It was Randy Edsall himself who said early in the 2011 season that the job of turning the Maryland football program into a major Atlantic Coast Conference power wasn't going to be easy and it certainly wasn't going to be done overnight.
Still, he couldn't have imagined how hard it would be to compete in his first season after replacing Ralph Friedgen, and no one expected the upheaval that has accompanied the Terps' 2-10 collapse. Edsall has lost or chased away 20 players, replaced offensive coordinator Gary Crowton and might soon do the same with defensive coordinator Todd Bradford.
The 2011 season was so disappointing that it left Terps fans and boosters in a crisis of confidence in both their new football coach and second-year athletic director Kevin Anderson. Edsall remains adamant that he is taking the program in the right direction, but his honeymoon period was over in a hurry.
Players struggled to adapt to his highly structured program, and sophomore quarterback Danny O'Brien all but fell off the map after being named ACC Rookie of the Year during Friedgen's 9-4 final season in 2010.
The postseason backlash was so sharp that Anderson announced that he and Edsall would conduct a thorough review of the program, a re-evaluation process that apparently remains in progress.
Edsall sat down with The Baltimore Sun to talk about his first season and what's ahead for Maryland football.
In a few days, you will have completed your first full year as the head coach of the University of Maryland football team, and by all accounts — including your own — it has been a struggle and a learning experience for everyone involved. Is this still your dream coaching job?
Oh, yeah. I'm not deterred at all from what I want to accomplish and what I want to accomplish for this university and what I want to accomplish with our players here. So, no, I feel good about the direction we're going and what we need to get done. I feel great about everything that's going on.
This isn't your first rodeo, so you knew that a coaching change — especially on the team coming off a winning season — was going to cause some discomfort and shake up the status quo. Do you feel like you've come out on the other side of that yet?
I think that anytime you have a transition, there's going to be change and discomfort for people, but I just feel very, very good about where we're going. I know that the two weeks we had in the weight room, seeing the guys leaving here the last few days, going home from finals, then getting away till Jan. 24, not being involved with the winter session taking classes. Getting back here on the 25th, knowing what we've got in store. Like I said, I feel really good about where we're going.
I'm trying to choose the right word here. In your career, looking back over the last four or five months, is this the most embattled you've ever been?
I would probably say I've had as many challenges as any place I've been either as an assistant coach or a head coach in terms of going in and implementing a program. I think that there's been more coverage on what has taken place than any place that I've ever been. … Here, it's different, and that's part of the learning process because you just don't know the landscape coming in, especially with Kevin Anderson being new, [university president] Dr. [Wallace] Loh being new. With a lot of different faces here, the landscape is totally different. I think that was something I know I learned a lot about in the first year.
So, you had to navigate that. You know how to be a football coach, but you had to navigate this whole new environment, and that factored into it if there were differences in perception.
I think anytime you come in and do something new, there are always going to be lessons learned and mistakes made. I think what happens is, I've always been the type of guy to say, "OK," once we've gone through things, you sit back and say, "OK, there are mistakes that I made." I'm not perfect. I'm never going to be perfect. There are always things you can do better. If you have a lot of pride in what you do, you're going to be more critical of yourself than anybody else could ever be of you. Yeah, there were mistakes made, and, you know what, all the things that go on are my responsibility, so I take full responsibility for not winning enough games, but I take responsibility for getting our kids to perform at a higher academic level, too. That's the part you see. Everybody sees what you do on the field, and that's the big part because when you're coaching, what happens is, you're measured by how many you win and how many you lose. We failed in that regard this year, but we succeeded in many, many other areas that we want to get established.
You said early on that what you're trying to accomplish wasn't going to happen right away, but you obviously expected to do better than 2-10 going into the season, also starting with the uplifting Miami game. How hard was that? I know you're a team-first guy, but how hard was that on you?
