Friday, December 16, 2011

The bomb already went off

In the movie Clear and Present Danger there is a scene in which the CIA's Jack Ryan is in a briefing with the President and there is a discussion among the political operatives of how to handle a potential scandal. Ryan ends up giving contrary advice and summarizes his strategy by saying, "there is no point in defusing a bomb that has already gone off."

The dreadful 2-10 season that Maryland football just finished was the bomb going off. In the last week or so AD Kevin Anderson and coach Randy Edsall have been in damage control mode sending out a letter to fans, that ended up being removed from the Facebook site due to the flood of negative comments, and giving interviews to some of the local media outlets. The problem is the damage has already been done and probably is only repairable with winning, and lots of it.

Edsall started off with the unenviable task of winning over a fan base that wanted someone else. The prospect of Mike Leach coming to College Park with his gimmick offense and scoring tons of points in a conference with a dearth of offense was intoxicating for many fans. The fact that the offensive personnel Maryland had would not have fit his system (including QB Danny O'Brien) or that he rarely could field a decent defense at Texas Tech would not have mattered to fans because the games would have been fun to watch. The fact that Randy Edsall was not Mike Leach was only the start of his problems at Maryland.

It seems fairly clear that Randy Edsall didn't know what he was getting into when he decided to take the job at Maryland. As I have written before the media market in Connecticut did nothing to prepare him for the lion's den he was stepping into at Maryland. If things are not going well the local media will be only too happy to cut you up and feed you to the mob as former basketball coach Gary Williams could have told him. The "one voice" policy that Edsall imposed also probably won him few friends in the media especially since Edsall never says anything of value in his own interviews. Little surprise that sports writers started turning to anonymous players and parents with grievances to generate some spice to the coverage. Virtually every columnist at the Washington Post: Mike Wise, Jason Reid and Tracee Hamilton has taken a swing at the Randy pinata.  Edsall didn't cultivate the media because he didn't think he had to and if he was winning it probably wouldn't matter if the writers liked him but I doubt he foresaw a 2-10 disaster on the horizon either.

Not trying to co-opt the media was a mistake but the real damage (besides the losing of course) was that Edsall's authoritarian law & order approach was never going to sit well with Maryland fans. It is a cultural and political disconnect between most Maryland fans and the head coach. Even before the season began its long slide into oblivion fans were grumbling about the no names on jerseys, the emphasis on grooming and appearance, the subjugation of the individual over the team. I would like names on the back of jerseys just so I can quickly identify who the heck some of the players are but the rest of the issues have little bearing on the success of a team. If we are to take Edsall's comments at face value it is clear he sees these elements of discipline as a end unto itself whereas many fans view them as unnecessary hindrances to fielding a good football team. Truth is these things are red herrings. Some Connecticut players were eager to discuss how they enjoyed the freedom this past season without Edsall looking over their shoulders. That is great and if they had not gone 5-7 against a terrible schedule that might mean something. It isn't probable that Connecticut will do much better because the team rules are more relaxed in future years either. In fact it is likely that this Edsall-less "spring" they are enjoying will result in less, not more, winning. In the end the comments are just self serving claptrap. The paradigm of a disciplinarian or lax players coach are elements of style, not substance. Neither guarantees winning and neither is dispositive on the question of success.

Maryland is the kind of place where the residents are more likely to get upset over the culturally conservative values (if you can even call them that) of their state school's football coach than a doofus politician who antagonizes a major employer in the state with inane resolutions. Randy Edsall doesn't understand Maryland and Maryland doesn't understand him. I'm sure Kevin Anderson has been a little surprised coming from the culture of West Point that fans here view these attempts to conform comportment as an affront to liberty. It is obvious that if this team went 10-2 and not 2-10 these issues would be irrelevant.

I wasn't thrilled with the Randy Edsall hire because I think he didn't meet the criteria that Maryland needed to change the direction of the football program. Unfortunately he has become such a divisive figure due to the failure of this past season and his cultural obliviousness that the real problems with the football program have been lost on many Maryland fans. It is too lazy to blame Edsall for the all failures of the football program. The truth is that Maryland has been floundering in mediocrity since the early part of the last decade. Many fans will rant about Edsall inheriting a 9-4 team and driving it into a ditch without acknowledged that two years prior this team with many of the same players from this year posted the same 2-10 record. When the median win total the last three seasons is two wins the anomaly is a smoke-and-mirrors 9-4 record.

