If there is one thing Jerry Claiborne lacks, it is charisma. Everything about him -- the part in his hair, the crease in his pants, the knot in his tie -- seems too proper, too flat. Not a large man, he looks like some eager junior salesman whose boss told him to make a neat appearance. But appearances can deceive. Claiborne's eyes glitter with life; his voice, dripping with the accent of the Kentucky hills, echoes with a deep and alluvial timbre. Yet even that glitter and richness reveal, like the narrow precision of dress, less than the whole man. For all the warmth in the eyes and voice, they can in an instant turn hard. The instant is enough to see that this is not a man to have for an enemy. This man is a fighter, a winner. Jerry Claiborne, the head football coach at the University of Maryland, pursues winning in a winner's town.
"He's a coaches' coach," says Thom Park, a former Claiborne assistant now coaching at The Citadel. "He's absolutely one of the top five coaches in the country -- maybe higher. That's not just coming from me so much as I've heard it from others in the business . . . . It's very important to him to be successful, and he transmits that to those below him in the organization. If he were in business, he'd be president of General Motors. If he were in politics, he'd be governor."
Park is wrong. Claiborne would not do well in politics. He cannot compromise. He believes in hard work, the family and the Lord. To him a thing is right and good, or it is not. That clear and simple vision stems not from stupidity or insensitivity, but from his dogged refusal to be confused or distracted. Maybe it is more than that. Maybe it is plumb pigheadedness. He demands that the world, at least that part touching him, conform to his values and his will. For along with hard work, the family, and the Lord, Claiborne believes in himself.
A tower overlooks the Maryland practice fields. It was built for Claiborne; no coach before him had wanted one. From it he can see everything, snap an instruction to anyone, keep things filed in their proper place. The players are scattered in small groups, each group with an assistant coach; a horn blows and all the groups run to another spot. From the tower it must look like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, intricately choreographed.
If Claiborne has an enemy, it is time; if he has a weapon, it is organization. But simply to say practice runs like a precision machine leaves something out: there is such urgency to the practice, such intensity!
Claiborne is not always in his tower. He is on the field now, surrounded by large young men. The young men sweat in the sullen August heat; the sweat mixes with dirt and streaks their arms and faces with mud. Two young men crouch low to the ground in their stances, coiled and facing each other while the other young men, the audience they care most about, watch. And there is Claiborne, down on all fours scrabbling in the dirt himself. His face is inches from one player's, his voice echoing in the helmet -- Come on, son. Thet boy is comin' et you, son. You better hit him ! -- then turning to the other boy, saying the same thing. Hut! Hut! The two linemen uncoil, just let go and hurl themselves at each other. The pads crack. They grunt.
"ALL RIGHT!" shout the players and coaches. "ALL RIGHT! Good lick!"
It was so good that Claiborne leaps at one lineman and hugs him -- they are both so happy.
"Coach only gets mad," says a player, "when somebody isn't putting out."
Jerry Claiborne has always won. He spent 12 years winning for Paul "Bear" Bryant, first as a player and then as an assistant coach. He then spent 10 years as head coach at Virginia Tech, took the team to two bowl games (the school had only been to one other, in 1947), won 61 percent of all his games, twice was named district coach of the year, and brought the school its first ratings in national polls. But winning isn't like eating. Folks never do get satisfied; the more they get, the more they want.
Claiborne's 1969 Virginia Tech team won 4, lost 5, and tied 1. The 1970 team lost the first five games. So right then, T. Marshall Hahn, then the school's president, fired him, and now cites "difficulties in recruiting" as the chief reason for doing so. Wendy Weisald, then the sports information director, when asked why Claiborne was fired, answers "That, sir, I would like to know myself."
Claiborne spent 1971 running the defense at Colorado -- "We were No. 3 in the country," he says fiercely. In 1972, when he learned the Maryland job was open, Claiborne called Jim Kehoe, then athletic director, and asked for it. Though he had not even been under consideration until his phone call, Maryland hired him.
His impact was immediate. Maryland had gone 10 years without a winning season, and in the preceding five years had won only nine games, including one "perfect" season losing every game.
Claiborne's first team, in 1972, won 5, lost 5 and tied 1. In the six years since, Maryland has gone to six straight bowl games, won 53, lost 17, tied one, won three conference championships, and had one undefeated regular season; four times in those six years Claiborne has been selected either conference or -- once by The Sporting News -- national coach of the year.
