The date was Sept. 24, 1977. The bus pulled up to the football field house at Byrd Stadium. It was after 10 on a Saturday night.

Slowly, wearily, the members of the Maryland football team piled off the bus. They had ridden more than four hours after getting thumped by Penn State, 27-9.

But their day was not quite done. Coach Jerry Claiborne had called a team meeting. Not the next morning. Not Monday. Now. The players trudged up the steps, past the bulletin board filled with "Beat Penn State" signs, and into the locker room. Then they listened to Claiborne. He did not yell, but he didn't have to. The message was clear.

"That was the worst excuse for a performance by a Maryland football team I've seen in a long time," Claiborne told his players. "We were outhustled, outhit and outplayed.

"We didn't play Maryland football."

That snapped nodding heads to attention. When Claiborne tells a Maryland team it isn't playing Maryland football, it is time to start worrying about what will be in store on Monday at practice.

"When hitting all week doesn't work," said one player who was present at that meeting, "you go out the next week and hit harder and longer.That's Maryland football."

Claiborne neared the end of his monologue. "There's only one way we can start to get back together and play like a team we should be," he said. "And that's by each one of you coming up to me, looking me in the eye, shaking my hands and saying, 'Coach, I'm going to do better.'"

There was a momentary silence in the room, some shuffling of feet. Claiborne stood in one doorway. "Anyone who feels uncomfortable with that can leave by the other door," he said.

There was no hesitation. One by one, the players filed by Claiborne, shook his hand and repeated the line.

"What could you do?" said one player. "Say 'No' to the man, then face him the next day?"

No Maryland football player wants to face Jerry Claiborne when he is angry.

One week later, the Terps lost their first Atlantic Coast Conference game in four years, breaking a streak of 21 triumphs. They have not won a conference title since.

His players call Jerry Claiborne "The Bone." It is a double-edged nickname. When pronounced with a southern accent, the name Claiborne turns into Cla-bone.

But it is also his personality. Bones do not bend. They are rigid and unyielding. To his players, Jerry Claiborne is bone-rigid, unbending, unyielding.

In some ways, it is a term of endearment. Those who survive four or five years in the Maryland football program generally leave feeling a mixture of respect and affection for, and fear of, Claiborne. Few would say they love their coach. Fewer would say they hate him.

"You always know exactly where you stand with the man," said Mark Manges, who went through a sometimes stormy four years as Maryland's quarterback. "He's honest, straightforward and up front about his feeling. You have to respect that."

There probably isn't anyone who has played for Claiborne who doesn't respect his knowledge of the game. "There were times when the man almost drove me to quit," said Steve Atkins, the record-setting tailback now with the Green Bay Packers. "But he also taught me a lot of football. I definitely became a better player, a smarter player because of him."

Even Bob Avellini of the Chicago Bears, who often fought bitterly with Claiborne while at Maryland, is lavish in praising Claiborne's football knowledge.

"If I ever have a son who plays the game, I hope he learns it from someone who knows the game as well as Jerry Claiborne," Avellini said. "There isn't a position on the field he can't teach. He has an amazing mind."

While players, past and present, are unanimous in saying that Claiborne's knowledge, his discipline, his energy and his abilities as an organizer are without peer and are the reasons Maryland football is now on firm ground, they also question some of his methods. They are methods that have changed little in 30 years.

"Change makes Jerry Claiborne nervous, said Larry Dick, who shared quarterbacking with Manges from 1974 to 1977. "He likes things the way they used to be. The new generation of football players makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't like to see guys who want to do things different.

"There's no in-between with him. You either do things his way, or you don't do them at all."

Put simply, Claiborne's ways consists of most of the football cliches of the last 40 years. But one of those cliches rises above the others.

"I've always relied on what old Gen. Neyland used to say," Claiborne said: "'The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins.'"

That is the heart of the Claiborne philosophy. Everything else he does as a coach, on and off the field, is centered around that thought. His offense is designed more to keep the other team from getting easy points than for getting points itself.

Claiborne: "If you make the other team drive from the other side of the 50 to score and if you stay close, you can win. If you're close, anything can happen in a football game."

Because of his belief in the Neyland theory, Claiborne constantly drills his players on fundamentals. Maryland's practices are generally long and tough. Also organized -- almost down to the second. Call the Maryland football office to ask what time practice is and, quite likely, the answer will be, "About 3:23."

"You only have so much time in a day," Claiborne said. "This isn't like the pros, where all the players have to do is go play football. You're limited in what you can teach and how much you can get across to your players in a day."

That doesn't keep Claiborne from trying. In addition to practicing, players generally attend two meetings a day with their assistant coach and they are expected to look at film in he dorm at night.

"Sometimes I sit there starring at the film thinking that if I wasn't a football player I'd be out drinking beer like all the other Maryland students," quarterback Mike Tice said. "Usually, I'm able to put that thought in the back of my mind, though."

Many players complain about the demands made on their time by Claiborne. There is no such thing as a day off for Maryland football players. During the season, they lift weights, run and have a film meeting on Sunday. Practices are Monday through Thursday. They have meetings and spend the night together as a team Friday. Saturday, they play and the cycle begins again.

The offseason training program is a serious, stringent one and players are expected to be in shape when spring practice starts. Two winters ago, when the campus was under heavy snow, Claiborne considered having his players shovel snow. It would clear the way for students to get to class, and get the players bulked up.

