic event in which they participated as kids was the same. They would retreat to their Cape Cod-style cottage on a hillside above the valley that contained their diminutive home town and gather around the kitchen table.

And for the next several hours, Dick Edsall would dissect his boys' performances.

A promising baseball prospect out of high school, Dick was offered a minor league contract by the Baltimore Orioles. But by then, he had a wife (Barbara) and a baby daughter (Diane) to support, and the baseball pay was not sufficient. Instead, he took a job at a local steel factory, where he would work for more than 34 years.

Dick saw in Randy - the superior athlete of the three Edsall children - the athletic potential he once possessed, and so he took measures to foster that growth.

"It was never about what you did right; it was what you did wrong," Duke Edsall said of those kitchen table meetings. "We broke down every play. . . . He just wanted us to be as good as we could be, and that was with anything. If you cut the yard wrong, he'd be all over you about that. That was just his way."

When Randy was in sixth grade, he missed some late free throws that he felt cost his basketball team a victory. Soon thereafter, he was rushed to a hospital and eventually learned he had stomach ulcers.

"He internalized everything," Duke Edsall said. "He worried about everything. I remember him drinking the Maalox like it was chocolate milk."

Quiet and understated outside the athletic realm, Randy preferred corduroys and a buttoned-up shirt to jeans and a T-shirt. But when it came to sports, Randy didn't lack for audacity.

An all-state performer at Susquehannock High in Glen Rock, Pa., in football, basketball and baseball, Randy competed with an exuberance - and a constant grin - that struck some observers as arrogant, according to Gary Sutton, who has taught and coached at the high school since 1974.

"I think he had just a natural flair to everything that he did," Sutton said. "It wasn't really built in there. It wasn't something he thought about. But he did. Randy didn't talk that much, but that was the impression he gave you: 'You're not going to beat me tonight because I'm just not going to let you.' "

A student of the game

Edsall arrived at Syracuse in 1976 as a drop-back quarterback who could throw the ball 70 yards in the air. Such an asset would have been useful had the Orangemen not switched to an option offense the previous spring.

Disillusioned by injuries and a lack of playing time, Edsall wanted to give up football near the end of spring practice his sophomore year. But before he would allow his youngest son to come home, Dick Edsall mandated that Randy inform his coach of his decision in person.

Syracuse's coach at the time, Frank Maloney, persuaded Edsall to stay.

From then on, "I always had Randy near me on the sideline," Maloney said. "One of us might give a dummy signal and one would give what the play was going to be. He had a great aptitude for the game. I tried to get him as involved in creating the game plans as I could at that point. He stayed, and it was probably one of the best decisions he ever made in his life."

Maloney offered Edsall a graduate assistant coaching position upon the end of his eligibility, and Edsall remained on staff the next 11 years, taking scrupulous notes on every aspect of the program's operation all the while.

George O'Leary, who then served as Syracuse's defensive line coach, recalled Edsall watching film, asking questions and paying close attention to the technical aspects of the job, things he said young assistants typically didn't do back then.

In 1991, Edsall joined the staff of another former Syracuse assistant, Tom Coughlin, who had just been named head coach at Boston College. The Eagles went 4-7 that year before finishing the next two seasons ranked in the Associated Press top 25. Coughlin then left to coach an expansion NFL franchise in Jacksonville, and Edsall followed.

The Jaguars did not play any games in 1994, but Coughlin said his coaching staff conducted a mock draft, devised game plans and traveled to college and professional contests. Edsall catalogued everything. Two years later, Jacksonville was one win away from a Super Bowl appearance.

Edsall joined O'Leary's staff at Georgia Tech as defensive coordinator in 1998 and helped lead the Yellow Jackets to a 10-2 record and a tie with Florida State atop the ACC standings.

At the end of that season, Edsall interviewed in Atlanta for Connecticut's head coaching job and accepted the position without having set foot on the school's campus.

"He knew how hard it was to get a head coaching job and he figured he'd give it a shot," said Eileen Edsall, Randy's wife. "He had confidence in his ability to make something out of nothing. And he's basically been faced with that at all of his stops."

