From Day 1, the marriage between Randy Edsall and the University of Maryland was doomed — destined for the ending that came Sunday when the school fired him after 41/2 seasons of, at best, mediocre football.
There was no honeymoon for Edsall and Maryland. Even before he left the podium at his introductory news conference, Edsall had set a tone for his tenure that never really changed.
He made it clear there was a new sheriff in town. There would be no dreadlocks on his team, no earrings or caps worn inside the football building. There would be discipline and respect. Edsall said all this on the same day that he informed his players at the University of Connecticut by text that he was no longer their coach.
His new players were going to show respect for him and his rules, but he didn’t respect — or care about — his former players enough to take a few hours to fly to Storrs, Conn., and look them in the eye and tell them why he was leaving.
Of course, all of that would have been a blip if Edsall had won, if he had somehow taken Maryland to a higher level than the one reached by Ralph Friedgen, a Maryland alumnus who had taken Maryland to places it hadn’t gone in a long time and was fired largely for committing the crime of being 63 years old.
Friedgen was 75-50 during his 10 seasons at Maryland. Edsall was 22-34 in four-plus seasons. The handful of Edsall defenders will point out that Maryland’s football players have shown marked academic improvement since he arrived. They’re right. But Friedgen wasn’t fired because of his academic record, and Edsall wasn’t going to survive because of his.
In many ways, Maryland’s handling of Edsall’s firing is symbolic of how dysfunctional the relationship between the school — Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, boosters, the student body — and Edsall has been. The coach’s departure was leaked to the media Thursday, leaving Edsall to live through 72 hours of what had to be torturous public speculation about his future. Edsall had to feel like a man being publicly marched to the guillotine. You could certainly understand his frustration showing Saturday after the loss to Ohio State when he was asked whether he always shook hands with his players before a game.
And yet, given one last chance to prove that he had more class than the people who were running him out of town, Edsall cracked.
“I do that every single game — every single game!” he answered angrily, voice rising with each word. “Out of the respect I have for these kids and what they go through. Every single game!”
With that, he stormed out of his final Maryland news conference. Coaches repeatedly tell their players they have to stay cool under fire. Edsall couldn’t do that Saturday. He could have simply said, “I do that every game” and moved on. Or he could have handled it with some humor. “Hey, I’ve heard the same rumors you’ve heard. I was enjoying the moment.”
Sadly, that never has been Edsall’s way. He’s the classic humorless football coach — which, again, is acceptable as long as you’re winning. It’s okay to be Bill Belichick, Urban Meyer or Nick Saban if you have Bill Belichick’s, Urban Meyer’s or Nick Saban’s record.
Edsall never came close to that. He went 2-10 his first season and made things even worse by claiming after an embarrassing 38-7 loss at home to Temple that Maryland was “rebuilding.” Friedgen was 9-4 in his final season, and the Terrapins returned ACC rookie of the year Danny O’Brien at quarterback. By season’s end, O’Brien was one of a slew of transfers.
Although the record gradually improved the next three falls, the Terrapins never had a true signature win. They beat Virginia Tech two years ago, but the win was over a less-than-stellar Hokies team. Maryland’s conference record was still only 3-5, and the season culminated with an embarrassing loss in a minor bowl game to Marshall. A year ago, there were impressive-on-paper wins over Michigan and Penn State, but both were in the midst of down seasons. The regular season ended with an embarrassing home loss to Rutgers and a blowout loss to Stanford in another minor bowl game.
Edsall never beat a ranked team at Maryland. Two years ago, the Terrapins started 4-0, helped by a woeful nonconference schedule, before traveling to Florida State to begin ACC play. The final was 63-0.
For all the talk about ballyhooed recruiting classes, the Terrapins still can’t compete with the big boys.
Edsall’s hiring came about only because the administration got nervous about the way a higher-profile candidate, Mike Leach, departed Texas Tech. Leach is now at Washington State, where his record isn’t any better than Edsall’s, although the Cougars did beat Oregon on Saturday. Even in a down year for the Ducks, that’s a signature win.
By firing Edsall now, Anderson should have plenty of time to do a more thorough search than he did the last time. It is unlikely that many — if any — top coaches will line up for the job: Maryland is a mid-level ACC program that is now trying to compete in the high-powered Big Ten. Whether Anderson decides to hire a coach who has been successful at a lower level of college football, a hot coordinator or tries to lure a big name (forget the Chip Kelly talk, folks; it isn’t happening), he better factor personality into his decision.
Gary Williams, Maryland’s Hall of Fame former basketball coach, often points out that coaching at Maryland is different than a lot of big-time college programs because the school is in a major media market. This isn’t Tuscaloosa, where the media will tolerate being lectured constantly by Saban. Public gaffes might be forgiven, but they certainly aren’t forgotten.
Edsall swaggered into that first news conference apparently still thinking he was in Storrs, where all things U-Conn. are always the most important stories in the state. He never completely recovered from that performance because his team never performed well enough on the field.
The finale Saturday was a lot like Edsall’s first 55 games: a few loyalists clinging to the notion that “playing hard” and hanging in against an Ohio State team that has struggled against everyone this season somehow mattered. It didn’t. Hawaii hung with the Buckeyes for three quarters. Northern Illinois and Indiana almost beat them. In the end, Maryland trailed 49-21 before a consolation touchdown against Ohio State’s second-string defense.
Then came Edsall’s postgame blowup.
Sadly, he went out the way he came in: lacking grace and, ultimately, answers.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.