Maryland's 1953 football team had been aiming for No. 1 for a year.
In 1952, it had owned the spot for a long stretch. Coach Jim Tatum's Terrapins were the scourge of college football, winning four of their last five games (they tied North Carolina 7-7) in 1950 and all 10 in 1951, including a 28-13 victory over No. 1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. (In those days the final polls were taken before the bowl games.)
In the team's first seven games in 1952, all victories, opponents were outscored, 198-37.
Then, rudely, came the collapse. A 21-14 loss to Mississippi, followed by a 27-7 loss to Alabama, and the dreams of glory turned to bitter dust in the red clay of the Deep South.
Bring on 1953. Time to get even.
"We couldn't wait for the season to start," said Stan Jones, then an all-America tackle, later a four-time all-pro in the National Football League, now the defensive line coach of the Denver Broncos. "We felt absolutely miserable about losing those last two games, because we thought we were the best team in the country. We felt we had a lot to prove."
For almost three decades, the Terps had little to prove and nothing to lose. After the school changed in 1920 from Maryland State to the University of Maryland, it had managed 11 winning seasons in 27 years. Maryland wasn't listed among the major college teams, and Byrd Stadium's capacity of 8,000 was rarely tested. Bear Bryant, who has had a success or two after departing College Park, managed a 6-2-1 record in 1945, but even the presence of noted defensive innovator Clark Shaughnessy could not prevent a 3-6 record the following season.
Then along came Tatum. He had coached at North Carolina in 1942, then gone into the service, where he honed his knowledge of the game under Missouri's Don Faurot at the Iowa Pre-Flight School. He spent 1946 at the University of Oklahoma, taking what amounted to a graduate course taught by Bud Wilkinson, before being taken away by the Terps.
Few knew it would be one of the larger felonies of the next decade. There was no indication in the Terps' woeful history and little in Tatum's that he would be an instant panacea.
Seemingly overnight, the Terps arrived. Tatum steered his teams to 7-2-2, 6-4, and 9-1 records in his first three seasons. And the Terrapins' romp through 1951 made them preseason picks for No. 1 in 1952. They spent seven weeks in that giddy atmosphere until their fall from grace.
What had Tatum wrought? The man had taken a nowhere, nothing program and made it a national power. Players who hadn't known where Maryland was suddenly were clamoring for visits to campus. And when they came, Tatum conquered.
"He was a phenomenal recruiter," said Dick Bielski, backup fullback and kicker on the 1953 team and now receiver coach of the Baltimore Colts. "When I went there I'd never seen so many good people. We just outmanned everybody.
"He'd never get to you through you. He got you through your parents. I was absolutely sure I was going to Southern California. Then one day Tatum came by, sat down in my kitchen and started talking to my mother. He asked her how she could let me go to Hollywood with all those loose women out there. After that, it was goodbye, USC. I was going to Maryland for sure. There was no choice."
Tatum delivered the same pitch to Jones' parents. Jones, whom Tatum preferred over his all-state teammate, trekked from his central Pennsylvania high school to visit College Park. His parents went the next weekend and had lunch with the president. When they returned, they told their son, "Coach Tatum really needs you down there. You better go." He did.
His linemate, Bob (Blubber) Morgan, heard the same siren song.
"I'd already told Kentucky I was going there," recalled Morgan, now food and beverage manager at the Denver Merchandise Mart. "Then Tatum came to the high school all-star game and started talking to my parents. He told my mother, 'When I heard I was going to lose Blubber, I just dropped everything and came up here.' When the game was over, my mom said, 'I think you better go to school down there.' So I did."
He had plenty of company. Tatum seemed to own central and western Pennsylvania. With Maryland high school football hardly worth the recruiting effort, the coach made a personal crusade of importing the hard, steely-eyed boys from coal country.
When the boys arrived, Tatum tried to make sure they left as men. This wasn't the College Park Country Club. This was a job. Be happy in your work, for there shall be plenty. Scrimmages every day except Friday, when there was a three- or four-hour meeting. Saturday, of course, was game day. And no rest for the weary on the sabbath. It was a day free from practice, but not from a meeting, at which the upcoming opponent was thoroughly analyzed.
"With him, 'just five more minutes' was about three hours," Morgan recalled. "You had to get to know him. He was a rough individual, but he treated you great. The thing I respected him for was stressing education. He made sure you went to class."
"He coached through respect, not fear," said Dick Nolan, a starting halfback. He later starred at defensive back for the New York Giants, then became head coach at San Francisco and New Orleans; he is currently defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers. "He was really pretty kind-hearted. If he had to help a guy, he would do it. He sent me to the freshman team as a sophomore after we had an argument, and I swore I'd do everything I could to make him look bad. Eventually I got back up, but I realized he was right.