It's not about me. It's never going to be about me. I got into this line of work, and I understood what it's all about. My thing is, I feel worse for our players, that they weren't able to achieve what we wanted to achieve … what we wanted to accomplish as a team. So, I feel more for them and the assistant coaches than I do for myself. That's what I have to do, and again, when you end up losing 118 games due to injuries by players who we thought were going to be out there, that takes a toll. We had 64 games missed by defensive players that we felt were going to be contributors, starters. Then we had 54 games missed offensively by guys that we felt could be contributors. That's something you don't factor into the equation. I feel more for the players because we didn't go out and accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish [them] for them. That's really what it is. I want to do things so they can accomplish goals that we want to achieve as a team.
But you're a human being. You go home after the Temple game [a 38-7 loss at Byrd Stadium] and how do you feel? That's got to be torturous.
You hate it. You hate it because you sit there and you're saying, "What more could I have done? What should I have done differently to help them?" As a coach, you beat yourself up a lot more than anybody else is ever going to beat you. The things that are written and all that stuff, that doesn't faze me because I beat myself up more than anybody else ever beats me up. When you sit there and think we got beat the way we got beat, that's something you [where] have to accept it, and then you have to move on and you've got to work to change it.
In a nutshell, if you're talking to Terps fans, why is next year going to be different?
Very simple. (Edsall picks up a binder containing facts about the 2011 season.) I just want to make sure I've got my facts right. Because 90 percent of the season-ending two-deeps are going to be back. Nineteen of 22 offensive players will be back. Seventeen of 22 defensive players will be back. Nine of the 12 special teams players will be back. And then you take a look at it and 131/2 of the team's 26 sacks — 52 percent — were posted by freshman: Andre Monroe with five, Lorne Goree 31/2, Alex Twine, [Keith] Bowers, [Mario] Rowson, [Ian] Evans. Then you add three freshman All-Americans, Joe Vellano, who is a second-team All-American and second-team Walter Camp and Associated Press. We've got four guys coming back off medical hardships. Kenny Tate gets another year. Matt Robinson now has three more years left. Isaiah Ross has two. Tyrek Cheeseboro has four now. All of these young men. All of our players, now, understand what the expectations are … what the program is about, so they are going to be more comfortable and understand more things. We had two of the top 10 attendances in the history of Byrd Stadium. Paid attendance increased 10 percent. All those things going forward, plus when you take a look at what's happening on the recruiting trail and you see what's being said out there from the student-athletes, I think that all bodes well for what's going to be happening in the future. I just hope we'll be able to stay healthy."
Kevin Anderson said, at a certain point, when everyone was gnashing their teeth after the season that you were going have a full review of the season. I assume you would do that anyway. But more specifically, what did that particular full review entail?
We sat down. We talk all the time. The review doesn't come just at the end of the season. I talk to Kevin during the year every week. The review is ongoing all the time, then at the end of the season, we sat down and we talked about the program from A to Z. I think any organization is always going to do that. When you get to the end of the year, regardless of what your record is, you're going to sit down and talk about the program from A to Z. Because what you want to do if it's not going the way you want, you're going to sit down and say, "What can we do better?" Even if you go 12-0 and win the ACC, you're going to sit down and talk about what you can do to get better. That's just good business practices. Yeah, we sat down, and we continue to sit down even as we speak today. We continually talk and have dialogue. I tell him, "Here's what I think the issues are, and here's what I think we can do to improve them." That's the review and that's what we go through, but not just the football part of it. It's about the academics. It's about the things we can do to create the best relationships that we can here on campus, from A to Z. It's not just football because that's the thing: This is more than just a team. It's the program. We want to make the program all that it can be so the program can stand the test of time. It's always been my philosophy that when you come in and put something together, you want to put something together so when the day comes that you're no longer here, whoever comes in is going to inherit a program [where] everything's in place, that you don't have to do anything.
Along those lines, you did come here with a mandate from Kevin and the university to change the internal culture of the football program. I know you didn't expect that to be a cakewalk, but — in any way — do you feel like you were blindsided, either by your idealization of the job coming in or by the culture that already existed here?