Claiborne wins as much because of what he is as what he does. There are 100 discrete egos on a college team, yet each must yeild to the structure, the program. Claiborne himself seems subsumed by the organization, but that is illusion; the organization is he. When an observer marveled at how completely and absolutely the Maryland football program reflected Claiborne, Claiborne said: "Well, shouldn't it?"
Joe Gardi, a former Maryland assistant who now coaches the New York Jets, says, "He works so hard. You try to outwork him, but the man can do anything. One time we left at 6 a.m. to recruit. We were going all day. Finally, at 11 at night I got him to admit he was hungry." There is more: Gardi thinks Claiborne's football knowledge is awesome. "I learned more in one spring and fall with him than in all my other years of coaching combined."
John Devlin, the Maryland linebacker coach, has worked for three men who have won national coach of the year awards. He says, "As a technical football coach, he's the best I've ever seen."
Then there is Claiborne's attention to detail, his ability as an organizer. Even the papers in his in-out basket are carefully stacked. Randy White, All Pro with the Dallas Cowboys and most valuable player of the 1978 Super Bowl, remarks with no intent of humor, "He taught us the importance of being neat."
So he works hard, he's organized, he knows the game. But that is not enough . Losers do all that. And sometimes winners do less.
"Hey," Claiborne says, "we didn't have good facilities when I came here. We didn't have a meeting room big enough to bring the whole squad together. We lifted weights the first year a lot of times outside in the rain. We watched films on a sheet on the wall. But that doesn't mean you can't have a good program."
Maryland wins because Claiborne gives clear and unquestioned direction.
"He's more involved," Park believes, "than 99 percent of head coaches. A lot of them just stand around with their arms folded. There's a bunch that have no idea what's going on."
"I don't think I had a clear-cut defensive philosophy when I went there," says Bobby Ross, now an assistant for the Kansas City Chiefs, but when he left, "I took [Claiborne's philosophy] word for word."
"Jerry Claiborne believes," says Gardi, "and he gets his coaches and players to believe, to have confidence and not to vacillate, to make the things go."
When Jerry Claiborne believes something, well then that is the way it is for anyone associated with Maryland football. Maryland may be the only major school in the country that runs a defense with six men on the line and two linebackers. That doesn't bother Claiborne at all. "I used the same defense in 1950, 1951, at Augusta Military Academy. I stayed with it, number one, because I know it . . ." ("He never bluffs," says a player, "he never pretends to know something when he doesn't.")
But there is so much more than Xs and Os. Claiborne is the patriarch, the Old Testament father. He loves you, but you had better do it his way. Discipline exists everywhere, including on his staff. He hires only people he knows, and says, "I don't think much of resumes." Seven of his 10 assistants either worked for him at Virginia Tech or played for him. The "first thing" he looks for when hiring someone is "loyalty. If he's loyal and willing to work, you can teach him what you want him to coach."
Claiborne returns the loyalty. On his desk are portraits of his family. Also on his desk are pictures of his staff, whose faces he can see just down the corridor. "Well," he says, "they are like family."
"His family's awful special," says his wife Faye. "That's the most special thing he can do, is say someone's like family."
In a profession where the employment market for assistants resembles musical chairs -- virtually every assistant coach in the country has only a one-year contract -- Claiborne's staff remains stable. One coach left for a head job, one had to leave because of an NCAA limit cutting staff size, one died, and Joe Gardi moved on for another offer in the pros.
"He couldn't see it," Gardi says. "I really went against the system. He couldn't understand my feeling that I had accomplished everything I wanted to there."
Now, though, Gardi wants "some day to just call the guy and say, 'Hey Coach, I can't tell you how much . . .' pour my heart out to him. You want to love him. He's just a tough guy to get to know. You respect him so much you don't want to let your guard down and hug him. Maybe you respect him too much."
"In a lot of ways, he's like anyone's father who has a good father," says Gothard Lane, the Maryland recruiter. He is referring to the player-coach relationship, but the relationships between Claiborne and his assistants are not dissimilar -- perhaps more akin to an older brother looking after his siblings. Lane continues: "He says if we don't give the kids a sense of responsibility, we're cheating them."
Discipline. It is so much a part of Claiborne, so much a part of Maryland football. There was a time a few years ago when football coaches believed the American way of life was threatened. At every gathering of coaches talk would erupt about student protests, drugs, long hair, how kids weren't willing to work anymore, how all they should say was "yes sir" or "no sir."