'He had a vision'

When Edsall showed up at Connecticut in 1999, the football team played in a moribund stadium built in 1953 and its coaches worked out of trailers. But Edsall looked and carried himself "like a CEO," said Bill Husic, who lived three doors down from Edsall in Glastonbury, Conn.

Edsall established a summer football camp, which broadened Connecticut's recruiting base. He won over donors and established a relationship with the state's governor, which helped garner funds to construct a new $91.2 million stadium and a roughly $40 million indoor practice facility.

"He had a vision, and it was very clear in his mind where he wanted to get to and what the program needed," said Chris Fraser, who became close friends with Edsall after serving on Connecticut's capital campaign committee at the start of Edsall's tenure. "And he didn't deviate from that."

On the field, the first three seasons were so miserable that Eileen Edsall told her husband on more than one occasion that "you guys shouldn't be called the U-Conn. Huskies. These guys should be called the sacrificial lambs," because they were so physically outmatched. Connecticut went 9-24 during that span.

By then, Edsall had typed out all the notes he had taken over the past two decades and transferred them into a three-ring binder. He had prepared that book for the time when he ran his own program, and it served as his resource for the team's day-to-day procedure.

There was a specific plan for the first day of spring practice and of fall training camp. Division of labor among assistant coaches? Location of each workout drill on the practice field? How the equipment would be distributed to the players? Edsall's book covered it all.

"He's going to be in control, and he's going to know what needs to be done," said Jerry Franks, who served as Connecticut's offensive coordinator in 2001. "There was never anything that occurred that caught us by surprise because of the preparation that he insisted on."

Headstrong, to the end

By the end of the 2008 season, Connecticut had tied for a Big East conference championship and earned three bowl bids in five years. But despite Edsall's professional success, a significant personal struggle was underway.

Dick Edsall had learned he had a fractured vascular system in the mid-1990s, and that led to surgeries to repair aneurysms on two separate occasions. Dick suffered a paralyzed vocal cord in 2008, which led to the discovery of another aneurysm. He underwent heart bypass surgery that November, during which surgeons also mended the aneurysm.

Dick later suffered a minor stroke, but survived that as well. He eventually was moved to Select Specialty Hospital in York, Pa., where he was placed on a ventilator.

On Valentine's Day 2009, Barbara Edsall went with Randy, Eileen and their son, Corey, to visit Dick. The first words out of Dick's mouth came as only a marginal surprise.

"I want to die, and I want to die now," he said.

"I don't think we can do that today," Barbara, his wife of 55 years, responded.

Dick had made such a proclamation twice before, but Barbara had persuaded him to continue living. But when Barbara left the room to speak to the nurses, Dick told Randy, "Don't let her talk me out of it this time."

The doctor persuaded Dick to wait two more days until Duke, a college basketball referee, could return from officiating a game in Kansas. The next day, Randy visited his father and asked if Dick was sure he knew what he was doing.

Father told son he wished to die, that he knew it was the right time. So Randy said his final goodbyes and left for a pre-scheduled vacation to Florida with his wife and children. Barbara said Dick would not have wanted Randy to miss that trip on his behalf.

When Duke arrived on Feb. 16, he joined Barbara, Diane and the family's pastor in Dick's room. The doctor turned off the ventilator and warned the family that it could take a few hours, a few days or even a month for Dick to fade out.

"But I could tell he was at peace," Duke said. "He was ready."

He passed away 20 minutes later. Even in death at age 73, Dick Edsall remained in control.

Sticking to his guns

Randy Edsall has taken over a Maryland program that went 9-4 in 2010 and finished the season ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press poll. He succeeds the reigning ACC coach of the year. He comes from a place where recruiting standards were low and expectations were easily surmountable.

What Edsall, a foundation-builder throughout his entire coaching career, is supposed to do now is enhance the market value of an already-constructed house. He said he has spoken with Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson about facility upgrades and other objectives he feels need to be met to help spur the program's growth.

But in the short term, Edsall's goal is to implement a familiar process, one in which he is confident because he has witnessed its effectiveness several times before. It will not change because Edsall believes it is the right way. It is his way.

"It's going to be that same message, that same consistency that I'm doing, that I really believe in," Edsall said. "I just think it comes down to a philosophy and a belief. There are some things that you tweak, but you can never get away from those core values or core principles that you believe in for people to achieve success."

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