September 17, 1999 COLLEGE PARK Ron Vanderlinden is set to begin just his second season as Maryland football coach, and already he's uptight and suspicious. That was evident earlier this summer, when Vanderlinden pulled one of the all-time weirdest freakouts during a Terrapin Club gathering in Frederick.
First to set the stage. The largest Terrapin Club chapters in Maryland annually have one "Meet the Coaches" gathering that Vanderlinden and basketball coach Gary Williams are required to attend. Baltimore, Salisbury and Frederick are three of only a handful of chapters with the pull to get Williams and Vanderlinden on the same night.
It's a chance for members of the big-money chapters to rub shoulders and talk one-on-one with the school's most important coaches. It's a chance for the coaches to speak freely to a small audience of loyalists about the state of their programs. Reporters occasionally attend these semi-private events and it is understood by all, including the coaches, that everything said is off-the-record.
Vanderlinden, attending just his second such function, didn't realize this. Vanderlinden arrived late and seemed edgy from the outset. After a few obligatory rah-rahs about how Maryland football will rise again, Vanderlinden launched into a very matter-of-fact assessment of the program.
In short, Vanderlinden told the Frederick boosters that Maryland had a long way to go before it could compete for the ACC championship he talked about upon being hired. He talked openly of injuries and defections that had set back his timetable for turning around the team. He expressed disappointment that several members of the 1998 recruiting class would not qualify academically, naming a couple players he considered significant losses.
Vanderlinden was in the process of giving a not-so-glowing report on the recently completed spring practice when he spotted a reporter in the audience taking notes.
Vanderlinden stopped mid-sentence, pointed angrily at the reporter, called him out by name and said threateningly: "If you print any of this, you'll never be invited back to one of these things again." After an uneasy silence, Vanderlinden quickly concluded his speech and sat down.
Basketball coach Gary Williams followed, and it was obvious that even he was miffed by Vanderlinden's outburst. Williams walked up to the microphone, turned to the reporter and said: "You can write anything I say. We can't shoot and we can't defend anybody. We're going to stink." Williams chuckled, the audience laughed heartily, and with that an uncomfortable situation was diffused.
Afterward, several of the Frederick boosters sought out the reporter to express dismay over Vanderlinden's behavior and to reiterate that the reporter was always welcome at their functions. Vanderlinden had better lighten up, because 1998 figures to be a long season. Nearly every single reputable preseason publication has picked Maryland last in the ACC and rightfully so. Three wins would be an accomplishment. Any ACC victory would be an upset. Not even the most loyal boosters will be surprised if Maryland is upset by Division I-AA James Madison in the season opener.
Vanderlinden is under a lot of pressure. He is the signature hire in the four-year tenure of athletic director Debbie Yow. She desperately needs him to succeed.
If Vanderlinden flops, Yow could very well go down with him. Sources in the athletic administration have indicated that Yow would leave Maryland voluntarily before having to fire Vanderlinden.
Making matters worse is the fact that Vanderlinden is beginning to realize that it could take more than five years to turn Maryland around. There is no question the program has gotten worse since he took over, and that's never a good sign. Like Duffner before him, Vanderlinden has five years to produce a bowl berth, and time is quickly slipping away. His first two recruiting classes, which would presumably form the foundation for a turnaround, were rated at the bottom of the ACC.
This past spring brought a bevy of setbacks. Tailback Damone Boone, a former Parade All-American who was going to be a gamebreaker, quit the team. Lewis Sanders, the only legitimate player in the secondary, suffered a torn ACL and will miss most, if not all, of this season. Center Ben Thomas, one of the lone bright spots on a bad offensive line in 1997, missed spring practice with a heart ailment. Thomas, whom some publications picked second-team All-ACC, may never play football again.
Late July brought another bombshell. Linebacker Eric Barton, the team's defensive MVP in 1997, was facing a felony, first-degree assault charge in Prince George's County. Barton was arrested in May for allegedly assaulting two men from Brooklyn, N.Y., at an on-campus concert. One victim, Louis Ezrick, identified Barton as the man who punched out two of his teeth. Barton, a 6-3, 235-pound senior linebacker, pleaded not guilty. His lawyer claimed mistaken identity.
Yow criticized former coach Mark Duffner for the fact that so many of his players had "off-field issues that were a concern." She made it clear to Vanderlinden that fielding a team of good citizens was as important as winning.
Vanderlinden touted his ability to do just that during a postseason press conference last year.
"We have not had a single off-field incident involving a football player since I took over," he said.
Veteran beat reporters had to laugh at that statement. "This is Maryland, give it time," one reporter muttered under his breath. <hr>