Six years have passed since Bob Avellini played quarterback for Jerry Claiborne at the University of Maryland. But even today, the Chicago Bears' backup quarterback can vividlyremember most of his one-on-one meetings with Claiborne. One stands out in his mind.
"It was the night before we played Penn State my senior year," Avellini remembered. "We were talking about the game plan and about what he wanted done. Coach Claiborne was feeling a little bit reflective. Atone point he was talking about the passes we were going to try and he said, 'You know, the ideal game plan, if you could do it, would be to run a quarterback sneak every down.'
"I really think that's the way he feels about football," Avellini said. "You win with defense and the kicking game. You lose with your offense."
Larry Dick, another Claiborne quarterback at Maryland: "To me the pass has always been a potentially unstoppable weapon. To Coach Claiborne it's something very scary, something you use only when you're desperate and have no other choice."
Mark Manges, the quarterback the year the Terps were 11-1 and played in the Cotton Bowl: "All Coach Claiborne really wants out of his offense is not to lose the ball on your own side of the 50. He figures if you do that, you'll win most games. The problem is, when you run, run, run it can be hard to throw the pass when you'rein a position where you have to throw."
Although his quarterbacks have the authority to audible at the line of scrimmage, Claiborne calls all the plays.
For nine years Maryland consistently has beaten Villanova, Richmond, Wake Forest,Duke and Virginia. But the record against Penn State is 0-8. Over the years the Terps have beaten four ranked teams (North Carolina in 1973, N.C. State in 1974, Florida in 1975,and Clemson in 1979), none of them in the top 10. Those who have played in the program insist that the talent to win those games has been there.
And, even though the Terps will finish this season with their eighth consecutive winning record and, quite possibly, their seventh bowl bid in eight years, they cannot sell Byrd Stadium unless the opponent is Penn State. When people ask why, many point to the Maryland offense.
"We play dull football," said one current player. "I wouldn't pay to watch the Terps play."
But Maryland Athletic Director Jim Kehoe defends his coach.
"I would rather be a dull winner than an exciting loser," Kehoe said."I don't know of anyone who's going to pay hard-earned money to watch a team lose."
The Terps do win, but only against certain opponents.
"When you play Villanova you can tell them the tailback is coming at them 40 times a game and you're still going to beat them because you're bigger and stronger than they are," Avellini said. "But when you tell PennState you're coming at them with the tailback 40 times a game, they're going to stuff you because they're just as big and strong.
"You have to do things a little different to beat the good teams. Not radically different, because that doesn't work, either. We did things different but it was only after we got behind and had to gamble."
For as long as he has been a football coach, Jerry Claiborne has had a simple offensive philosophy: "You have to score when the other team gives you the opportuninty and try to make them drive thelength of the field to score themselves."
In other words,play it close to the vest unless circumstances force you todo otherwise. The word is conservative.
Say conservative to Claiborne and it is like waving red in front of a bull.
"Our quarterback have led the league three times," he said. "We've completed 57 percent of our passes. We throw theball."
But leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing is a deceiving statistic. Rod Elkins of North Carolina is the leader this year, yet the Tar Heels are last in the league in passing. The statistics are based on efficiency (percentage and frequency of interceptions rather than total yardage). When the Terps were dominating the ACC between 1974and 1976, their passing game was used sparingly but efficiently.
Claiborne is happiest when he can win by putting the ball in the hands of his tailback 35 or more times. He has had the tailbacks to do that: Louis Carter, Steve Atkins, Preacher Maddox, George Scott and Charlie Wysocki.
"Therewere times," Atkins remembered, "when I was so tired I didn't think I could run another step. But if the man wants youto run the ball, you run it. He was never the type of guy you wanted to tell you were tired. Then he would wonder about whether you were working hard enough in practice."
"It's easier to find good running backs than a good quarterback," Dick said. "If you watch practice, it's easy to see wherethe coach's priorities lie. First they work on the kickinggame, then defense, then the running game. Then, at the end, if there's time, the passing game."
All of Claiborne's quarterbacks say they have tried talking to the coach about his offensive philosophy. All say they have failed miserably. "There's no way he's going to change his philosophy to fit the players he has," Dick said. "I wasn't a good option quarterback, neither was Avellini and neither is Mike Tice.All of us are drop-back throwers. But I can't remember once throwing a drop back pass on first down the whole time I was here."
Avellini: "What I don't understand is why he would recruit a 6-foot-7, 235-pound quarterback and them make him an option quarterback. If you're going to insist on running the option, why not get a smaller, quicker guy. If you really want a guy like Tice, fine, but let him do what he does best."
Manges: "I don't think that's just restricted tothe quarterback slot. When I was here we had Steve Atkins,Preacher Maddox and George Scott on the team at the same time. Yet two of them sat on the bench unless Atkins got hurt. That's wasted talent. Why not go to the veer? Why not move one to another position? You just can't afford to have athletes like that sitting on the bench."
Tice: "I've worked hard to improve myself running the option and running the corners. I'm still most comfortable throwing the drop-back pass, though, I think I've improved at the option."