Football is a game in which respect for authority is considered a prerequisite for success. Coaches call each other "sir," or "coach"; titles reassure them. Little freedom exists in any program; Maryland's is tighter than most, as tight as anywhere.
"We get them at an age, right out of high school, where we have a lot to say about their future," Claiborne says. "Other people have discipline too. Xerox, IBM, a lot of these companies have pretty well-disciplined rules, and you check -- these companies are pretty successful."
In fact, such companies constantly use football as an analogue. But they lack the control Claiborne exercises. Just as he seeks loyalty from his staff, he seeks football players who fit. "You got to check a boy's character, can he fit in with his work habits?"
That is not idle talk. Claiborne has refused to offer a scholarship to more than one player who became an All-American elsewhere, not because he misjudged their talent, but because he did not like the boy's character, because he believed the boy might be disruptive, or too egotistical, because he didn't fit .
Claiborne retains the in loco parentis role even though colleges abandoned it in the 1960s. He proclaims rules, though he won't discuss them. "That's between me and the team." He won't discuss having taken scholarships away for disciplinary reasons either, and says only: "Yes, I've done that. But when you discipline your child, you don't go out and tell the whole neighborhood do you?" He also warns players about those not in the family, those who might divert their attentions.
"One thing he always tells us: outside people, the press and whatever, they don't care about us," a player says.
Claiborne does not bend. His nickname among players is "the Bone." Claiborne does not hide his rules while recruiting. Those who don't like them are told they might be happier somewhere else.
All the players live on two flooors of a dormitory. People on campus," an end complains, "don't get to know us. Some girls think we have guards at the elevator."
Drugs are prohibited. Nor are players allowed to drink -- at all. "If I had a beer," a lineman snorts, "even now (during the summer) and he found out, I'd be gone."
Players cannot have girls in their rooms. Ever. Under any circumstances. "That really bothers me," adds another lineman. "I'm 21, 22 years old, and the man's telling me I can't socialize with women. I don't think that has merit. You fell like some kind of criminal if you do."
No beards are allowed. No long hair is allowed. No sideburns are allowed. And every Wednesday Claiborne walks through the dorm to speak to each player. "We run upstairs after dinner and put on a big front. He asks us how things are going, how are the books. He's a big believer in, uh, folks, and makes sure we write letters home . . . [The visits are] a pain to me. I'm sloppy. I got to clean up. My roommate one time didn't have his bed made. Coach came by, patted the bed, sorta smiled, and said, 'Sloppy bed, sloppy player.' After that everyone made their beds."
Nevertheless, the players think highly of Claiborne. The same player who complained about the Wednesday visits said, "Maybe they're a pain, but it's nice that he cares enough about us to come up."
Bill Starr, part-time strength coach for the team, has worked with many athletes at several schools. His hair falls below his shoulders; he frequently has a scraggly beard and wears T-shirts and cut-offs. His appearance is the antithesis of every Claiborne standard.
"I can't understand," Claiborne says, genuinely puzzled, "why a man would want to wear his hair like that." Claiborne hired Starr because he was an expert. But because he doesn't conform, he is outside the family.
Would Starr ever be hired full time? Claiborne raises his eyebrows as though the possibility had never occurred to him. "Not looking like that . . . I don't feel like that we pay him enought to ask him to cut his hair."
Starr likes Maryland and says everyone on the team seems close. "The coaches are very professional . . . Every other place I've ever been, there were always players who hated the coaches. I mean hate. Not here. Not at Maryland."
Standing next to Starr, outside the Maryland weight room, is a football player. "Everybody bitches," he says, "but deep down you respect him. You know he's doing what he thinks is best for us . . . And he wins. You can't argue with that."
Jerry Claiborne has created this structure, this system, this machine, which reflects himself. Now he aims it, cocks it and hurls it, as he hurls himself, at his targets. He, and his team, not only believe but live all those trite slogans like, "Those who won't be beat, can't be beat," or, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Ultimately his intensity wins for him. He burns. He makes others burn, in everything. Once he and defensive line coach George Foussekis were on a trip to recruit a player. Foussekis was sick. Claiborne kept stopping the car so Foussekis could vomit at the side of the road. "It was one of those things," the assistant coach says, "We had to be there."
