This Maryland Week article takes a look back at a very successful era for Maryland Terrapins football. An era where a football laughing stock of the mid to late 1960s was transformed into both a regional and national power. Perhaps not quite on the same level as say an Oklahoma or a Southern Cal, but certainly a football team who could hold its own against any opponent on any Saturday.
To illustrate the level of success Maryland enjoyed during my youth and college years; consider for a moment that in the 1972 football season 2 teams finished with a 5-5-1 record. Maryland over 15 seasons, from 1972-1986, went 116-56-4 with only one losing season. “Team X” over the same period went 81-81-5 with 7 losing seasons. Both teams now not only play in the same conference; they play in the same division. It turns out, “Team X” is Michigan State.
This run of success began when Athletic Director Jim Kehoe (who had hired Lefty Driesell in 1969) hired Virginia Tech head coach Jerry Claiborne. Claiborne who played for Bear Bryant at the University of Kentucky and was an assistant to The Bear at Alabama; was a no-nonsense coach who preached a dominant defense and a conservative offense. Claiborne also emphasized something a bit unusual for college football at that time: strength and conditioning.
Claiborne inherited a Terrapins football who had won a total of 7 games the previous 3 seasons under Roy Lester. He also inherited a slow fullback from Delaware, who showed some promise on the defensive side of the ball. His name was Randy White. White became the centerpiece of Claiborne’s transformation in College Park. After the aforementioned 5-5-1 finish in 1972, Maryland in 1973 had earned their first postseason appearance (1973 Peach Bowl) and AP postseason ranking (#20) in 18 years.
Success under Jerry Claiborne continued after Randy White went on to an NFL Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys (one of only 2 Maryland football players to enter the NFL Hall of Fame). The pinacle came during the 1976 season when Maryland finished with an undefeated 11-0 regular season and earned an appearance in the 1977 Cotton Bowl. Despite the 30-21 loss to the Houston Cougars, the Terrapins finished the season in the AP Top 10 for the first time in 21 years.
Wins and bowl game appearances continued for Maryland during the late 1970s; however, by 1981 Maryland experienced its first losing season in 10 years. The fan base was growing tired of Claiborne’s ‘boring’ veer option offense and wide tackle 6 defense. Similarly, Claiborne was growing tired of a lack of facility improvements at Maryland. Thus, following the 1981 season Claiborne left Maryland to take over at his alma mater the University of Kentucky.
Maryland fans thought that Claiborne’s replacement would be Terrapin alum and former NFL head coach Dick Nolan. It turns out Maryland did hire its next head coach away from the NFL; the Kansas City Chief’s quarterbacks and running backs coach Bobby Ross. Ross did bring along with him a Maryland alum - Murray State offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen - to install a pro style offense. (Interesting that Bobby Ross kept Jerry Claiborne’s tried-and-true wide tackle 6 defense.)
Running Ross’ and Friedgen’s pro style offense was a junior quarterback from Long Island whom Joe Paterno had labeled as ‘uncoachable’ in one Norman Julius Esiason. Boomer Esiason was an ideal fit into Maryland’s offense, taking over as full-time starter in 1982 and leading Maryland to an 8-4 record. Maryland again went 8-4 in Esiason’s senior season; however, Maryland had a tough finish down the stretch. After a 7-1 start the Terrapins lost 3 of their final four games: at Auburn, at Clemson (who was on NCAA probation and considered the Maryland game their de-facto bowl game), and against Tennessee in the 1983 Citrus Bowl (in both Boomer Esiason’s and Reggie White’s final college games).
Frank Reich took over as quarterback for the 1984 season. The transition wasn’t exactly smooth as Maryland lost their first two games at home against Syracuse and Vanderbilt; and stood at 2-3 after a bitter 25-24 loss at Penn State. Maryland would not lose another game the rest of the season, including coming back from a 31-0 deficit against Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl to earn a 42-40 victory. Maryland finished off the season avenging the bowl game loss from the prior season, beating Tennessee 28-27 in the 1984 Sun Bowl.
Maryland went 9-3 again during the 1985 season: the only 3 losses coming at home against Penn State, at Michigan, and against Miami in Baltimore: 3 teams who all played in New Years Day bowl games at the end of the season (Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar bowls; respectively). However, all was not well in College Park. Dissatisfied with a lack of facility improvements at Maryland - including promised renovations to Byrd Stadium - Ross interviewed for the University of Minnesota job after Lou Holtz departed to Notre Dame following the 1985 season. Ross signed a contract extension through the 1989 season and all appeared well in College Park.
That appearance ended with the death of basketball star Len Bias on June 19, 1986. This tragic event gave Chancellor John Slaughter a perceived opportunity to de-emphasize athletics; which is exactly what happened. Maryland struggled to a 5-5-1 record in 1986; ironically the same record 14 years earlier in Jerry Claiborne’s first season. For some reason that to this day I (and Maryland fans of the era) don’t understand, Slaughter and Interim Athletic Director Charles Sturtz gave Bobby Ross an early December deadline to announce whether he would be coming back for the 1987 season. Fed up with the University of Maryland, Bobby Ross left for Georgia Tech where in 1990 (with Terp alum Ralph Friedgen as Offensive Coordinator) he won a National Championship.
Ross’ departure kicked off 14 seasons of ‘The Dark Ages’. From 1987-2000 Maryland went through 3 head coaches - Joe Krivak, Mark Duffner, and Ron Vanderlinden - and eeked out a 55-98-2 record with only 2 winning seasons (6-5-1 in 1990 and 6-5 in 1995) and one bowl game appearance. Ralph Friedgen’s tenure as head coach, especially 2001-2003, brought Maryland back to national relevance. However, this 14 year run that included 6 conference championships and 11 bowl game appearances remains unequaled to this day.