Maryland plays it safe in hiring Edsall

January 03, 2011 | Luke Jones

A volatile three weeks at the University of Maryland culminated with an underwhelming decision Sunday afternoon.

Despite rampant rumors of Mike Leach bringing his “Air Raid” offense to College Park — along with the baggage attached to the talented, but controversial coach — Maryland ultimately played it safe with the hiring of Randy Edsall less than 24 hours after his Connecticut team fell to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Full disclosure is needed before I continue.

The 52-year-old and I both attended Susquehannock High School in Glen Rock, Pa. (a brief 40-minute drive from Baltimore up I-83 for those wondering). It’s not often that the new head coach of a college football program that you cover just happens to be a fellow “Warrior,” so I took a personal interest when Edsall’s name was gaining steam last week.

That said, I’ve never met the man and am only privy to second-hand information from mutual acquaintances still residing in the area. Edsall is a highly-respected, hard-working coach who even returned to his alma mater to speak at graduation just a few years ago.

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Maryland football supporters are undoubtedly scratching their heads that a man coming from such an ordinary program has been selected to transform the Terps from “good to great,” as athletic director Kevin Anderson professed two weeks ago.

With the backlash of the dismissal of Ralph Friedgen still being felt by the university, Edsall’s hiring is not the dynamic move most anticipated to invigorate a declining — and now, angry — fan base.

But it may prove to be the right one.

Given the circumstances surrounding the coaching change, fans are justified in feeling let down after most pointed to Leach to take the program to the next level. And make no mistake, the university didn’t fire Friedgen — a Maryland alum who gave everything he had to the program — with a pedestrian-looking replacement like Edsall in mind, at least initially.

But when it came time to step to the plate with the self-imposed deadline of January 4th approaching quickly, Anderson and other university leaders made the careful choice.

Perhaps Maryland feared Leach would simply use the school as a stepping stone to an elite job, bolting in a year or two for the SEC or a return to the Big XII.

Or maybe the stigma of his treatment of receiver Adam James at Texas Tech — murky details aside — and the messy divorce in Lubbock that followed proved too big a risk.

The Utopian link between Leach and Under Armour’s Kevin Plank that some dreamed would cultivate Maryland into a powerhouse like Nike-created Oregon sounded so great on paper, but apparently wasn’t meant to be.

Instead, Maryland grabbed Edsall, a man who quietly built something of his own over the last 12 years at Connecticut. If circumstances had been different and Edsall had been hired after last season’s 2-10 disaster or following a more harmonious departure by Friedgen, it’s a move that likely would have been better-received.

Edsall’s arrival in College Park by itself won’t spike season-ticket sales or fill the empty suites in Tyser Tower, but the one thing that will is winning. With a strong cast returning in 2011, the program will likely get a slight boost in sales despite adjusting to a new coaching staff. Maintaining that momentum and taking it to greater heights will be the challenge in the years to come.

Coaching hires should be made with the next 10 years in mind, not the next 10 months, so it’s hard to ignore the resume built by Edsall at Connecticut.

Arriving in Storrs 12 years ago with the Huskies still a Div. I-AA team playing in the Atlantic 10, Edsall left on the heels of a Big East championship and Fiesta Bowl appearance at a school where most people are talking college basketball year-round. Despite the weak nature of the Big East, that transformation doesn’t just happen with a few decent recruits and a solid playbook.

That feverish work ethic and perseverance is what makes him appealing enough to think it might just work at Maryland. Taking the football program to the next level will take plenty of work, and his career suggests he might stick around long enough for it to happen. Despite hearing his name as a candidate for several higher-profile jobs over the years — including Notre Dame a year ago — Edsall remained at UConn, transforming the Huskies from an independent doormat (a 5-19 record in their first two years at the Div. I-A level) to a viable contender in a BCS conference (33-19 in the last four years).

Edsall will need to continue to improve and evolve as he now steps outside his comfort level. He’ll face the same challenges that plagued Friedgen in College Park, such as difficulty in attracting top talent and a fickle fan base. As he did at Connecticut, he’ll be coaching at a basketball-first school and faces an uphill battle in appeasing the large portion of fans unhappy with the ugly dumping of Friedgen.

His results at Connecticut (74-70 with five bowl appearances) are impressive in relative terms, but not exactly eye-popping by any stretch of the imagination. Expectations will be much higher at Maryland considering the circumstances of his arrival.

To succeed in taking Maryland to the next level, he will need to put in the same tireless hours he spent at UConn, building credibility in the Baltimore-Washington area and attracting top talent to College Park.

Edsall is the safe play, but only time will tell whether it was the right one.

Flashy hires may steal the headlines and produce giddy feelings — Charlie Weis at Notre Dame comes to mind — but can fail quite easily. And even the dullest appointments — like Ohio State hiring Youngstown State’s Jim Tressel — can produce sensational results.

Of course, Maryland lacks the prestige or enormous budgets of the aforementioned programs, but the principles of hiring remain the same.

Not many fans were thrilled when the Ravens hired a man known only as Jim Harbaugh’s brother three years ago. However, as John Harbaugh and the Ravens embark on their third consecutive trip to the playoffs, it’s safe to say they made the right choice, even after being spurned by hotshot coordinator Jason Garrett.

Looking into the crystal ball is always a precarious task, but Edsall ultimately provided the cleanest picture in the eyes of Maryland.

Now we’ll see if he’s up to the challenge.