Another time Thom Park had pneumonia. He and Claiborne were waiting to sign quarterback Mark Manges as soon as they legally could. The night before they sat in Manges' home to make certain there were no last-minute waverings. Park coughed and coughed. The Manges family hovered over him. The next morning at 8 a.m. Manges signed. Park checked into a hospital and stayed 5 days.
When someone talks of recruiting as opposed to developing talent, Claiborne's eyes flash and he says: "Randy White wasn't an All-American when came here. Tim Wilson (now with the Houston Oilers) wasn't a great blocker. He couldn't block a blindfolded dummy!"
Claiborne is toweling himself after a shower in the coaches' locker room, after running three or four or five miles, which he does not after but instead of lunch. On the wall -- the only thing of any kind on the wall -- is a Sports Illustrated cover showing the Penn State quarterback "romping through Maryland" in last year's 27-3 Maryland loss. Penn State has tormented Claiborne, humiliating Maryland with six wins and no losses since 1972. "Look at it!" Claiborne insists, and his eyes squint at the cover, as if for the first time.
He points to the quarterback's thumb indenting the ball. "You try doing that with 13 pounds pressure. At the Cotton Bowl the officials checked the ball at halftime -- it had 8 1/2 pounds." That makes the passing game easier. Claiborne turns his back on the picture disgustedly, then scoffs, "That's the 'great' Paterno."
Of Claiborne, Paterno says, "I don't know of anyone in the game with more integrity."
Claiborne's stated goal is to win a national championship at Maryland. Evidently he believes he can do it, because he has reportedly rejected offers from the Universities of Colorado and Texas, which certainly could.
He will have a difficult time proving his point with Maryland.
The university's facilities may not be good enough. If a high school star dreams of playing every week in front of 75,000 and says so, Claiborne tells him to go someplace else. Local interest in the team is weak. Byrd Stadium sells out only for Penn State or Alabama or championship games.
The schedule isn't good enough -- the Atlantic Coast Conference lacks the prestige in football to produce a national champion. High school football programs in the area don't produce enough good players, so Claiborne has to steal too many top players from under some other coach's nose.
But mostly it's a lack of image, a self-fulfilling prophecy -- Penn State is seen as a contender for the national championship, and Maryland only a pretender.
A few years ago a Maryland assistant coach was talking to a boy who had just visited the campus. "Don't you just love it?" asked the coach enthusiastically. "Don't you just love the guys here? Aren't they great?"
The boy seemed uncomfortable, then answered, "Yeah, Coach, I do. They're just like me, and I'd fit in great. The trouble is, I want to be like the guys at Penn State."
"It's awful tough," says Gardi, for Maryland to get the real super blue type kid." Another coach says, "Maryland get the kids Penn State and Notre Dame don't really want, and Claiborne makes football players out of them."
Even Claiborne admits that in recruiting talent, "We just have to work harder."
He will work harder. He will butt his head against the wall. And butt it again. And butt it again. And butt it again. Maybe -- just maybe -- that wall will give out before he does. The Patriarch at Work -- Maryland 27, Villanova 20
It is Saturday, Sept. 8, the first game of the season, against Villanova. It should be an easy game for Maryland, a tuneup, a casual workmanlike effort where all the parts go click, click, click under the direction of Claiborne, the impresario. When the players, the managers and the assistant coaches run onto the field, there is Claiborne, last, ready to orchestrate.
When the game starts he retains that role, observing. When Maryland has the ball, Claiborne wears headphones. A manager, like a bridesmaid holding a train, follows him everywhere a few feet back keeping the headphone wires untangled. But the assistants call most plays, leaving the coach free to see the forest despite the trees.
He is, as expected, in command. As the offense comes off the field, Claiborne and an assistant, who runs off to get a blackboard, gather the players about them on the bench where the coach explains, explains, explains. Is it clear? He wants it clear, yet there is only a little urgency.
The game proceeds as expected. Maryland clearly establishes its physical superiority. Methodically, dully, the team crunches out a 7-0 lead. But what's this? A fumble! Villanova scores a touchdown.
Even before Villanova lines up for the point that will tie the score, Claiborne, prepared, has gathered the offense around him to instruct, to control. So the offense takes the field and . . . interception. Then touchdown. Villanova leads 14-7. But Maryland is not done yet. The kickoff is fumbled and Villanova scores again. In four minutes Maryland has lost the ball three times deep in its own territory and trails 17-7. With one second remaining in the half, Maryland kicks a field goal to make it 17-10.
