Sunday, April 30, 2006

Should We Still Fear the Turtle-Part 1

Is the University of Maryland athletic program losing steam? After the football team won the ACC and played in the Orange Bowl following the 2001 season and the men’s basketball team won the 2002 national championship, Terrapin sports appeared to be at the apex of success.

To many Maryland fans, that seems like a long time ago. The football team has posted back-to-back 5-6 records and the men’s hoops squad has not earned invites to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Have things gone to hell in a hand basket in just four years?

The answer to that question depends on how wide your focus is.

For many fans and alumni, the success of their school’s athletic program is largely defined by their football and men’s basketball teams. From that view, the good ship Terrapin has been taking on water over the last two years.

The drop-off on the basketball court has been striking. Maryland’s string of 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances was snapped in 2004-05, a mere three years following their national championship. The school’s bid to the 2004 tournament was hanging by a slim thread going into the final week of the regular season, but the Terps won their final two games and then swept through the ACC Tournament to earn the conference’s automatic spot.

Terp fans who have come to view a berth in the NCAA’s as the baseline for even a moderately successful season are up in arms about how the program could fall so far so quickly. This angst is exacerbated by the opening of Comcast Center in November, 2002. A sparkling new facility with every modern convenience should be a magnet for impressionable high school stars. They should be chomping at the bit to play there against ACC opponents in front of raucous crowds on national television.

Only they’re not, at least not the right type of players.

Maryland’s rise to national prominence was as much about the character of the players in the program as it was about their talent. Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, and Steve Blake, the foundation of the 2002 title team, were talented players, but it was the intangibles they brought to College Park that made a good team champions. They arrived on campus with a chip on their shoulder and responded to the one Coach Gary Williams has always carried around.

That type of player hasn’t been seen on campus since Blake finished his career in 2003. Williams is not known for being particularly “hands-on” in recruiting, relying on his assistants to do a large share of the evaluating and relationship building. When he had a stable staff of Billy Hahn, Dave Dickerson, and Jimmy Patsos, that worked very well. All three were part of building the program into a championship one which helped them earn head coaching opportunities for themselves. Some of their replacements (Matt Kovarik, Mike Lonergan, and most recently Rob Moxley) have also left, forcing Williams to adjust his recruiting practices.

During this transition, Maryland has attracted talented basketball players, but ones who lacked the character of Dixon, Baxter and Blake. In the past year, former players Chris McCray (a team captain) and Travis Garrison have had run-ins with the law. McCray also became academically ineligible, and the remaining four seniors dropped out of school before any of them earned a degree.

It is this issue that is reportedly causing tension between Williams and athletic director Dr. Debbie Yow, a very image-conscious leader and administrator. Of course, the mounting losses on the court don’t help either. Rumors have popped up about Williams showing interest in the Charlotte Bobcats coaching job. I have never been able to imagine Gary Williams as an NBA coach, seeing him as far to demanding for spoiled millionaires to tolerate. Nevertheless, it could be a way of Williams pushing back on Yow.

With the collection of knuckleheads who arrived on campus the fall following the national championship gone, this upcoming season is a critical one for Maryland basketball and the ability of Gary Williams to chart a new, more successful direction both on and off the court and finish his coaching career on an upswing.

Head football coach Ralph Friedgen faces the same type of pressure entering the 2006 season. I’ll share my thoughts on his situation in my next blog entry, then I’ll conclude this series by telling you why I think the Maryland athletic program is actually in excellent shape.


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