In Ralph Friedgen's first four years at Maryland, his teams won 36 games and an ACC title, played in three bowl games and won two. And yet the Terps enter tomorrow's game against Virginia with a 2-2 record and their toughest tests still to come, and a loss this weekend would raise the specter of a second straight losing season.
In Al Groh's first four years at Virginia, his teams won 30 games, landed one of the best recruiting classes in school history, played in three bowl games and won two. And yet the Cavs enter tomorrow's game in College Park never having claimed an ACC title or played in a New Year's Day bowl under Groh, and a loss this weekend would point toward a continuation of that trend.
Add the fact that, as border-state rivals, the programs are in perpetual competition for media attention and area recruits, and it's easy to characterize tomorrow's game as something more than just one of eight conference matchups in just another 11-game season.
"I think [this season] is hugely important," said ABC Sports analyst Ed Cunningham, who grew up in Alexandria and graduated from Mount Vernon High before winning a national championship as a player at the University of Washington. "For Ralph, this season's a big deal because if you go two years in a row with a losing record, then the recruits are going to start saying, 'Wait a minute. . . . ' Because no one wants to lose.
"I think maybe even more for U-Va., this is a huge year. They always beat the teams they should. But they need to take that next step, where they start knocking off people in the top 10 and putting themselves in a position to play for an ACC championship."
The coaches were hired almost one month apart in late 2000, and both have taken considerable strides with their alma maters over the past five years. Friedgen has a record of 38-16, Groh 33-21. Maryland has sold a record number of season tickets for four straight years, with more than 32,000 this season; Virginia sold its entire allotment of 39,123 for the second year in a row and is expected to set a season attendance record this year.
Both coaches have been rewarded with contract extensions; Friedgen's deal, signed last summer, runs through 2012 and guarantees him approximately $1.5 million a year, while Groh signed a five-year contract last month that boosted his total annual compensation to $1.7 million. And both schools reeled in recruiting classes last year that were ranked in the top 20 nationally according to Rivals.com and in the top 25 according to Tom Lemming of College Sports TV.
"I'm proud for one of my players to go to either school," said DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor, who has former players starting for each school. "You have two outstanding programs, two outstanding head coaches."
While both coaches reject the idea that one game or even one season has particular import, it's hard to ignore the potential implications of a loss tomorrow for either program.
Recruiting analysts and local high school coaches agreed that one off year did nothing to deflate Maryland's burgeoning reputation and could even help; a losing record can translate into more immediate playing time for recruits, who are often swayed by a message of "we're one or two players away," analysts said. A second losing season, though, could prove more problematic.
"If it's a one-year thing, that can be blamed as a blip on the radar screen," said Jeremy Crabtree, national recruiting editor for Rivals.com. "But if it's a downward spiral that goes into two or three years, then, yeah, it can be something that changes the perceptions of a lot of kids, not just locally but nationally."
"One never really does it to you," agreed Lemming, who said the Maryland brand holds more weight in recruiting now than it has for 27 years. "Two or three years in a row, then kids think it's a downslide and they start to look elsewhere."
Which is partly why Maryland's 0-2 home record, coupled with a narrow escape against Navy, set off an epidemic of Internet message-board angst among some Terps fans. And which is partly why Friedgen has at times acknowledged the importance of Maryland's next seven games.
"If we could come on and play really well throughout the last half of this season, I think it would certainly be a big help in recruiting and everything else," he said. "That could or could not happen. It could go either way at this point."
The coach has remained remarkably upbeat this month. He said he's being more patient with this team than any of its predecessors, because he recognizes its youth and is convinced that it will improve. And even if the breakthrough doesn't come this year -- "things could get worse before they get better," he said this month -- Friedgen said his program would not suffer any long-term damage, pointing out that his 2001 ACC championship came on the heels of 10 straight bowl-less seasons.
"And I think we've got better players now than we had then; they're just younger," he said. "When I came here, there were no expectations. They used to laugh at me -- 'you'll never do that.' Now they're upset because we've reached [those expectations]. And I still think we can go further."
Why, then, has Maryland lost seven of its last 11 games? For one thing, coaches said, the on-field production that might normally come from fifth-year seniors has been absent thanks to an unusually high attrition rate in their hastily assembled first recruiting class.
On top of that, Maryland's coaches said, the leading tailback from last year suffered a season-ending knee injury, as did their best offensive lineman. One top defensive lineman has not played because of a back injury; another is at prep school after failing to qualify academically, and one of their most dynamic defenders -- Shawne Merriman -- left College Park a year early as an NFL first-round draft pick.
"We're five years into the program and you guys don't want to hear me saying anything about youth and inexperience, but we've lost a couple of players that have been outstanding, like Merriman and [2004 third-round pick Randy] Starks that have come out early," defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said last week. "And good programs have that, and good programs are able to just reload, not rebuild. But in fact, we're not there yet. I'm talking about the Southern Cals, I'm talking about the Tennessees. We're not there yet. People have to understand that. We've got a chance to get there, but when we lost a Merriman, we don't just get another Merriman and put him in the lineup. That's not the way it is."
Maryland's coaches, after pointing to their superior win-loss record and more impressive bowl history, also reject any comparisons between their program and Virginia.
"I don't look at things that way," Friedgen said. "Maybe you all do, but I don't. I worry about my program, getting my people better. Whatever happens down there, happens down there."
And lately, what's been happening in Charlottesville has been largely positive. Virginia has been ranked in 21 consecutive Associated Press top 25 polls, and will arrive in College Park with a No. 19 ranking and a 3-0 record. They also have become a recruiting "juggernaut," according to Lemming.
"Virginia's one of the five most aggressive programs in the country," he said. "They're relentless, they're non-stop and they're national."
But for all their recruiting success, the Cavaliers have yet to convert such accolades into a BCS appearance. And four years after bringing in its most lauded recruiting class, this would seem to be time for a breakthrough season. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has yet to play this season, committed to Virginia in 2002. So did linebacker Kai Parham, in his third year as a starter. So did all-ACC tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, running back Wali Lundy, starting defensive lineman Kwakou Robinson, starting defensive backs Marcus Hamilton and Tony Franklin, starting fullback Jason Snelling and starting offensive lineman Brad Butler.
And yet Virginia has at times struggled in the early going, needing a last-second field goal to win at Syracuse and failing to put away Western Michigan until the final quarter.
"You promised kids that you're going to have a championship-caliber program," Cunningham said. "At some point, you have to pay off that promise. And Ralph has done that, Ralph has won an ACC championship and gone to a BCS bowl game."
Still, like Friedgen, Groh said his team's progress is not measured against that of his ACC rival. "All we measure ourselves by is where we finish in the standings," he said. And like Friedgen, Groh said he does not ponder the larger implications of this season.
"They're all important," he said. "I can't say we've put any more importance on one year than the next. We have a short view of things -- you only get to do each year or each game one particular time. We have no eye on the past, we have some eye on the future, but most of our attention is on the present. And therefore, this is the only game we're thinking about and the only season we're thinking about."