The three lessons Randy Edsall learned from his forgettable first year in College Park, he said, come from an old Clint Eastwood movie: “ ‘Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.’ I don’t remember the name of it, but those are the three things,” he said, leaning back in a leather recliner in his office at Gossett Team House.
The movie was 1986’s “Heartbreak Ridge.” The plot, as summarized at IMDB.com: a hard-nosed Marine gunnery sergeant “clashes with his superiors . . . as he takes command of a spoiled recon platoon with a bad attitude.”
Sounds reminiscent of the 2011 college football season, when Gunnery Sgt. Edsall made those miscreant Maryland kids remove their earrings, take off their hats when indoors and shape up or ship out.
And boy, did they ever ship out — 23 of them, basically the equivalent of an entire recruiting class, including Danny O’Brien, last September’s starting quarterback, to Wisconsin.
Oh, at ease, Terrapins Nation: Your football team already has won as many games in two weeks as it won all of last season. If Maryland can beat a team full of Edsall’s former recruits on Saturday at Byrd Stadium, it will move to 3-0 for the first time since 2001, Ralph Friedgen’s first year.
In Storrs, Conn., the game is essentially being billed as the “Revenge on Randy Bowl.” The Connecticut fan base still can’t get over how Edsall, referred to as “The Deserter” in a Hartford Courant column this week, got on a flight to Maryland after his team’s Fiesta Bowl loss in January 2011, never letting his players know he was off to take another job on the same night he made the team’s star running back stand up in front of the team and admit he was turning pro and forgoing his senior season. This week, Edsall expressed regret for his actions that night.
But really, Maryland-Connecticut would be better billed as the “Kids Caught in a Custody Battle Bowl.” More than four dozen players on both sides had to adjust to another coach and another system after the guy who recruited them moved on (or had to move on) before their scholarships ran out.
The upperclassmen on both teams, who stuck around and persevered instead of transferring, should be the focus Saturday. Not Edsall; he’s merely the common denominator who stirred the pot during the process.
“Of course you’re coming to a program hoping your coach will be here,” Maryland senior tackle Justin Gilbert said. “But we got a new coach. The guys who are here like Coach Edsall. We had a lot of guys leave — it kinda helped us because there at the end we had a lot of cancers on the team. . . . Guys chirping in the locker room. You could tell they didn’t want to be here and they had a negative attitude.
“Getting those guys out helped. Now we can actually really go with Coach Edsall’s philosophy of doing the right thing.”
Doing the right thing — Randy’s way.
Edsall swore off alcohol again this season, and asked his players to do the same.
“We’ll still go out and have fun with friends, but that doesn’t mean you have to go get hammered with your friends,” said Ryan Schlothauer, the already-graduated tight end whom Edsall helped get an internship at Lockheed Martin this summer. Edsall “calls it ‘drinking the poison.’ ”
Schlothauer is asked if he’s imbibed even a sip of alcohol.
“Absolutely not,” he said with conviction. “Not since the season started.”
Defensive lineman Joe Vellano and wide receiver Kevin Dorsey, two more of Maryland’s 17 seniors, swear by Edsall, too. Vellano said the food has been better since Edsall arrived, and that the coach actually had a career fair just for the football players.
On the other side of the ball: “It wasn’t the best situation or the best way to handle it, but at the end of the day, he did what he had to do,” U-Conn. linebacker Sio Moore told ESPN. “I wasn’t angry about the way it happened, I was angry about losing my coach. When you come to college, you don’t plan on being there four or five years and the coach who brought you in not being there anymore. But honestly what he did, why he did it, he did it for himself, his career and for his family. There’s no hard feelings. I still respect him.”
When C.J. Brown, who replaced O’Brien last season, went down with an ACL tear last month, Edsall seemed on a direct path to more losses, more criticism, more calls for his firing.
But something peculiar happened. Behind Perry Hills, the true freshman quarterback and current ACC rookie of the week, Maryland eked out an eyesore against William & Mary in the opener and last Saturday dropped 36 points at Temple, a nine-point favorite. Suddenly, the Terrapins began finishing in the fourth quarter.
The rewards for doing it the Randy way were now tangible. He says he has the same player manual from a year ago, but he relented on having names on the back of the players’ jerseys, an apparent nod to the fact that a little practical individualism isn’t going to corrupt the ethos of team.
“I think the biggest thing is nobody’s perfect,” Edsall said, “I make mistakes and I’ll make them until the day that I die. I’ve always believed in having certain values and certain morals, and I think one of the biggest things is to never stray from that. You also have to be self-reflective in terms of what can you do better.”
He can start after Saturday’s game by making real amends to the players he left behind without so much as a phone call, kids he recruited whom he was forbidden to speak to after taking the Maryland job. If you’re going to continue to preach loyalty in College Park, the kids from Connecticut deserve at least that.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.