Ron Vanderlinden has plenty of occasion to run into coaching peers whose teams live in the top 25 and always are playing big TV games, whose programs by virtue of geography, tradition or university commitment are almost recession proof. "Sometimes, their opinions of themselves are awfully inflated," Vanderlinden said the other day. "They walk in wearing the flashy sweater of an established program and believe it's all them. But I've walked both sides of the fence. If you have good players, you're a better coach."

It's no mystery why Maryland's football team, after suffering through 10 losing seasons in the past 12 years, is a dramatically improved 5-2 and on the verge of earning its first bowl bid since 1990.

Maryland has a bunch of guys who can play.

And the reason is that Vanderlinden and his staff have done a better job than some of their higher-profile competitors in evaluating players and signing them.

Because Vanderlinden, as an assistant, was instrumental in the rise of Colorado, where he worked from 1983 to '91, and Northwestern (1992 to '96), he learned a long time ago that programs on the mend can't recruit the same way perennial top 25 programs do. Vanderlinden also learned at Colorado (11-1 in 1989, 11-1-1 and a national championship in 1990) and Northwestern (10-2 in 1995, 9-3 in 1996) that up-and-comers in big-time conferences can win with late-bloomers, overachievers, players who were mis-evaluated, and players who as Vanderlinden says, "don't pass the eye test."

It's completely unorthodox, but totally necessary.

"You have to evaluate differently when you're not able to get everybody's high school all-America," Vanderlinden said. "We have to recruit performance, not potential. I'm late to offer [a scholarship], rather than early. I want to see them play their senior year. Now, that can hurt you because on the East Coast, schools offer [scholarships] to juniors. That's not the case nearly as much in the Midwest. But in the East, and Penn State started this, they offer earlier. We take a longer time. Our position coach, then our recruiting coordinator, then myself. . . . We'll all take a look."

"Back at Colorado [where the Buffaloes were 1-10 in 1984], Bill McCartney had a philosophy about recruiting when we were trying to build there. He said, 'It's not the ones you lose who beat you; it's the ones you take that can't play who defeat you.'

"So we're concerned with the ones we get."

Florida didn't want Gainesville, Fla., native Rod Littles to play linebacker for them, but the Maryland coaches saw him as a hard-hitting safety. Most recruiters saw Centreville's Jason Hatala as, "a small, skinny white kid who couldn't play running back," Vanderlinden said. Vanderlinden and his staff saw an agile wide receiver. "We saw hips, speed, competitiveness," Vanderlinden said, "a gym rat, a guy who wouldn't come home from the gym until his mother made him." Another kid, Charles Hill, is tough enough to play defensive tackle and smart enough to play center, which is probably the second-most mentally demanding position on a football team, after quarterback.

Vanderlinden went up and down the roster, mentioning player after player who wasn't recruited by many, if any, Division I-A programs but is contributing in some meaningful way this season for Maryland. "It's what we had to do to get it going," he said. "We had to hustle. . . . There are some guys on the roster now who we might not recruit in two or three years, but we're glad they're here now."

There have been instances in which Maryland's coaches have taken a pass on a can't-miss talent because they couldn't be certain the player had the mental toughness for the difficult days that accompany rebuilding. "We need kids who really like playing," Vanderlinden said, elaborating on why it's so necessary to seek out gym rats. "You need to love to play when you're trying to build. After several bad losses, the weather turns cold, it's harder to practice, harder to play. You need kids who love to."

Even though getting the Maryland program this far was more difficult than Vanderlinden had thought--"We were further down than people wanted to admit," he says--Maryland wasn't as desperately down as Northwestern was because of the academic requirements and because Northwestern had endured 24 straight years of losing. Here, Bobby Ross had left a relatively recent tradition of winning.

It's far too early to discuss whether Vanderlinden can create another. He is understandably cautious in discussing his team's improvement. In fact, he has an appropriate joke for the situation: "Have you heard about the man who jumped from the roof of an 11-story building? After each of the first five floors, people standing at the window watching in shock ask him how he is and he says, 'So far, so good.' "

What Vanderlinden has so far is a team that has bought into his notion of toughness being important, particularly mental toughness. "We want to be the hammer," he said, "instead of the nail." LaMont Jordan touching the ball 132 times without a fumble is a little piece of evidence of increased toughness. So is having allowed five sacks this season, or having committed six turnovers, the fewest by any Division I-A team in the country. There are certain areas critical to the building of a football program in which even overachievers and late bloomers can excel, and Maryland's coaching staff intensely attacks those areas. But it's going to take longer than this season, Vanderlinden's third at the school. Impressive as it is to catch the likes of North Carolina, even getting close to Florida State will be exceptionally difficult. A victory Saturday would make Maryland bowl-eligible, but there are no gimmes at this stage, even playing at home against Duke.

"We have a real problem with depth," Vanderlinden said. "Only recruiting and development will address that. We're still playing with a redshirt freshman quarterback, and we need to throw the ball better to win."

Even so, Maryland hung a nasty whipping on North Carolina last week, which he says was "important because [losing] would have significantly slowed our upward mobility. As much improved as we are, we are a program and team still learning how to win. We're transitioning. I don't think we've arrived by any means, but we're in the process of moving forward.

"You've got to be a little lucky to have it all fall into place. We may stumble, but I think we're going in the right direction. We have access to a recruiting base that I think will allow us to compete with the good teams. . . . I feel like this place has a lot of long-term potential."

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