Tice must be careful of what he says. He cannot afford to publicly criticize Claiborne. He has gotten into trouble with the coach in the past because of what he has said and does not want to have the same experience Avellini had in 1974.
Manges, a freshman then, remembers it well. "Bob was a senior. He mouthed off about the offense to the coach and to the press. He ended up listed as fourth-team quarterback." Amongothers, Avellini was listed behind Manges, who had never taken a snap in college.
"If I thought changing our offensive system would make us better, I would change it," Claiborne said. "Mike Tice is one of the fastest quarterbacks we'vehad here at Maryland (going straight ahead, Tice is faster than tailback Wysocki) and he's learned to run to the corners well in the last year.I've been real pleased with his improvement."
Still, Claiborne's relationships with his quarterbacks generally have been tenuous. Avellini, he thought,talked too much. Manges said the wrong things in the paper. Dick made the mistake of once suggesting that the team's daily 11 p.m. curfew be pushed back. Tice, who has worked hard this year to get along better with his coach, has been in the doghouse more than once.
One incident perhaps says it all about Claiborne's relationships with his quarterbacks. Last season, against North Carolina, the Terps had a fourth and one at the goal line in the first qyuarter. Claiborne elected to go for the touchdown. He sent in a play for Wysocki, a straight dive.
As he barked the signals, Tice saw a hole just to his left, a hole he knew he could get through. He audibled to his own number. But as he took the snapa UNC linebacker moved over and plugged the hole. Tice wasstopped short.
"I remember lying there thinking should Ijust get up and crawl back to the locker room or should I go back to the bench and face Coach Claiborne," said Tice. He finally went to the bench.Claiborne was waiting. He grabbed the quarterback and in no uncertain terms told him he was never to do such a thing again.
"I've always wondered," Dick said, "what would happen if he just pulled a Bud Grant on Saturdays, folded his arms and let the assistant coaches work with the players. He can't let go, though, because he trusts his own judgment best."
All the quarterbacks think if offensive coordinator Jerry Eisaman were given the chance, he would open the offense considerably. But all agree he will never get that chance.
"I can't think of anything that would make Coach Claiborne change except maybe if he was desperate," Dick said. "You do things his way, or you don't do them at all. You do things within his offensive system or you don't do them. He's won a lot of games that way."
Avellini agrees, to a point. "We won a lot of games when I was there," he said. "But my senior year we were 8-4 and we could have been 11-1. I know we all thought we were better than Florida. We lost. We thought we were better than Penn State. We lost. We were better than Tennessee. wWelost.
"Against the good teams you have to throw something different at them. You can't just sit on the football. We sat on the ball leading Tennessee, 3-0."
Eisaman defendshis boss.
"There are times when we want to open things up and one thing or another just prevents us from doing it," he said. "Sometimes it's field position, sometimes it's injuries. I think Coach Claiborne likes to use the pass but he doesn't want to use it to get into any trouble."
Manges and Avellini both pointed out that the Maryland offense is at its most predictable near either goal line.
"If we were inside our own 30 you could almost predict that we were goingto run, run and then either throw a screen or run a draw and punt," Manges said. "He just wasn't going to put it up for grabs. Inside the other team's 10, the thinking was, run it and if you don't make it you still get three. Throw and get intercepted and you get nothing."
Avellini: "I think our offense, when we were near scoring, was more predictable than at the other end of the field goal so often. The otherteam knows the tailback is coming at them inside the 10 nine times out of 10."
The Teerps are averaging 12.7 points agame this season. Other than their 31-point performance against 0-7 Vanderbilt, they have scored seven points against Villanova (recovering a fumble on the Villanova 20), 14 against West Virginia, three against North Carolina, nine againstPittsburgh, 10 against Penn State, 11 against Wake Forest and 17 against Duke, a game in which one of their drives was seven yards.
"We're still making fundamental mistakes," Claiborne admitted. "We're still not executing on things we've worked on since Aug. 15. I'm not sure why. We'll just have to keep working to get better."
Members of the offensive unit don't think it will get better. They think the offense is too predictable. When Maryland goes with two tight ends, it will run nine times out of 10. When split receiver Chris Havener comes in, it probably will throw and, most likely, will go to Havener. The Terps got away with that kind ofstrategy against Duke because the Blue Devils just weren't good enough to stop plays even when they knew they were coming, much like Villanova being unable to stop the tailback. The Terps beat teams, the players say, in spite of the offense, not because of it.
"Our offense is our weakness, everyone knows it," said an offensive starter after the Duke game. "We're a one dimensional team, but no one around here will admit it. How many times did Charlie (Wysocki) carry today. I was yawning running out of the huddle."
Perhaps, though, it was North Carolina linebacker Lawrence Taylor, trying to pay a compliment to Wysocki, who best summed up the Maryland offense.
"We all knew if we stopped Charlie, we would stop Maryland," he said. "If he isn't effective, they just don't have anything."
It has been that way for nine years. It isn't likely to change any time in the near future.