Even if Maryland hired the right coach, it bungled the entire process
There is a pretty good chance that Randy Edsall will be a good hire for the Maryland Terps football program. Watching his press conference over the internet, I came away mostly impressed. Other than failing to inform his Connecticut players that he was leaving in person, choosing instead to do it over the PA of the team plane, Edsall hasn't really done anything wrong throughout this process. He's likely to win right away because Ralph Friedgen left him with a pretty good team and a pretty good quarterback. And I'm sure he'll work tirelessly as a recruiter.
I've actually been to Storrs, and it's a pretty campus, but it's also in the middle of a cow pasture surrounded by what I'll describe as The Woods of the Damned. That part of Connecticut feels like a scene from T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land" but with better women's basketball. I don't know how Edsall sold recruits on coming there, but he seemed to do OK. I suspect he'll do even better convincing recruits to come to College Park, even though I wouldn't exactly brag about the aesthetics of Route 1 either.
All that said, it's pretty obvious Maryland administrators bungled the entire process of getting Edsall, in a manner that was almost amateurish. And it's a good lesson for athletic director Kevin Anderson that he's not running the show at Army anymore. Maryland may not be Ohio State, but it is certainly the big leagues compared to running the athletic department of a service academy. If Anderson didn't fully understand that prior to firing Friedgen, you would hope he understands it now. And if reading that paragraph angers him, so be it. Handling criticism from a passionate fan base and dealing with scrutiny from the media is a big part of his job now. Your decision-making tends to be under the microscope a bit more when you're being covered by the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post.
Even though I liked Friedgen, I'm happy to concede that I understand the logic behind Anderson not wanting to offer him an extension. Anderson needs to sell tickets and luxury boxes, and injecting some life into Maryland football seemed like his clear priority when he was hired.
Now, I actually think Maryland fans were overrating Mike Leach's acumen as a football coach a bit. Leach doesn't like to recruit anymore than Friedgen does, but even the retread players in Texas are better than some of the top players in this area for his system, because so many high school teams in Texas run the spread. For all his pirate talk, Leach needs a good recruiting coordinator and a good defensive coordinator by his side to be successful. Just like Friedgen, now that we bring it up.
But I do agree that Leach would have been an exciting hire. He would have had the fan base thinking big again, which would have been fun.
But if Anderson wasn't ready to hire Leach, or if he couldn't sell Leach's and all his flaws to the University president Wallace Loh, then Leach's name never should have been attached to this job. Don't blame the media. The media didn't attach Leach's name to the Colorado or Minnesota jobs because those schools wanted no part of him. Good athletic directors have to know how to figure out the logistics for these kind of moves covertly. They have to be sneaky and stealthy. This was neither. In fact, it's actually hard to imagine a way this could have been handled any clumsier, from telling Friedgen he would return, to inadvertently revealing to the media on a conference call he he had changed his mind and was trying to convince Friedgen to retire, to courting Leach the day of Friedgen's final game, to not even calling Leach to tell him they were going in another direction. It's hard to imagine Under Armour's Kevin Plank is thrilled with this either, which means Maryland football may have alienated arguably its most important donor.
In the end, it's sort of like Anderson convinced someone to get a divorce, then hinted for weeks he was going to set them up with Brooklyn Decker. Two days later, he showed up with Ellen Page instead. Now, there is nothing wrong with Ellen Page. She's funny and cute. He just never should have implied he could deliver Brooklyn Decker. The fan base is angry, and rightfully so. They could get behind selling a little tiny slice of their soul, and firing an alum who dragged their program out of the dark ages, for Brooklyn Decker. Ellen Page? That's a much tougher sell.
This is probably an appropriate place to point out that Edsall was 1-16 against ranked teams at Connecticut.
In fairness, if Maryland wants to truly improve its football program, if it wants to go from "good to great," then there are larger issues then who the athletic director is, or who coaches the team. Friedgen said something in one of his final press conferences that I think touched on one of the problems Edsall is going to face. When asked if the Terps job was still a good job, Friedgen paused for a second before answering.
"I will tell you this: It's not an easy job," Friedgen said. "There's a lot of things that really have to change to help it reach its potential. To be honest with you, I don't know if the university is willing to do that. You kind of have to know that going in. I did, and I think that was a benefit to me. What I think happens to a lot of coaches who come to Maryland is they think it's like every other place and after their third year, they realize it isn't and then they're stuck. It's just tough to sustain. Just go back and look at the history."
That's not Friedgen making excuses, in my opinion. That's him tactfully expressing what I'm going to be blunt about. The University of Maryland can't decide if it wants to be Duke academically, or Virginia Tech athletically. But it can't be both if it really wants to improve.
Let's face it, it's harder to get kids into school at Maryland these days then it is Virginia Tech, or a number of other ACC schools. Both Friedgen and Gary Williams have dealt with this problem for years. I watched it happen in the two years I was the Maryland football beat writer. I know of at least two instances when Friedgen got a commitment from a recruit who met NCAA and ACC standards for admission, but was told by the admissions office that recruit would not be admitted to Maryland. And so that recruit instead went to Virginia Tech. Certainly Friedgen had his share of exceptions granted by admissions, but I don't think anyone would argue he had the same clout that his friend Frank Beamer had at Virginia Tech with his administration. Yet that's what Maryland wants its football team to be, on the level of the Hokies.
Will Randy Edsall still feel like Maryland is his dream job when he finds out he just spent a year recruiting a stud wide receiver, only to learn the university doesn't think that kid is worthy of stepping on campus? And so that kid spends the next four years running through his secondary? It's completely fine to have high standards for academics. But there is a reality that comes with that too. Notre Dame isn't a college football power anymore for several reasons, but academics is one of them.
I don't buy into the idea there is any integrity in big-time college athletics anyway, so I don't care if athletes are admitted to school with lower grades and test scores. The represent less than 1 percent of the student body, for starters. As long as schools allow legacy admissions, they can't really make the argument they're completely compromising themselves by bending their academic requirements by letting in athletes who are going to generate millions of dollars for the school.
Edsall should succeed, and when he does, some of these bad feelings will fade. But the larger issues will remain. Maryland's total operating budget for football, according to the most recent figures, is a little more than $9 million. We don't know how that ranks against private schools in the ACC like Wake Forest, Duke, Miami and Boston College, because they don't have to disclose their books, but it's less than every public ACC school except N.C. State's $7 million.
Clemson spends $10.8 million. North Carolina around $10.5 million. Georgia Tech approximately $12.9 million. At Virginia Tech, it's $14 million. And if you want to compare them with the big boys of college football, it's not even close. Ohio State football operating budget is $25.7 million.
The University of Connecticut's operating budget? $10.4 million.
EDIT: Reader Chris G points out this AOL FanHouse article that has even more recent figures. Maryland ranks dead last behind every ACC school, even the private schools. When Wake Forest (enrollment 7,000) and Duke (enrollment 6,500) are spending nearly $4 million per year more than Maryland (enrollment 37,000) then it's silly you claim you're taking football seriously.
Does Maryland really want to have a elite athletic program? Or do they want to continue paying lip service to that idea, while still handcuffing their coaches and making their job harder than it should be? Even if the school can't afford to spend more money on football, it can't pretend it can compete for national championships while trying to have the same academic standards as Virginia. Stop trying to have it both ways.
So best of luck, Coach Edsall. But don't say you weren't warned.