Thursday, December 15, 2011

A year after ‘good to great’: Anderson, Edsall, and Locksley?!

Editor’s note: This post was written by friend of the blog and Terps aficionado Walt Williams -- no, not that Walt Williams. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Nearly a year since Randy Edsall was hired as the head coach at the University of Maryland and fans were promised the team would go from “good to great,” it is safe to say that the exact opposite has occurred. Edsall presided over one of the most stunning negative turnarounds in college football history, leading a 9-4 team in 2010 to a 2-10 finish a year later. Is most of this his fault? Yes, and I will definitely get into that a bit later, but it is probably a good idea to look at how Maryland acquired Edsall in the first place.

Prior to the 2009 season, former athletic director Debbie Yow gave assistant coach James Franklin a “coach-in-waiting” contract that guaranteed Franklin would be the Terrapins head coach by 2012. If he was not named coach by that time he would be owed $1 million by the university. This was done even though Friedgen had previously expressed no prior interest in retiring or stepping aside. From there the Terps delivered a two-win season filled with close losses and near misses. In the aftermath of that season, it is believed that Yow wanted to let go of Friedgen at that point (which no one would have complained about), but the economy played a large part in allowing Friedgen to return.

In 2010, Yow left her post at the University of Maryland for North Carolina State, leaving behind a host of problems that would greatly affect the university in the future. One of those problems was the “coach-in-waiting” deal she had inked with Franklin. In September of 2010, former Army athletic director Kevin Anderson was hired as Yow’s replacement. Anderson made no secret of the fact that he was not a fan of coach-in-waiting deals from the outset, and it would be hard to blame him for that stance. The deal that Yow had struck with Franklin would seemingly take away any flexibility a new athletic director would be expected to have in making one of his most important hires. On the field, the team stormed back from the previous year’s 2-10 record to finish 9-4, remaining in contention for the ACC Atlantic Division crown until late in the season.

In November of 2010, Anderson pledged that Friedgen would return for the 2011 season. At this point the train was derailed to put it mildly. Friedgen believed that he should get an extension past the 2011 season for his 2010 ACC Coach of the Year performance. Franklin, for his part, continued to look for assurances that he would eventually be named the Terps head coach. After not receiving the assurances he was (rightfully) looking for, he interviewed and accepted the head coaching position at Vanderbilt after the Commodores’ offer to Gus Malzahn was turned down. This solved the coach-in-waiting problem but would lead to an even bigger mess. Friedgen was now a complete lame-duck coach who desperately wanted an extension. Anderson was an athletic director who wanted to get "his guy" to run the football program. The Franklin departure happened to free up $1 million that would have likely gone to him if he had stuck around since Anderson showed no inclination to hire him in 2012, in addition to funds that would have been paid to him to coach if he were hired. Using this new revenue with booster assistance, Anderson now had the ability to buy out Friedgen’s contract and bring in a new coach.

Lest anyone think that this move by itself was a complete disaster, it honestly was not. In fact, the move itself could even be considered rational. A good number of Maryland fans believed that while Friedgen was a very good coach, the program could have used an influx of new energy. This move became a disaster both with the way it was handled and the aftermath. Even with the public relations disaster most fans would have had no problem moving on if Anderson made a big hire. Maryland fans assumed that the only way Anderson would part with Friedgen was if he definitely had a big name on board to take the program to the next level. The only problem was that he did not.

After letting Friedgen go, Anderson set a January 4th deadline for hiring a new coach. In between the December 20th firing of Friedgen and that deadline, Maryland representatives were linked to interviews with Malzahn, Chris Petersen, June Jones, Rich Rodriguez, and Mike Leach. Of these candidates the overwhelming favorite for the position was Leach. To many it seemed that Leach was a foregone conclusion to be hired. He was flown to College Park to meet with school officials and tour the campus. However, at some point the Leach hiring fell through. Reports speculated that school officials nixed the idea of hiring Leach because of his controversial past and pending lawsuits with Texas Tech and ESPN. Regardless, the deal fell apart and left Maryland scrambling for a new coach just days before Anderson’s self-imposed deadline.

Anderson eventually settled on Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall. The university flew Edsall to College Park to finalize his contract after Edsall’s Huskies were blown out in the Fiesta Bowl after backing into the BCS by winning the bottom-feeding Big East with an 8-4 record. At this point, the majority of Maryland fans responded to the move with a combination of apathy and disappointment. Edsall was a career .500 coach with little name value and a pitiful record against Top 25 teams. At best it appeared that Maryland went through all of that trouble to make a lateral hire. At worst, it looked like Maryland had set itself back slightly.

What no one would have predicted, however, was the ensuing disaster. Almost immediately Edsall went around alienating most of his new players while talking about the program that he had taken over as if it were a renegade operation under the popular alumnus Friedgen. Edsall’s militaristic approach resulted in the departure of 12 players from the program before the 2011 season began.

Regardless of how anyone personally felt about Edsall, the 2011 season began with a high level of excitement. Maryland pulled out a win on national TV over a depleted Miami squad while wearing their new Under Armour uniforms. Little did fans know that this would be the highlight of the season, but there may have been signs of a growing disconnect between Edsall and his players. During the game, Cameron Chism sealed the victory with an interception return for a touchdown. Upon returning to the sideline, Chism was visibly chewed out by Edsall for making the apparent poor decision of returning the ball. That issue notwithstanding, fans were willing to go along for the ride if it meant excitement and exposure. This positive outlook continued through a tough loss to West Virginia, but it came crashing down after the Terrapins played Temple.