I don't think that I was blindsided. I think that what happens is when you do come in, you have your eyes wide open to see everything that's going on and to see the things you see but also to incorporate what you want to incorporate. That's all I've tried to do is have my eyes wide open to learn about everything that I can learn about and then be able to instill the philosophy and the principles and the values that I feel will help these young become the best players, students and athletes that they can possibly can be.
It's interesting. The guy who coaches the Ravens — and just clinched his fourth straight playoff berth — created the perception four years ago that he was a hard-nosed, my-way-or-the-highway, old-school coach who stressed the team over the individual. He ruffled some feathers at the outset, but now he's a pretty popular guy. You came here and created a similar perception but haven't yet won everybody over. Is that because you haven't won yet or because you haven't done a better job of selling the Randy Edsall program?
That's a tough one to answer because that's all public perception.
So you're not a square-jawed, old-school, my-way-or-the-highway type of coach?
What I am is, I think, I'm a coach that wants to have my players achieve at the highest level they can in the classroom, on the field and as people, and every position and opportunity that I've been in, I've always found that discipline, structure, having a high set of standards has been the best way to have those young men achieve at that highest level on the field, in the classroom and as people. The one thing that I'm always going to do is I'm always going to make sure I'm upfront and I'm honest with our players because I want them to know that these are the things they have to do, and if they do them, then that's going to give them the best opportunity to be on the field playing, to be able to accomplish what they want to accomplish in the classroom and be great people. Then I think what happens, when they leave us in four or five years, they have those ingredients, they have those values, they have those morals that are going to allow them to be successful for the rest of their lives. So I think as people get to read and understand more about the program that we're putting into place here in Maryland, I think [what] people will understand is everything we are trying to do is make our players the best that they can be.
Did anything that happened during the past four months make you question your approach? Are we going to see a kinder, gentler Randy Edsall in 2012?
I guess what I would say is where wasn't I kinder and gentler this year? That's what I would say. I think there are approaches that you take from a standpoint of: Are there things that we will do a little bit differently? Yes, we will. Because, again, when you're in the position we're in and you get a lay of the landscape and you get a feel for everything that's going on and you get a feel for your players and understand your players a little bit more as far as what we need to do to sell our program a little bit more, yeah, there will be some things that will be different, but I'm not going to compromise the values of this institution and what this institution stands for and what I think is best for these young men in terms of structure, discipline, being a parent away from home, being a mentor, being a coach, being a teacher. I'm not going to sacrifice any of those. If I do that, then I'm cheating our players. That's one thing I'm not going to do. But like I said, when you make the statement "kinder and gentler," I don't think I've pulled any Woody Hayeses or Bobby Knights, throwing chairs across the floor.
Did you want to?
(Laughing.) Yeah, there probably were some times when you want to do that. But I think you can never be somebody that you're not. I just know that, in terms of dealing with our players, I see things that have happened to them that have been very, very positive. The thing that happens in this day and age, a lot of people don't want to hear some of the positive things. Everybody just wants to write the things that will create the controversy that will stand out there to create the headline, and I can give you plenty of examples of a lot of good things. But ultimately, when you are 2-10, there are going to be more things that are written that aren't going to be favorable.
I think one of the reasons that Terrapin fans were particularly frustrated was that they came into this season excited that the team had this NFL-prospect quarterback in Danny O'Brien who was going to be around for a while, and it just didn't work out that way this season for a variety of reasons. Could you just explain what you think happened there and where you see Danny going from here in your program?
I think sometimes there can be expectations upon people and sometimes there are a lot of different things that go into what can transpire. I think what happens is, when things don't go the way people would expect them to go, you've got to be able to fight through things. There are some things as we go forward, as we evaluated, the one thing I wanted to be able to do is to utilize our players and do the things that they do well and accentuate their strengths. And those are the things we will do as we continue as we move forward with our program, just do things that our players can do to the best of their abilities so our program can be the most successful.
