WANTED, FOOTBALL COACH -- Univ. Md.; major-college experience necessary; P.R. more impt. than Xs, Os; must win 6-7 games 1st yr.; potential for $, glory unlmtd. if beat UNC, Clemson regularly, Penn St. more than once generation; must get most apathetic fans in country off duffs.
I've often thought that most coaches in most high-pressure sports, college and pro, should stay at the same job no longer than five years. Unless he is destined to bestride his team or his sport, and that nearly always is evident very quickly, a coach usually hits a point of diminishing returns about the sixth season. Jerry Claiborne is a classic case.
The man who left Maryland for Kentucky yesterday is one of the half-dozen best college football coaches in America. Honest, driven, tactically gifted, Claiborne can wring every ounce of ability from his players. His record puts him close to the Paternos, Schembechlers and Robinsons.
But Claiborne is not what they are: compelling. Sadly, his genius may be recognized only by his peers, although that may be enough for him. But the bottom-line reality is that men get to be immortal football coaches because they are more than football coaches.
What separates Claiborne from Paterno, so far, is personality, an inexplicable magnetism that recruits the best and the brightest brutes. Both know who can play, and that, like golf, is infinitely tougher than outsiders realize. But Joe beat Jerry every time on the field because he beat him nearly every time off the field in recruiting.
Paterno is a better salesman than Claiborne.
Maryland is a tough sell.
So is every school in a major metropolitan area, with the exception of Southern California. Pitt had the best senior players in the country last year, and the best team by season's end; it averaged about 8,000 empty seats at home in a stadium not much larger than Maryland's. That was an improvement.
"In the eight seasons since we've turned it around," said Pitt's associate athletic director, Dean Billick, "and this includes a national championship in '76, we're just now making inroads into the thinking of the average person in the city. That's been our biggest problem. Not recruiting; not winning. Attendance. We've turned the corner there, but it's been tough."
With lots of players the fired Roy Lester recruited, Claiborne took Maryland further by eons than anyone since Jim Tatum in the early '50s, from 5-5 his first season to 11-1 and the Cotton Bowl his fifth. It's been downhill, ever so slowly, ever since.
"Only your enemies multiply," says South Carolina Basketball Coach Bill Foster, a devout believer in the build-and-move-at-the-first-chance theory. Come in at ebb, create a tidal wave of enthusiasm and then ride it somewhere else before it crashes back against you.
Not even Paterno maintains 11-1 forever. And when Washingtonians were not trampling one another to watch Randy White and several other future, solid NFL players, a certain inevitability about Claiborne and Maryland began to take shape. His style was blending into Maryland's.
Simply, and bluntly, put, the masses do not pay dearly to watch turtles. And for a long time much of Maryland has acted like its mascot, the Terrapin. It was plodding and slow-witted when the rest of the collegiate world was in promotional overdrive; its fans might be the slowest to jump on a bandwagon and the quickest to jump off in all of sports.
Style sells. Lefty Driesell was exactly right for Maryland's basketball program in the early '70s. Former athletic director Jim Kehoe might have realized there were two better pure coaches on the staff he fired to hire Driesell: Tom Young and Tom Davis.
But Maryland needed a thunderbolt instead of a thinker back then, somebody loud and outrageous who would draw attention, quickly, to what makes the school special.
Claiborne is substance. You'd let your son play for Claiborne; you'd pay to watch Lefty.
In many ways, Terrapin football this moment is where Terrapin basketball was 12 years ago. Only the fiercely loyal give a damn. Only a handful of active college coaches have a record better than Claiborne's; only one local television station, WJLA-TV-7, whose sports director played for him, got excited about Claiborne leaving.
At one time, all anyone could legitimately criticize Claiborne for was not winning the big one, beating a Penn State or Alabama. Curious logic at best, for winning can be relative. Jerry can't beat Joe; Joe can't beat Bear; Bear can't beat Notre Dame. Lombardi died before the harpies had a chance to throw such folly at him.
Even Claiborne admitted after this season he was not getting the players to dominate teams at the level under Penn State's. Carolina and Clemson have recruited far better lately.
Maryland's might be the only football situation that can be seriously seen as a potential disaster and a potential mother lode. A bright coach with nothing but formations dancing through his mind can come in and win in a hurry. But make absolutely no impact.
With the exception of Clemson and Miami, the home schedule will be laden with the usual bores. I'd almost as soon attend a wake as watch Wake. And another "we" coach running the "I" formation won't do it. If most fans know most of what will happen before it happens, as was possible with Claiborne's offense, they'd just as soon watch Atari football as Maryland football. Passing is football's fancy now.
The turtles need to hire a more dynamic animal, a football Lefty if such a creature exists. Somebody with enough bluster to make Washington turn its head regularly toward College Park. George Allen's not a bad idea, if the Colts don't grab him first.
Maryland needs to play image hardball with the Redskins, and ought to be bright enough to realize the more money it spends for the right coach the more it eventually can make. It would take some astronomical package to lure the proper salesman/coach, but an extra 10,000 tickets sold each home game would yield an extra $600,000 a year.
Think boldly. A man more comfortable behind a projector than in front of a camera, a coach whose best line goes tackle to tackle, is going to get 'Skinned in a one-newspaper town. Unless Maryland goes on a marketing crusade the scale of which would have made even Kehoe blanch.
I think Kentucky was a lucky break for Claiborne and Maryland. He is too good a coach, and a man, to be fired. And yet both of them together seemed to be going stagnant.