COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Back in the spring, with the jackals still biting at his heels, Maryland's hated new football coach Randy Edsall ran a career fair for his players. He is probably not the first football coach to run a career fair, but several of the Maryland players said it was the first one they knew about and they moved freely between seminars run by lawyers, company presidents and real estate experts. A few even wound up with internships.
And while career fairs don't change 2-10 seasons like Edsall's Terrapins had last year, they do gleam as a beacon in a hypocritical college football world where coaches suck the eligibility from their players then discard them like drained batteries. Talk to nearly any financial planner who deals with NFL players and they will soon express their disgust at a college football system that marches players from its doors with few employable skills that don't involve shoulder pads.
"The one thing I saw at places I have been is that guys come in and use up their eligibility and then it was like ‘OK, see ya, you're on your own,' " Edsall said the other day as he sat in his office at Maryland's Byrd Stadium. "I feel there is more to a football program than just that."
So what's wrong with a coach who actually might, you know, coach a kid to be something more in life than a nose tackle? Still, in his year and a half at Maryland, Edsall has done a lot to make people despise him.
The problem for Edsall is that he replaced a man who was something of a local legend. Ralph Friedgen won early at Maryland and then stayed around for a decade, producing the occasional upset, taking the Terrapins to several mid-level bowls and developing NFL scouting combine surprises. Friedgen was a popular figure in the media, a man people loved to call "The Fridge." And when he was run out at the end of the 2010 season, a lot of fans wanted his offensive coordinator, and anointed successor, James Franklin to get the job.
Edsall is not Friedgen. He is not jovial. He is stiff and sometimes aloof. He unfurled a list of rules he had used in his previous job at Connecticut, including: no caps or earrings in the football offices and trimmed beards and mustaches. All which seem silly things to demand of kids on a college campus in 2012. When players and parents complained about his management style, he said he wouldn't change. Several wanted out and left, but he made some of the transfers difficult, most notably that of quarterback Danny O'Brien, who ultimately went to Wisconsin after Maryland initially resisted his transfer to Vanderbilt where Franklin is the coach.
But isn't it also hard to criticize a coach who actually does classroom checks himself and often tells his players that it would make him happier to run into them years later and hear they had a successful business career than to be told they had played 12 years in the NFL.
"One thing he always tells us: ‘When you are in college this is the best opportunity to set up your futures,' " says senior receiver Kevin Dorsey.
That has to be worth something, right?
Edsall is a Tom Coughlin disciple, which means his football mentor is a sputtering, red-faced rooster of a man who has spawned his own army of detractors. Coughlin's endless scrolls of rules such as his insistence that players show up five minutes early for meetings or be considered late, border on the absurd. For years his New York Giants players chafed at the way he treated them like school children and the New York media bristled at his surly dismissiveness.
In 2007, Coughlin was all but fired. Then he won the Super Bowl. And this year he won it again. And suddenly the despised Coughlin, with all his moronic rules, is being talked about as a Hall of Fame coach.
Edsall admires Coughlin. He's always seen something in the way Coughlin stood sturdy in the gale of hate that blew back at him, toasting his cheeks deeper and deeper shades of chestnut while refusing to break. Coughlin had his way. It was his way. And he would rather be fired than change.
"He was always a guy who I thought was a really good coach and never got the credit he deserved," Edsall said, quietly. "It's about doing things the right way. It's about not taking short cuts. And it's believing in yourself and the people around you and persevering. And that's what you have to do.
"There isn't a better example of a guy who has taken more grief and has been run out on a rail so many times and yet proves everybody wrong and still doesn't get the credit he deserves because he has a philosophy and believes in it and people don't believe in discipline and structure and accountability and responsibility."
And if Coughlin won't break, neither will Edsall. This much he makes clear as he sits in his office, his jaw squared. He won't cave to criticism. He won't cave when players walk away. He won't cave to anything. The closest he came was replacing both his offensive and defensive coordinators in the offseason. Then a few days ago, his starting quarterback C.J. Brown, was lost for the season with a torn ACL, leaving him with a true freshman to play the most important position.
He shrugged. So he'll play a true freshman. Let's go.
"If all of a sudden you are trying to reinvent the wheel after going 2-10 then I think you have more problems," Edsall said. "Then what happens to you is the people around you they start to see you panic. And if they see you panic then maybe they aren't going to be all in or buy into what you were trying to do."
Still, the Terrapins, who had a surprisingly solid recruiting class, ranked 35th by Rivals, will probably struggle again this year. And so the criticism will still churn around Edsall. His detractors will point to Maryland's record, they will show, too, his 1-16 record against Top 25 teams at UConn while not also explaining that inventing a serviceable Division I-A program at Connecticut was a near-miracle.
If nothing else, Edsall proved he could coach by turning a modest I-AA program in a state that produces fewer Division I prospects annually than many high schools in the South, to a team that regularly had eight-win seasons. Then he came to Maryland and, suddenly, with his rules and the unhappy players, it was like he couldn't coach anymore.
"I guess if having discipline and having to work to make these players the best they can be – academically and athletically and as people – and if that was wrong then I don't know what is right," he said, staring out the window at the field.
The thing is, he thinks the players like the rules. He thinks they like order and stability that comes from going to class. He thinks the way he handles things now will have an impact on his players' lives in the future.
"I guess it depends on how you were brought up," said Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown who played for Edsall at UConn. "If you walk into someone's house, the first time you meet them you probably shouldn't be wearing a ball cap."
Is it so bad, not wearing a cap to meetings? Is it awful in a world where "student-athlete" is the ultimate oxymoron that Edsall checks to make sure his players are in class? Much like Tom Coughlin, doesn't it make sense to stand for something?
In today's college football that should be called a start.
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