You've already made one coaching change. Can you go over the situation with Crowton and why it transpired the way it transpired?
I can't talk about any personnel issues, and I won't talk about any personnel issues. We're in a process where we're evaluating the program, and there are things that are going to be there and some things that we won't talk about. Personnel is one of those things.
You've said many times, there's winning and there's winning the right way, that you want to win the right way in the context of Maryland football and the University of Maryland. Can you put that more specifically, what you mean by that? What is winning the right way?
I think when you take a look at some of the issues that are out there in college athletics today, in terms of schools — and I'm not going to name the schools — but I think college athletics, there are rules and regulations that the NCAA, which is the governing body of who we represent, has, and my only thing is that we have these rules and regulations and all we're going to do is follow those rules and regulations. This institution has rules and regulations that we have to follow, and so all I want to is make sure the program that I'm in charge of, the University of Maryland, plays by the rules of the NCAA and plays by the rules of the University of Maryland. That's what I mean by winning the right way.
You've taken it a step further, in that you've talked a lot about character issues, and not just following the rules, but how you shape character. Three of these players may play in the NFL and make enough money to live the rest of their lives, and the rest of them have got to go out and get jobs. You've talked a lot about that, that part of your job, whether you have two wins or 10 wins, is shaping these guys. How important is that to you as far as building a winning football team?
I think you have to have balance in whatever you do. I feel that at other places that I've been as the assistant or the head coach, we've followed kind of the same formula in terms of attracting student-athletes here that — first and foremost, because I do understand what we're judged on — have the ability to help us win an ACC championship. That's the first thing I'm looking for when I put on the film, because I know what we want to accomplish and, you know what, I want our players to understand that if they come here, our goal each and every year is that we want to work to win the ACC. I think that anytime you're in a conference, that should be your No. 1 goal. We're not going to try to win at any cost. We're going to try to get guys that have that, but then again, I think it's very important because then when you get the mission of what the University of Maryland is all about, this is an educational institution. No. 1 is finding those kids who have that ability, but then having those young men who have the ability to graduate from here and the ones that want to get a degree get an education. The statistics prove it out. Only 1 percent or 2 percent of these young men are going to have the opportunity to go on and continue their career. And then the statistics prove it out that they're only going to play in that league for four years, so the thing that's going to carry them the rest of their lives is their education and the networking and the things that they've done here at the University of Maryland. So, I'm going to make sure that we have guys who have the ability to do that, and I want guys who are hard workers because if you're a hard worker, you're going to give yourself a chance to be successful. And then the third thing is people of good character because if you combine those ingredients, you're going to have a pretty good opportunity to go and be successful in life and also to be able to make sure that you're doing a good job for your family. And again, I know you can win with those ingredients and you can win with that formula, and again, I'm never going to compromise the values and morals and what this university stands for. We're not going to do something that's going to go win a game and compromise the things this university is all about.
Last question: There are those people who say you learn more about yourself and your players from losing than from winning. Do you subscribe to that theory?
There's no question. There's no question because — you know what — some players maybe have never had adversity settle in, and some people that maybe that have never had to face adversity, and you do. It's very easy when everything is going good and you're on top of the world to watch people and see how they react, but you really find out the true character of a person when they face adversity and how they handle it. So, believe me, I've been through a tremendous amount of adversity in my career, and I think that's the thing that — when you go through a season like this — that's where I'm trying to do everything I can to help our players to understand and be able to move forward and go about the business of, hey, this is what we need to do to get better. You find out a lot about people when you go through adversity, and that measures the character of people in terms of how they handle that, because when you go through adversity, you find out there are people who just bull their neck and stay focused because they know what is going on is right. Or you find those people that when you go through adversity, who now start pointing their finger here, pointing their finger there, but never pointing their finger at themselves. What you hope is, when you go through these situations, what it does is just make you stronger as a person and you become more resolved to say, "Hey, there's no way that I'm going to let that happen again," and just keep moving forward.