Jerry Claiborne admitted yesterday this has been his most frustrating year as head football coach of the University of Maryland.
His Terrapins have fallen from the polls, from the top of the conference they once dominated and from bowl guest lists. But Claiborne has been spiritually lifted by the attitude of his players, who he says are not yet ready to call it a season at 4-4 with three rather placid opponents left (Villanova, Richmond and Virginia).
"I know everyone is saying the season is over, but it's far from being over," said Claiborne. "Our goal is to win our next three football games, and we'll play the best people we got. We're not going to play this guy or that guy to prepare for the future.
"As coach (George) Allen says, the future is now."
After going 11-0 last season, the Terps were never able to get untracked this year. Injuries, losses to graduation, mental errors and a heftier schedule combined to make Maryland an also-ran.
But Claiborne's players have not lashed out at him, each other or even the press, a fact that has made Claiborne proud in a season full of every other kind of disappointment.
"It has been a big boost to me." said Claiborne. "I think they are learning something. If they don't learn to face their setbacks now they could end up as sick people later in life.
"It's all part of growing up. No one is more disappointed than we are."
"Sure, it's been hard for me. I probably hate to lose more than anyone in the country. But again, it's made me a better person."
Claiborne, was asked to reveal his personal report card on his coaching this year.
"I don't feel bad about what we've done in preparation for our games," said Claiborne. "I wish somehow I could have coached them better not to make mistakes. I don't know how to coach them not to get hurt.
"There's no way to reflect on the effect of your injuries. They are part of athletics and you have to deal with them. We felt them more this year because of the key people who have been injured. But I have no excuses.
"You don't always win. If you only learn from winning, you're in the wrong profession."
Caliborne has new people on his injury list, which throughout the season has included, at one time or another, the names of 25 first and second-string players. Wingback Dean Richards and tailback Preacher Maddox have bad ankles and are doubtful for Saturday's game against Villanova.
Linebacker Brad Carr is expected to miss the game with a hyperextended elbow. Safety Jonathan Claiborne has been held out of practice by doctor's orders after a bump in the head sustained in last Saturday's loss to North Carolina caused temporary blurred vision and loss of peripheral sight. Finally, tailback Steve Atkins - the man who makes it all happen for the Terps - is doubtful with a pulled hamstring. George Scott will start.
Quarterback Larry Dick has played with a variety of brusies all season - hip pointer, ankle and shoulder. He will play.
"Larry Dick," said Claiborne, "is probably the toughest kid in America."
Claiborne was the target of much second-guessing on his decision in Saturday's game to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the two, rather than a field goal that would have given the Terps a 10-0 lead. "I've had a long time to think about it and if I had it to do over, I still would have gone with the same play," said Claiborne.
"If we could have gotten ahead 14-0, I believe we would have won the ball game."
Claiborne said that defensive guards Ted Klaube and Bruce Palmer, who are not exactly household names, "played as good a football game as any two guards have played for us since I've been here." . . . Barring any unforeseen charity, this will be the first year Maryland has not participated in a bowl game since Claiborne's first season, 1972. Since then, the Terps have attended, in order, the Peach Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Gator Bowl and Cotton Bowl, after at least eight wins each year. In '73 and '74, the Terps were 8-3. The best they can do this year is 7-4, which was good enough to get Penn State into last year's Gator Bowl and Kentucky to the Peach. But even if the Terps win the rest of their games, they will have beaten only one ranked team, Clemson, so their 7-4 would be rather impressive.