"Practice sessions in the pros were much easier. When I got to the all-star game after my senior year and Tatum was coaching, most of the guys were talking about what a good time they were going to have. I said, 'Fellas, you're going to get a glass of orange juice and be on the field at 7:30.' We did two-a-days for two weeks. When they asked me how we stood it all year, I said, 'We didn't know any better. We thought everybody did it.' "
But the blood, tears, toil and sweat were worth every ounce. "We got the best of money, facilities, everything," Bielski said. "Everything else was minor. You really were somebody, and that was very important to all those guys who had come from nowhere and been nobody."
Bielski and friends surely were somebody to their opponents. Rated ninth in 1953 preeason polls, Maryland steamrollered its first eight opponents, including a 26-0 victory over North Carolina for its first win at Chapel Hill since 1924, while scoring 253 points and grudgingly surrendering 31. Jones and Morgan cleared big holes for quarterback Bernie Faloney, fullback Ralph Felton and Nolan and companion Chester Hanulak. Jones and Morgan were equally terrifying on defense -- they played the ancient system of one platoon then -- and Faloney led a defensive backfield that was stingier than Jack Benny.
Then it was time for Mississippi.
"You could have heard a pin drop on campus that week because of losing the year before," said Joe Blair, the team's publicity director at the time and now the Redskins' public relations director. "It was strange to lose. We went into every game expecting to win, and that Mississippi game shocked us all."
By this point the Terps were ranked No. 2, behind Notre Dame. Having taken no prisoners all season, they weren't about to start against the team that had made the previous winter eons long.
"Mississippi was all we could think about," Jones remembered. "We knew that team cold. We were as well-prepared for that as for any game ever."
It showed. Maryland was merciless, defeating the Rebels, 38-0. Revenge was sweet, but not complete. That came the next weekend, when Hanulak's 81-yard run on the second play and two touchdown catches by Bill Walker keyed a 21-0 victory over an Alabama team quarterbacked by Bart Starr. The Terps held the Crimson Tide scoreless four times from inside the 10-yard line. Even a knee injury to Faloney failed to dim the luster of the triumph.
The team's sixth shutout capped a 10-0 season, and when Notre Dame was tied, 14-14, by Iowa, the Terps made it back to No. 1. The journey begun the year before now was finished.
There was one more game, although it would not affect the rankings. Oklahoma, where the running backs come sweeping off the plain, had a date with Maryland in the Orange Bowl. Tatum against Wilkinson. Pupil versus teacher. The Eastern upstart against the Western establishment. Who could ask for more?
The Terp players, for one. "Any time you're No. 1 and you have to play a game after that, there's a letdown," Jones said.
Nevertheless, Maryland headed to Miami determined to make Oklahoma wish it had stayed home. Tatum seemingly worked his boys as hard as ever, but something seemed to be missing.
Faloney, after reinjuring his knee during a routine handoff pivot in practice Dec. 29, had been responding well to treatment and seemed likely to play, if not start, on New Year's Day. But when he went down, his teammates went with him.
"There goes my team," Tatum moaned to every reporter within miles. "He's our best player, and he's definitely out of the game."
Not quite. The next day's news had Tatum leaving the decision to Faloney, and the following day the quarterback said he thought he could play a little.
But by then it didn't matter. The damage had been done. The Terps, disspirited and confused, bowed, 7-0, to the Sooners, as Larry Grigg ran 25 yards to end an 80-yard drive. Faloney suffered through four plays in the third quarter before calling it a day. Backup quarterback Charlie Boxold, who had performed brilliantly during the regular season, obviously was affected by his iffy, day-to-day status and had a bad day as Maryland was shut out for the first time in 50 games.
"That was one of the few games Tatum didn't handle well," Jones said. "He kept dwelling on the fact that we didn't have Bernie."
"We felt pretty confident because we thought Faloney could play," Nolan said. "Without him we knew we weren't going to be able to do as much."
Since then the school hasn't been able to do nearly as much. There were 7-2-1 and 10-1 records, the latter another undefeated regular season spoiled by a 20-6 loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But Tatum, angered by philosophical differences with new Maryland President Wilson Elkins over the role football should play, returned to coach North Carolina, his alma mater. Three years later, on July 24, 1959, he was dead at 45 of a Rocky Mountain fever-type virus.
He had one losing season (2-7-1 in his first year at Carolina) in a career that produced a 100-35-7 record, 15 all-Americas, one unbeaten season, two perfect regular seasons and a revered place in the halls of College Park.
"It broke me up the day he died," Jones said. "He was so well thought of. He was a legend even while he was at Maryland. It was extremely difficult for anybody to succeed him. I can't imagine anybody doing it."
"It was like Vince Lombardi leaving Green Bay," Blair said. "The poor guy who succeeded him (Tom Nugent) had no chance."
"He helped all of us become close friends," Morgan said fondly. "He could see things in individuals that no one else could, including ourselves. We really developed a team atmosphere, and everybody liked everybody else. We still see each other fairly often, and I always look forward to it. I think about those days a lot.
"In the back of our minds, we're all hoping Maryland becomes No. 1 again."