If the Edsall hire goes down as a historic disaster for the Terrapins, the Temple game will be marked as the beginning of the program’s demise. In what would become a theme for the rest of the season, the Terrapins looked uninspired and were dominated and out-coached. In what would also become a theme, Edsall used his post-game press conference to absolve himself of any responsibility for the loss and blame his players and the man who recruited them for the loss. Afterwards, any positive for the Terps would be attributed to Edsall’s coaching staff and any defeat would be blamed on undisciplined players, previous coaching staffs, or the lack of talent on the roster. Another theme of the season would be unexplained suspensions and benching of players. With all of this going on, it was reported that many team members had started referring to Gossett Team House as Gossett State Penitentiary, or GSP for short.

Edsall found a way to completely lose his team during the season, which is not surprising given his attitude towards them, but still troubling nonetheless. Edsall seems to think that the only way he can retool the Terps is to completely destroy them and remake them in his own image. If this team was a 0-12 type of unit the previous year and filled with criminals and troublemakers, you might be inclined to agree with him. However, he did not inherit that kind of team. He inherited a team that was extremely loyal to its former coach and appeared to have a decent amount of talent on hand. Edsall, by throwing Friedgen and the players he recruited under the bus at every opportunity while at the same time creating a toxic atmosphere in the locker room with his approach, effectively torpedoed the 2011 season and possibly beyond.

Since the season ended eight more players have transferred, bringing his total count to 20 in just under a year. This is an issue not just because he has lost 20 players but because he has also potentially lost those players’ high schools and the areas those schools are in as well as future sources of talent. With an alarming rate of transfers and presumably having the same trouble most coaches at the university have had retaining top talent, many fans called for the staff to add an “ace” recruiter with ties to the area to possibly repair some local relationships. One of the names mentioned the most was former New Mexico head coach Mike Locksley, who was an assistant at Maryland from 1997-2002, at Florida from 2003-2004, and offensive coordinator at Illinois from 2005-2008. As luck would have it, reports are that Locksley was hired as offensive coordinator to replace the maligned Gary Crowton. While many are excited to have Locksley in the fold, there is plenty to suggest that his arrival will not lead to a flood of 4- and 5-star area recruits staying at home to play for the Terrapins.

Any discussion of Locksley cannot begin or end without mentioning the issues that he encountered as the head coach of New Mexico for over a little more than two seasons. Locksley was hampered by allegations of sexual discrimination by an administrative assistant before he coached a game for the Lobos. Locksley was also suspended by his university for punching an assistant coach in 2009. On the field he produced consecutive 1-11 seasons and was off to a 0-4 start this season before being fired after a minor was arrested on DWI suspicion while driving Locksley’s car. These issues alone bring up some serious concerns as well as some interesting questions. If you believe that university officials vetoed the potential hiring of Leach for off-field concerns, how do you think they feel about Locksley, who has committed transgressions that depending on your viewpoint could be considered equal to or worse that anything Leach has done? There is also the issue of how Locksley will mesh with Edsall. With no prior connection between the two and Edsall’s apparent hard-line stance on matters of discipline, how will Edsall get along with an offensive coordinator who has been accused of things that would get a Terrapin player buried beneath Gossett Team House? For argument’s sake, this hire seems like something that may have been forced on Edsall by someone else, and if that did happen what are the chances it ends well?

Locksley’s recruiting record appears to be a mixed bag as well. While many will credit him for recruiting players on the 2001 Orange Bowl team, it would also be true that he recruited the players on the 2004 and 2005 teams that did not reach a bowl as his initial tenure at Maryland ended in 2002. Without taking into account his recruiting classes at Florida, since that doesn’t look like a fair comparison, it may be worth mentioning that Maryland still had top 25 recruiting classes from 2003-2006. When Locksley moved to Illinois, the Terrapins had higher ranked recruiting classes during the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Illinois had better classes in 2007 and 2008, but the basis of those classes was not in the D.C. area. Looking at the 2007 and 2008 recruiting classes, Locksley took seven players from the District. Outside of the oft-mentioned Arrelious Benn, Locksley had four 3-star recruits and two 2-star recruits. So it isn’t like Locksley backed up a Brink’s truck and took every big time player from the D.C. area.

While it is hopeful that Locksley will have a positive impact on local recruiting, it isn’t likely that by himself he will make 4- and 5-star recruits choose Maryland -- not with Edsall remaining as coach and other, more established big-time programs setting up shop in the talent rich D.C. area. Even looking at more local schools like Virginia and Virginia Tech, it is foolish to believe that Locksley will be able to stop all potential recruits from going to the resurgent Cavaliers and consistent Hokies. I would hope that we aren’t naive enough to believe that those programs do not have recruiters on their staffs with local ties. Those programs also do not have the Edsall albatross hanging over them. That is to say nothing of the bigger national programs that occasionally swoop in to take a top prospect.

There are issues inherent with the Maryland situation that makes it difficult to expect top names to stay home. Chief among these is the built-in transience of area residents. Rarely does anyone in the D.C. area have a large built-in family legacy in the area. People move here from all over the country for a variety of reasons, and with that type of environment it is difficult for anyone to build any type of allegiance to the big local schools. There are also issues tied to the local sports landscape and campus community, but transience is the biggest issue to me.

For these reasons among others it is hard for me not to believe that the Locksley hire is one of extreme desperation. More alarming than anything, the fact that Maryland is making desperate decisions less than a year after hiring the coach who was supposed to transform Terps football from “good to great” means that the Terps are instead now trying to go from bad to mediocre.

(Worth noting: Maybe this lengthy feature on Edsall by Eric Prisbell today will give you some confidence on the direction of the Terps. But probably not.)