At the 2014 American Football Coaches Association convention in Indianapolis, that mid-winter beehive of networking and gossip, the four members of the Maryland football team’s defensive staff came to connect, like many do at these types of events, over beverages and conversation.
Three of them had been together for several years, so bonding opportunities like this were nothing new. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has been in College Park for two full seasons. Keith Dudzinski (inside linebackers) is entering his fourth season and Lyndon Johnson (outside linebackers) followed Coach Randy Edsall from Connecticut for the 2011 season. But they had a new member to indoctrinate – defensive line coach Chad Wilt – and the relaxed convention atmosphere was the best place to do it.
“You always say, drinking and fishing buddies are the closest,” Stewart said Wednesday. “So you have a beer with somebody or pop or something you’re going to be closest, because you’ve had a chance to sit down in a different environment.”
Last week, when Wilt met reporters for the first time since his hiring this January, he expressed admiration for the closeness inside that defensive meeting room. Stewart loves blaring old-school West Coast rap in sessions with his defensive backs, so sometimes that infiltrates into the coaching meetings, too. Dudzinski likes rock and Johnson leans more toward Bob Marley.
“You could sense it from the moment I walked in,” Wilt said. “You could sense that they liked each other. I think that spoke volumes.”
And while what exactly goes on inside the room remains a mystery, the assistants all spoke glowingly about what has become a tight, competitive group overseeing some of the most productive position groups with the Terrapins.
“I think we’re all on the same page with what we’re doing defensively,” Dudzinski said. “We just like to coach football and have fun. Trying to get better, trying to get more competitive. There’s quite a bit of competition within the room.”
Despite just 13 wins over three seasons under Edsall, the staff has held together surprisingly well. Since Stewart arrived before the 2012 season, he, Dudzinski and Johnson have all been entrenched together, which by college football standards at underwhelming programs can seem like an eternity.
Only after Greg Gattuso’s contract expired and the veteran accepted the head coaching gig at Albany – Dudzinski’s son Jack will play there — did the staff receive a shakeup with Wilt’s hiring. Even so, Stewart said, having that foundation in place has eased the transition and intensified the focus among the coaches, whereas it may once have strayed.
“I hate to use the expression, but it’s a lot cleaner,” Stewart said. “When guys first get together, everybody wants to know how it’s going to affect me, so they’re not looking at how to make these kids better, how I’m going to make this defense better. It’s, ‘how is this defense going to affect me?’ All of that is gone. Now we look at it. It’s our defense, and what do we need to do to make this defense better.”