Whenever defensive coordinator Brian Stewart’s number appears on Maryland senior cornerback Jeremiah Johnson’s mobile phone, Johnson figures he’ll eat well soon. Johnson is among many members of the football team who often share good food and laughs over dinner at Stewart’s house. The Terrapins never tire of those reps.
“He’ll just text and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get the guys together this weekend,’ ” Johnson said the other day at Byrd Stadium. “The fact that he opens the doors of his home and his wife cooks for us . . . you really feel like it’s a family.”
Stewart, who engineered an eye-opening turnaround on defense after arriving in College Park, enters his third season leading young men whom he views as his sons. Unlike some coaches who believe players respond best to shouting, Stewart would rather embrace than intimidate. Stewart, though, is no pushover, players say. He follows a simple philosophy he learned from his mentor, former NFL coach Wade Phillips: If you show players you care about them, most will follow you anywhere.
The approach has served Stewart well as he has climbed the coaching ladder in college and pros. As Maryland opens its inaugural Big Ten season with a nonconference game Saturday against James Madison, Stewart will need the family to stick together more than ever.
For the defense, the gatherings at Stewart’s house foster a feeling of togetherness and “sends a message to each and every one one of us that he does care about us,” said Johnson, a key member of the secondary. “It’s always better to play for a coach who you know has your back.”
After pausing for a moment, Johnson went deeper in explaining the effect of Stewart’s style on the coach-player relationship. The interaction “transitions from, ‘I don’t want to mess up because coach is going to yell at me,’ to ‘I don’t want to mess up because this is someone who I don’t want to let down.’ From that standpoint, his role kind of shifts. He becomes a father figure and a mentor. Being that we have that relationship, it pushes you to want to do well for yourself and him.”
From the start, Maryland’s defensive players have played well for Stewart. In one of Edsall’s best moves, he lured Stewart from the University of Houston, where he spent two seasons and played a big part in the school’s 13-1 record in 2011. After adjusting to Stewart’s aggressive 3-4 defense, the Cougars made across-the-board improvement. In 2012, Maryland’s big jump in the Atlantic Coast Conference unit rankings was no less impressive.
Before Stewart arrived, the Terrapins’ defense was a mess, ranking last in the ACC. By the end of his first season, Maryland climbed to second in the conference. Last season, the Terrapins produced 37 sacks, tying them for third in the ACC. The progress didn’t surprise NFL people.
During eight seasons as an assistant coach in the league, including two as the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator under Phillips, Stewart had a reputation of being a sharp teacher who developed effective working relationships with players. Those are the best kind.
In both of Stewart’s seasons directing their defense, the Cowboys finished in the top 10. They were first and third, respectively, in sacks, and many players were selected to the Pro Bowl. Even in the pros, Stewart learned, fostering a family feeling is important.
“If you show people that you care, they’ll buy in,” Stewart said during a news conference this week. “That’s my main focus.”
He learned it from Phillips, who made a practice of opening his home to coaches and players. Over bowls of shrimp gumbo, conversations about football, family and life filled the rooms. With good reason, Phillips is proud of his protege.
“He has great relationships with people. The players like him. You play [harder] for somebody if you like ’em,” Phillips said in a recent phone interview. “Some [coaches] just try to be tough. They think that’s what coaching is. Helping people get better, that’s what coaching really is.
“He’s real knowledgeable, a very sharp guy, and players realize, pretty quickly, he knows what he’s doing. They realize he can help ’em get better. He’s going to find a way to get each individual better. Even the second- and third-team guys. That’s what coaching is: getting everybody better.”
With what the Terrapins are facing, they need to get a lot better. Historically, the Big Ten has been a much stronger football league than the ACC. Three of Maryland’s conference opponents are ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25, including No. 5 Ohio State, which Maryland will face on its home field Oct. 3.
“The main reason why it’s tough is that it isn’t necessarily the people you play, as much as it is the people you play and also not having played them before,” said Stewart, who has spent much of the summer watching Big Ten game film.
“You play against Florida State, you know who they are. You play against Clemson, you know who they are. We were in the ACC. They’re in the ACC. We knew them. Now, playing against Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, we know who they are. But we don’t know who they are.”
Sounds like the Terrapins have a lot to discuss. Fortunately for them, Stewart has the perfect place to meet.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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