"There is no life beyond Maryland football, going to class and getting drunk on Saturday night," said one current senior. "Who has time? Even without traveling, you're expected to devote five to seven hours a day to football. Then, you worry about class."

Claiborne readily concedes that he demands a lot from his players. But he doesn't apologize for it. "We're putting them through school on a scholarship because they play football," he said. "We have a responsibility to them, but they also have one to us."

Dick sees that attitude another way. "Jerry Clairborne doesn't feel that the school is paying your scholarship for you to have a good time in college."

Manges: "The reason Jerry Claiborne has been a success in life is because he's always gotten 100 percent out of Jerry Claiborne. He expects the same of everyone else. When he doesn't get it, he gets upset. He can't seem to understand that not everyone is Jerry Claiborne. Not everyone is Randy White."

Randy White is held up by Maryland officials as the symbol of Claiborne's success. White was not highly recruited in high school and was a skinny sophomore when Claiborne arrived in 1972. Under Claiborne's program, he was transformed into a huge, man-eating lineman. In 1974, he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's outstanding lineman.

There is a picture that sits in Claiborne's office, and in two other places in the outer offices, of Claiborne and White with the Outland Trophy. That same picture takes up a full page in the Maryland football brochure each year.

White, now a star with the Dallas Cowboys, credits the Claiborne system with helping to make him the football player he is today. He says he has never met a man who knows more football than Claiborne. But he also notes that Claiborne's rigid system may hold the program back as much as it helps it.

"I've talked to a lot of different guys in the pros who Claiborne recruited and asked them why they didn't go to Maryland," White said. "A lot of them tell me they didn't want to go to a place with all the rules Maryland has. They had a choice between an athletic dorm and living where they want. A lot of 17-year-old kids are going to stay away from a place with all those rules.

"I didn't like the rules much when I was there. They bothered me. But now I'm glad I went through it. Because if I hadn't, I probably wouldn't be here."

One footnote about White, the symbol. He has not graduated.

Jerry Claiborne and the press. They do not mix well, especially in the Washington area. It is often pointed out that Claiborne has a better reputation nationally -- he is president of the American Football Coaches Association -- then he does locally. Claiborne is keenly aware of this and resents it.

Instead of emphasizing his achievements, people are always asking, "Why can't you beat Penn State?"

Clairborne won't even discuss the subject. "No comment," he said. "If there's one thing I've learned it's that you can't win going against the press. You've got the pen in your hand."

The word 'against' is significant. In his nine years here, Claiborne has always viewed the press as an adversary. A product of a Bear Bryant-coached program at Kentucky, he was weaned on the belief that the press that regularly covers a team should play the role of advocate, accentuate the positive.

"That's the way they do it in Tuscaloosa, in Athens," Claiborne said. "Why not here?"

But while he is uncomfortable with the press, Claiborne is always cooperative. Where Joe Paterno restricts the days and times he will give interviews and keeps his practices shut tight, Claiborne is always available. His practices and his locker room are always open. He never ducks a phone call.

"Basically, I trust people," he said. He has been burned. A year ago, he made an off-the -record comment to a magazine writer about Paterno and was shocked and angered when it turned up in print. He cannot understand reporters who ask what he considers "negative questions."

Sometimes questions anger him and he just shakes his head, laughs and says, "You guys never change."

Once, someone suggested to him that he would have made an outstanding reporter. "No way," he said, shaking his head vehemently. "I could just never be that mean."

His players are keenly aware of his feelings. Claiborne wants his players to talk to the press the way he does: in cliches about the team, about taking games one at a time, about how tough the next opponent is, about how important school is. When players stray from their appointed cliches, they find themselves in Clairborne's office.

"I spent a lot of time in there in four years," Manges remembered. Other players, some of them still on the team, remember telling Claiborne they were misquoted because they didn't want to face his anger."

"Almost every time a player's been quoted as saying something I didn't think belonged in the paper, he's told me he was misquoted," Claiborne said. "I believe they were."

Asked if he ever thought players said they were misquoted because they were afraid of him, Claiborne flared. "My players aren't ever afraid of me."

It is easy to be intimidated by Jerry Claiborne. He is an impressive person. At 52, he is in superb physical condition because he runs every day and plays tennis whenever he gets a chance. His mind is remarkably sharp. He can remember plays and game situations from five years ago. He is a man of total conviction. He makes no apologies for what he believes in .

"I'm not perfect," he said. "If I were, we would be 12-0 every year."

He has a wonderfully expressive face, one that is easy to read. The nose is a prominent one and his brown hair is always neat, usually slicked back. But his eyes catch your attention. When he is upset, they flash angrily.

When those eyes flash, 6-foot-5, 250-pound hulks cower. Claiborne's players do not like to see him angry. "He may not be very big," Tice once said. "But when he's angry, he could probably whip the lot of us."

And, he is loyal to those loyal to him. "If one of his players looked him in the eye and told him the moon was made of swiss cheese, he'd believe him." said one player. "I've heard guys tell him the most outrageous stories about missing meetings, or having no drugs in the dorm and he believes them. He doesn't want to believe his players can do wrong."

That is the bottom line. Jerry Claiborne believes in Jerry Claiborne and he believes in what he has created. Totally.

"If I believed there was a better way to do things," he said, "I would change."