Suddenly this tuneup has become a game, a real game, a challenge. Claiborne's intensity burns through. In the first half he moved his players back from the sidelines a dozen times to leave room for the coaches to walk -- no sloppiness, there must be order on the bench. Now he is unaware as players push forward to the field. Now he paces the sideline, alone but for the manager keeping his wires clear.
When Villanova has the ball, Claiborne discards the phones, stands behind their offense where he has a better angle to see blocking patterns, and peers at it, as if by staring intently he can penetrate it, stop it dead. Time is running. When someone comes off the field, Claiborne sits them down and talks, instructs, encourages.
A Claiborne-coached team comes straight at you, and keeps coming, and keeps coming. They execute the fundamentals like few teams anywhere. And they concentrate. This team is not doing that; they are getting away from Claiborne, slipping out from under his control.
The offense starts a series and even before the ball is hiked it picks up an illegal procedure penalty -- the kind of lack of discipline Claiborne detests. He steps angrily toward the huddle. Three plays later the players veer guiltily away from where he stands on the sidelines.
The crowd boos. Maryland has failed to get the first down. It boos because Maryland still runs the ball, up the middle, off-tackle, instead of throwing. But the crowd does not understand. This is a game of will. Claiborne knows the team can run. And Claiborne will have his team do it. Later, quarterback Mike Tice says, "Coach told us we need a couple of plays that have to work."
The next time Maryland gets the ball they storm down the field. It is on the ground, but it is neither dull nor methodical; there is a grim intensity, almost a desperation, in each block. Claiborne walks resolutely down the field: all right, now we're playing football. After 10 runs and no passes, Maryland ties the game at 17. Seconds later the third quarter ends and Claiborne is out on the field, shouting, encouraging. The players look to him.
But it is not over. Villanova scratches back. A win for them would make the season, and they play as well as they can. It is almost well enough. They drive for a field goal and again lead, 20-17. There is so little time left. Villanova has the ball again, is stopped, punts.
One of the hallmarks of a Claiborne team is its kicking game. Here it rises up -- a 28-yard punt return. So Maryland has its chance. With less than a minute left the team scores. And Claiborne, where is Claiborne?
Even while the fans, the players, the managers, the trainers and the assistants exult and hug each other, Claiborne has gathered the defense about him to plan the last seconds.
The control never lapses. Not then, not after the game. Reporters are interviewing two players in a conference room. Claiborne opens the door and glances at the team's publicity man, who without a word immediately joins him outside. There will be no accidents, not even now. Moments later Claiborne walks in. The reporters are still questioning the players, and Claiborne listens for a while. But when a reporter asks a player not about what he himself did, but about the team penalties, Claiborne interrupts.
"I'll answer that," he says. Why It's Worth It for Maryland to Win
Major college football programs, whether the team wins or loses, guzzle dollars. Maryland's has an operating budget of $800,000, plus the university pays as much as $500,000 to visiting teams to come play them. Penn State alone will take more than $100,000 home with them after this year's game.
All Atlantic Coast Conference teams get a minimum of $52,500 when they visit another team in the conference, or they split the gate, whichever is greater. Obviously, the more successful Maryland is, the greater the gate -- not only at home, in the 45,000-seat Byrd stadium where tickets are $8 and $10, but away.
The big money comes from network TV coverage and bowl games. ABC pays $155,000 to each team when it televises a game. Maryland shares that money with other ACC teams -- there are seven in the conference and the money is split eight ways. The ACC team that gets network TV coverage gets two of the eight shares. Naturally, when another ACC team plays on TV, Maryland gets one share. If ACC teams are playing each other, say Maryland and Clemson, then Maryland gets two shares of the money paid for its appearance and Clemson gets two shares of its money and both teams get an additional share from the other team's appearance.
Bowl games pay even more. The Cotton Bowl, which Maryland went to three years ago, pays $1 million to each team. Even the lowly Sun Bowl, which Maryland attended last season, pays $200,000. This money also is shared with the conference, but a little differently. The first $125,000 goes to maryland, and the remaining money is split in the same way as regular TV shares. Maryland has gone to six straight bowl games.
Such success has paid off for Claiborne, too. Between his salary, a TV show, endorsements and a few incidentals such as a teen-agers' summer camp for weightlifting and football, he makes more than $60,000 a year.