Shortly after he became the University of Kentucky's football coach on Wednesday, someone asked Jerry Claiborne to talk about his fondest memories from the 10 years he spent at Maryland.
He talked about being carried off the field by his players to culminate the Terrapins' 11-0 season.
That was 1976.
He talked about beating Florida in the Gator Bowl.
That was 1975.
Obviously, the peaks came early. The Claiborne Era can clearly be divided into two halves: The Rise and The Slide. Fall is too strong a word.
When Claiborne arrived at Maryland in 1972 he was exactly what the football program needed: an organizer, a man familiar with a big-time program. He knew what was needed in facilities, discipline, scheduling and recruiting.
He took the talent on hand and improved it. His weight training program was revolutionary in the Atlantic Coast Conference at the time. For most of the mid '70s, the Terrapins dominated ACC teams simply because they were so much stronger.
"We could never stand in with Maryland," said Mike McGee, coach at Duke from 1971 to 1978 and currently athletic director at the University of Cincinnati. "We always thought of ourselves as a tough, hard-nosed team. But we would go in there against Maryland and get battered."
From 1973 through the first game of 1977, Claiborne teams defeated 21 straight ACC opponents, winning three league titles consecutively. From his second season through his fifth season -- the 11-0 year -- Claiborne had a 36-11-1 record. Four seasons, four bowl bids, the prestige of the bowl rising each year: Peach, Liberty, Gator, Cotton. But the 1976 season, the Cotton Bowl year, represented the end of The Rise.
Claiborne was national coach of the year that season. There was talk in the ACC that Maryland was so much better than the rest of the league that the conference would cease being competitive. When Darrell Royal resigned as coach at Texas, the men from Austin came to talk to Claiborne. When he said he wasn't interested, there was relief at Maryland.
But in the last five years, the program slipped. His record from 1977 through 1981 was 36-21-1. One year it took the invention of a new bowl (the Hall of Fame) to get the Terrapins a postseason bid. In two others there was no bid. This year, for the first time in 10 years under Claiborne, there were more losses than wins. There has not been an ACC title since 1976.
In the five years since, Claiborne became the subject of criticism. The main complaint among media, former players and fans was simple: the Claiborne philosophy of football was outdated. His offense was too conservative, his defense, the wide tackle six, not adaptable to the wide-open passing game of the 1980s.
Ironically, Claiborne's conservative philosophy built Maryland's program. His insistence on practicing the basics, his near obsession with the kicking game, his emphasis on playing smart defensive football put his teams a step ahead of the ACC.
Along with Bill Dooley, who rebuilt the program at North Carolina in the late 1960s, Claiborne is generally credited with the renaissance of ACC football. That renaissance has gained wide attention with Clemson in position to win a national championship; the last time that happened for an ACC team was Maryland's title in 1953.
Other ACC programs copied Claiborne. When John Mackovic's first Wake Forest team was defeated by Maryland, he asked Claiborne if he could come to College Park and study Maryland's weight training program. Claiborne showed Mackovic the facilities and explained the program.
The next fall, Wake Forest beat Maryland.
The last two years, though, were the most painful. In 1980, the Terrapins played ranked teams three consecutive weeks and were soundly beaten by all three. There was a bowl bid -- the Tangerine -- but even in that minor bowl, Maryland lost to Florida.
During that period, Claiborne became more sensitive to criticism. He felt unappreciated by the local media, could not understand why his consistent winning record was not good enough, could not fathom why Byrd Stadium was full only when the opponent was Penn State.
Claiborne was -- and is -- a coach's coach, the kind who spends hours looking at film, who would never say something critical about an opponent. He figured that being colorless probably went with the job. He could never understand why that hurt ticket sales.
He also is sensitive to criticism. Once, a reporter tried to explain that the job of a journalist is to report, not to support.
"Why," Claiborne said, eyes flashing, "should it be that way? It's not that way in Athens, Georgia. It's not that way in Lexington, Kentucky."
Which may explain at least in part why Claiborne is going to Lexington. During football season, his will be the only game in town. And he won't have to play Penn State.
Penn State, even more than the media, was Claiborne's constant tormentor. His undefeated season came in a year Maryland did not play the Nittany Lions. In 1974 and 1975, his team came close to winning, but didn't, losing 24-17 and 15-13. There was never another close game. The last four years, the margin never was less than two touchdowns.
"I remember the 1975 game," said Mark Manges, who was the quarterback then. "Mike Sochko just missed a field goal on the last play of the game that would have won it. I mean, just missed. If he makes that field goal, maybe the whole program is different, maybe we get the players we never got when we recruited against Penn State. It was so close."
During The Rise, it was that close. Houston, fading badly in the Cotton Bowl after leading, 21-0, early, completed a long pass to win, 30-21, just when it seemed Maryland would come from behind and win to finish a 12-0 season.
But as The Slide began, the "almosts" came in bunches. A controversial pass interference call ended the ACC streak against N.C. State. Two miraculous passes by Clemson's Steve Fuller cost a conference title in '78. The spiral continued downward. Four losses in a row in 1979 and finally, this year, humiliating losses to Vanderbilt and Tulane; an embarrassing season without a nonconference win.
Everyone at Maryland now is saying all the right things. They talk about his contributions to Maryland football, how much he will be missed. There is no denying Claiborne's enormous contribution. The new coach will walk into a situation far removed from the one Claiborne faced in 1972. Maryland has facilities now. It has respectability. All that is because of Claiborne.
It also has an image as a school with an ultra-conservative offense and a set of rules to match. That has hurt recruiting. Its players know only one kind of defense. Maryland has been unable to recruit a big-name quarterback the last couple of years because of the school's reputation for running.
That is why Athletic Director Dick Dull, after praising Claiborne's accomplishments at Maryland, almost in the same breath began talking about seeking a coach who will be the antithesis of Claiborne.
"Football is entertainment," Dull said. Claiborne would have blanched at such a thought.
"We want a wide-open offense," Dull said. To Claiborne, wide-open meant throwing a screen pass on third and eight.
Dull knows another Claiborne-type coach will not fill Byrd Stadium and that is a priority at Maryland now. To compete with revenue-rich schools such as Clemson and North Carolina, Maryland needs to fill the stadium. It will not do that running Claiborne's offense.
Dull knows that. So do the players. Quarterback Boomer Esiason was ecstatic when he heard Dull talking about a quarterback with a wide-open offense.
The team "cheered and screamed," according to Dull, when he told them Thursday that the new coach would preach a wide-open offense.
A number of Claiborne's players said they were disappointed by the way he handled his departure. But it is hard to blame a man for not wanting one of the major decisions of his life leaked -- to anyone.
Claiborne leaves Maryland with a reputation for conducting his program honestly and with dignity. The one time the program had a serious brush with rules violations, when an assistant coach gave several players access to a telephone credit card last fall, Claiborne was shocked, embarrassed and hurt. He also put a stop to it immediately.
Those who dealt with him will remember one other thing. No coach ever was more accessible. In fact, when The Washington Star folded last summer, many reporters were surprised that one of the first phone calls they received offering condolences and help came from Jerry Claiborne.
But now, an era in Maryland football is over. It has been five years since Jerry Claiborne rode on his players' shoulders. The time for shouting is past. It is time to leave.