“Fear the Turtle” might be asking too much. “Notice the Turtle” isn’t.
Maryland’s last football coaching search included an extended flirtation with Mike Leach, the pass-happy mad scientist who made excitement-starved fans swoon. Leach’s tenure in College Park might not have been successful. It definitely wouldn’t have been boring.
Instead, the Terps turned to Randy Edsall, a stolid, old-school football man whose idea of mad science is mixing vinegar with baking soda to create a kitchen volcano. If you’re real quiet, you can hear a gentle fizz!
With Edsall now gone after four mostly unremarkable seasons and three straight blowout losses, the program should have one major goal with its next hire: to recapture relevance.
It’s one thing to have a below-average record in College Park, where the Terps play in the shadow of two NFL teams and a basketball program that annually aims to compete for national championships. It’s another thing to be both mediocre and Intro-to-Accounting uninteresting.
College football has changed into an Adderall sport, where touchdowns are as plentiful as parking lot keg stands, and final scores are sometimes indistinguishable from basketball results. Fourteen different Football Bowl Subdivision schools topped 48 points this past weekend, hardly an unusual occurrence in an age of hurry-up spread attacks and 90-second drives. You know how many times Edsall’s Terps ever topped 48 points against a FBS opponent? Try never.
Maryland’s passing attack currently ranks 111th out of 127 teams. Its scoring offense ranks 98th. Its 24.3 point average is about half of what programs like Houston and Memphis are putting up.
So is it any wonder that some Maryland fans are eyeing pinball up-and-comers like Houston’s Tom Herman (who’s 40), and Memphis’s Justin Fuente (39)? There’s a desire for an anti-Edsall, someone young and innovative, someone who will at least demand attention. It’s harder to turn away when every other drive winds up in the end zone.
“Fans want exciting, wide-open offense,” Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said Sunday afternoon. “Look at some of the better coaches and the great coaches; they bring that kind of enthusiasm to the game. That’s what I’ll be looking for, and that’s what we’ll get.”
Who else do fans love to discuss? Dino Babers, whose Bowling Green attack is top 10 in the country in both passing yards and scoring, and who dropped 48 points in College Park last month, a game Anderson cited when talking about the decision to fire Edsall. Or Philip Montgomery, whose Tulsa outfit is seventh in the country in passing yards. Or the 35-year old Matt Campbell, whose Toledo offense averaged more than 36 points a game last season. And, of course, Chip Kelly, who might not last in the NFL, but whose Oregon teams occasionally managed to move the ball.
Partly this is a response to Edsall, who was unable to develop a quarterback, or even to settle on one for more than a few weeks at a time. As college offenses slurped up caffeine in recent years, Maryland kept sipping on decaf herbal tea. An astounding 87 FBS teams are averaging more than 380 yards a game this season, something the Terps have never done under Edsall, and something they did in each of predecessor Ralph Friedgen’s first three seasons.
Partly this is a nod to Maryland’s heritage, which — for all the jokes about Terps football — includes a pretty serious quarterback pedigree. The ’80s, ’90s and ’00s produced Boomer Esiason and Stan Gelbaugh, Neil O’Donnell and Scott Zolak, Shaun Hill and Frank Reich, all of whom went on to lengthy NFL careers. That’s a far cry from the recent quarterback carousel, and is a reason you might also hear the name of Reich, now the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator.
(The new coach’s first responsibility will be to shore up the commitment of top quarterback recruit Dwayne Haskins, another reason so many people are thinking offense first.)
And partly this urge for excitement reflects Maryland’s place in both the local sports landscape and its new conference affiliation. Gary Williams was fond of pointing out the challenges of leading a college basketball program in an area saturated by pro sports. How much harder is it to make a local college football program consistently relevant? There needs to be a reason to trek to Byrd Stadium for a September game against South Florida.
In a division with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State, a compelling personality is less a bonus than a requirement. Urban Meyer, James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh cast three of the largest shadows in college football. Mark Dantonio isn’t exactly a slouch. Edsall, with his inspirational quotes and stiff mannerisms, was never going to stand out in a room filled with Saturday afternoon A-listers. His replacement will have to try.
Maryland’s football goals start modestly; “you don’t want to be humiliated, especially not against West Virginia,” as John Llewellyn, a former president of the Terrapin Club, told me recently. The men’s and women’s basketball teams can worry about national championships; a few nine-win seasons and top 25 finishes mixed with semi-regular bowl appearances is a fine aspiration for the football program. Occasionally beating a top 25 team — Edsall was 0-12 in that regard — might also be nice. With a solid local recruiting base and a planned $155 million indoor facility, respectability shouldn’t be out of reach.
But the Terps could also take a cue from their partners at Under Armour, who are expected to play a significant role in the next hire. The one-time upstart might not be Nike yet, but it is bold and cool, something that captures your attention, something modern and innovative rather than a relic.
There are college football coaches who also meet that description. Maryland should find one.