Maryland's Trek Through The Dark Ages

Sleep-walked? Slept-walked? Sleeped-walked? Whatever way you slice it, this guy was there. - PennLive


Scott Milanovich, Maryland's Record-Setting Quarterback

The 1990s were a boom time for college football with the Supreme Court's ruling in NCAA -v- Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma paving the way for such things as literally every FBS football game being televised either 'traditionally' (for those who haven't cut the cord) or via some streaming service (for those who have); and wave after wave of conference expansions beginning in the early 1990s (come on down 'traditional Big Ten powers' Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, UCLA, and Southern Cal).

Also during this time within the Big Ten, football was miraculously invented first in Madison, Wisconsin (1993) and then 2 years later in Evanston, Illinois. Indiana actually won a bowl game in 1991. Michigan State hired an obscure NFL defensive coordinator named Nick Saban away from the Cleveland Browns to be their head coach (Saban's boss was the equally obscure, nattily-clad Bill Belichick). Some unknown Wyoming rancher named Joe Tiller came to West Lafayette and introduced the Big Ten to an amazingly revolutionary concept: the forward pass. And there were unconfirmed rumors that Michigan fans were donating money to Ohio State's Athletic Department to give John Cooper pay raises after each Buckeyes' loss to That Team Up North.

These good times, though, did not find their way to College Park, Maryland. The University of Maryland Terrapins' football team was mired in a fourteen year stretch that became known as The Dark Ages. Three not-very-good head coaching hires, many battles with Wake Forest and Duke for last place in the ACC, two 6-win winning seasons, and one bowl game tie were all that Maryland could muster between 1987 and 2000.

The Dark Ages began with Bobby Ross' forced resignation following the 1986 season. Basically, Ross departed for Georgia Tech because: 1) he wasn't very happy at Maryland due to reneged promises of stadium and facility improvements (leading Ross to interview for the University of Minnesota job after the 1985 season); 2) fallout from basketball star Len Bias' death where literally the entire Athletic Department (and University) was put under the proverbial microscope; and 3) being on the wrong end of a power struggle with Chancellor John Slaughter (due to items 1 and 2).

The first coach to try to maintain what Ross had established was Joe Krivak. As Maryland's quarterback coach, Krivak had a hand (along with Ralph Friedgen, more on him a little later) in the development of Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich. Despite having decent talent - including future NFL quarterbacks Neal O'Donnell and Scott Zolak - the wins just didn't come. Krivak's apex was 1990's 6-5-1, which got Maryland to their last bowl game of the millennium: an extremely unimpressive 34-34 tie versus Louisiana Tech in the 1990 Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl. (Honorable mention is Maryland's 1989 13-13 tie versus Penn State in Baltimore.) This earned Krivak a 5-year contract extension; and (as became a Maryland tradition continuing through Randy Edsall) the very next season the bottom fell out. 1991's 2-9 showing, amid reports of a player mutiny, led to Krivak's resignation. In 5 years as head coach, Joe Krivak's Terps went 20-34-2 with the only bowl game appearance during The Dark Ages.


Joe Krivak, Maryland Head Coach 1987-1991

At this point, Maryland faced a decision: go with an defensive-minded head coach, or an offensive-minded head coach. Believe it or not, Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was in consideration for the Maryland head coach's job (to quote Lou Gossett in An Officer and a Gentleman, 'I bullshit you, not'). Sandusky opted out of consideration, leading Maryland to select FCS (nee, DI-AA) wunderkind Mark Duffner. Duffner had installed the run-and-shoot offensive at Holy Cross and rolled up a 60-5-1 in 6 seasons. The run-and-shoot came to College Park, MD; however, the wins stayed in Worcester, MA. The apex of Duffner's tensure came in 1995: the Terps got off to a 4-0 start and were ranked #17 in the AP Top 25 heading into a Thursday night nationally-televised game at Georgia Tech. However, Maryland's record-setting quarterback Scott Milanovich had been caught up in a betting scandal and actually was serving a suspension during said 4-0 start. Once Milanovich was back, Maryland went 2-5 down the stretch. Although the 1995 Terps earned Maryland's final winning season of the millennium, no bowl game was in the offering. Duffner was fired after the 1996 season, with his final 'home' game coming against Florida State: a nationally-televised 48-10 beat-down played at Pro Player Stadium in Miami (as Maryland had sold the home game to Florida State). Mark Duffner's Terps went 20-35 with a single 6-win winning season (1995) and no bowl game appearances.


Mark Duffner, Maryland Head Coach 1992 - 1996

(In an ironic twist, following his tenure at Maryland Mark Duffner became and still is a long-time NFL defensive assistant coach. This is despite the fact that his Maryland defenses could only stop other teams' offenses by letting them score.)

Yet again, facing the decision to go with a defensive-minded head coach or offensive-minded head coach; Maryland's next coaching search came down to two finalists: San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen and Northwestern defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden. New Maryland athletic director Dr. Debbie Yow opted to pluck Ron Vanderlinden off of Gary Barnett's Northwestern Wildcats, perhaps because Ron helped invent football on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1995. Vanderlinden knew he had a major rebuilding job ahead of him, so he went out and hired (among others) these future head coaches to serve on his staff in College Park:

  • Future Maryland head coach Mike Locksley: running backs coach 1997-2000.
  • Future Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy: wide receivers coach 1997-1999, quarterbacks coach 2000.
  • Future Penn State head coach James Franklin: wide receivers coach 2000.
  • Future Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald: graduate assistant 1998.
Again, for the most part, talent wasn't an issue; as there was an uptick in recruiting. Ron Vanderlinden landed future NFL players LaMont Jordan, EJ Henderson, and (JuCo transfer) Shawn Hill (among others) to College Park. The primary issue during Vanderlinden's tenure was offense, or lack thereof. A promising 5-6 1999 season earned Vanderlinden a 2-year contract extension; with a catch. The extension was voidable if Maryland did not earn a winning record in 2000. And as luck would have it, 2000's 5-6 finish (hampered in part by star tailback LaMont Jordan being academically ineligible and missing spring practice and the start of fall training camp) sealed Vanderlinden's fate. Dr. Debbie Yow fired Vanderlinden following 2000's season-ending 35-22 loss to Georgia Tech. Ron Vanderlinden's Terps went 15-29 with no winning seasons and no bowl game appearances.


Ron Vanderlinden, Maryland Head Coach 1997-2000

(And in yet another ironic twist, Debbie Yow hired as Vanderlinden's successor the man she should have hired after the 1996 season; Ralph Friedgen!)

That's a lot of words, but what does it really mean. Basically, Maryland sleep-walked through arguably college football's greatest decade of growth to the tune of 55-98-2. While folks like Barry Alvarez, Gary Barnett, and Joe Tiller were doing unprecedented things in unlikely places; Maryland went all Lou Tepper.

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