Five years ago today, the University of Maryland football team was ranked No. 1 in the country in at least one preseason poll; the Terrapins were in virtually everybody's top 10. Extra seats had to be installed at Byrd Stadium. Sixteen players on the 1985 roster went on to play at least one game in the NFL. Every time Bobby Ross's phone rang it was somebody offering him a job. Oh, was Maryland football hot!

Howard football, on the other hand, was not. Midway through the '85 season, the Bison had lost 19 of 22 games. Grass would no longer grow on the field in the stadium. The program was so far down, despite the recent hiring of proven coach Willie Jeffries, there was talk of cutting out football completely. "One night my freshman year I'll never forget; we held a meeting of just the freshmen," Howard alumnus and current Redskin Jimmie Johnson recalled yesterday. "None of us were used to losing in high school and things were so bad (0-5) that we decided as a group to pack up and leave. Coach Jeffries heard about the meeting and asked us to hang in there with him, so we stayed."

In short time, a very short time, the directions of both schools took abrupt U-turns. Johnson and his freshman mates stayed, won four out of their next five games, went 8-3 in '86 and 9-1 in '87. Jeffries' tenure ended in controversy, but Steve Wilson left the Denver Broncos for his alma mater before last season and the then-rookie coach turned Howard into a Division I-AA power that won its final four games. Before cuts this week, eight Howard players were on NFL rosters. Derrick Faison, a former Howard wide receiver who didn't even play football last season, looks like a good bet to stick with the Los Angeles Rams. Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves, both of whom coached Wilson during his days as a defensive back and wide receiver with the Cowboys and Broncos, have spoken up on his behalf. Wilson's staff includes recently retired NFL standouts Rubin Carter, Jeremiah Castille and Fred Dean.

"When I first got to Howard," Johnson said, "the perception I got was that the school didn't care much about sports, just academics. But the new president {Franklyn Jennifer} has a strong interest in athletics, too, from what I can tell. The picture has changed. If that attitude continues, there are big things in store."

Wilson came in last year and, despite a number of players being declared ineligible, built the best defense of any I-AA program in the country. School officials should disconnect Wilson's phone immediately. Games at three-year-old Greene Stadium are selling out increasingly. All of a sudden, Interhigh players -- they rarely seriously considered Howard before -- are wanting to know if they can play for the Bison.

It's easier to figure Howard's ascension than Maryland's dramatic plunge into mediocrity. The '85 preseason ranking was actually the apex. Since 1982, Maryland had been sending no fewer than four players and sometimes more than a half-dozen into the pros every year. Boomer Esiason, John Tice, Kevin Glover, Ron Solt, Pete Koch, Frank Reich, Jess Atkinson. The list was long and impressive. Maryland seemed stuck on 8-3, but they were winning their share against the Auburns, Miamis, Clemsons, and Tennessees.

Ross and offensive coordinator Joe Krivak had taken many of Jerry Claiborne's last recruits and turned them into overachievers, especially on offense where Maryland had turned into a terror. "Nobody could really prove going into the '85 season that Maryland was the best team in the country," Atkinson said. "What the ranking signified was that Maryland had reached another level as a football program."

But the very first play of that season started a downward spiral. Stan Gelbaugh threw an interception that Penn State's Shane Conlan returned for a touchdown. "The Penn State game was a test," said Atkinson, the former Maryland and Redskins kicker. "All the demons would have been gone had we won that one. It might not have been the beginning of the end, but it was close to it." Maryland lost that game, but recovered to go 8-3. "But by 1985, 8-3 was a disappointment," Atkinson said, recalling the perception. "Then, Lenny Bias's death was the absolute turning point. You can say it took five years, but it didn't. The program went from 8-4, 9-3, 9-3 to 5-5-1 overnight."

After winning three straight ACC titles (1983, 1984 and 1985) and after going to a bowl game four straight years (1982-1985), Maryland hasn't won a conference title or made a bowl appearance since. In the wake of Bias's death and subsequent revelations of academic deficiencies, Maryland decided to cut out "academic exceptions." Some of the players who helped Maryland win eight games consistently in the early 80s were academic exceptions. Ross left in 1986. Krivak took over a program that some say couldn't possibly sustain what had been built.

"You know what Joe Krivak needs?" Atkinson said. "Eight to 10 exceptions. Look, a lot of good has come out of this on the academic side. I'm not about to knock that. But the games against the Miamis, the Michigans, the Auburns used to be the highlight. Now, they're cursing the schedule. These guys shouldn't be playing Michigan."

Russell Davis, a wide receiver during the salad days of the early '80s, is an active alum. "We were so successful during that stretch," he said, "that there's a lot of disappointment now. I remember when we played Auburn, we were 7-1 playing for the right to get a New Year's Day bowl bid. Now, they're very lucky if they have an important game after midseason. But there are new facilities planned, stadium renovations. It would be so good to work ourselves back."