The academic situation at Maryland is worse than many people realize. The prior staff, including James Franklin, recruited too many players that had little or no chance to meet their academic requirements at Maryland. The number of washouts from recent recruiting classes including Caleb Porzel, Masengo Kabongo, Zach Kerr, Dion Armstrong, Travis Hawkins, David Mackall, Pha'Terrell Washington, Taji Thornton, and Bearthur Johnson just to name a few and there are more that could have been included in that list who transferred. Even players who managed to stay on the team like Drew Gloster, Ronnie Tyler (sound familiar), Quintin McCree and Pete White missed games or spring practice due to academic issues. The loss of scholarships due to poor APR numbers is really only part of the story but is a side effect of a deeper problem. The cutting of the academic support staff by former AD Debbie Yow certainly didn't help but the continued deterioration of APR scores over the course of Friedgen's time at Maryland wasn't random luck.

The truth is as a job the head coach of the Maryland football program is a crappy job. Many fans may not want to hear that but it is some bitter medicine they need to force down. The facilities and stadium are, even with improvements, among the worst in the ACC. The budget for the football program is an embarrassment sitting at the bottom of the ACC. The high school talent pool is decent but not deep enough to stock a program with great talent year after year besides the fact that regardless of the Maryland head coach many local kids have little interest in coming to Maryland if a glamour program shows interest in them. Last but not least the fan base at Maryland is about as faithful as Don Draper. When things are going well and you are winning they will fill the seats and when things go sideways they will disappear. That may be unpleasant for some die hard football fans to read but it is the inconvenient truth. When Debbie Yow took over as the AD at N.C. State she took a not so subtle shot at Maryland football fans by saying it was nice to be at a school where the fans actually supported the football team. Yow would never avoid the low road if she could but there was a fair amount of truth in her shot at the fans she left behind in College Park. The fans at Maryland have the football team they deserve.

There is no point to facile rantings like those of John Feinstein who wrote that Edsall should be fired immediately. There is no money to pay off the rest of Edsall's contract or those of his assistants then pay out a new coach an even larger contract. To suggest that the money could be easily made up with increased ticket sales if Kevin Anderson hires a more exciting coach is to be not only credulous but reckless. Mark Twain once said there are two times in a man's life when he shouldn't gamble: when he can't afford it, and when he can. With the financial problems Maryland has at the moment it is not the time to be gambling.

None of this is to assert that I think Randy Edsall will have a successful or long tenure at Maryland. He will get rid of those players who didn't want to be part of the Randy Edsall experience, as should be his right. That is one reason I can't get too excited about the transfers as any player who doesn't want to be there should be moved along both for their own good and the good of the program. His great challenge will be to bring in the kinds of players he wants, with a decent talent and to do it quickly. I'm not sure he is up to that challenge. It is obvious that to a greater extent than the media gaffes, do-rag bans and cliched rhetoric he spouted regularly his biggest mistake was hiring a fairly mediocre staff. As he begins the process of remaking his program on the heels of some unpleasant lessons the decision of who he hires or replaces will go a long way in determining if he gets beyond year three of his contract. When the new television money starts to trickle in there may be a tough decision in year three of Edsall's contract but until then Maryland fans will have to take their own share of the blame for their shambolic football program.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Outpost of Progress

I thought that the game against Notre Dame would go a ways toward informing Maryland fans where this squad is in early December. Most assumed it would be a work in progress at this point even before the injury to Pe'Shon Howard and the NCAA docking Alex Len 10 games of eligibility. There have been more lows (noncompetitive losses to Iona and Alabama) than highs (the Colorado Comeback) but there have been some signs of progress. In studying Notre Dame I felt they would be a good substitute for the bottom half of a dreadful ACC this season. Notre Dame is a team that will struggle badly in Big East play and will likely end up towards the bottom of their league. They lack any inside presence and rely heavily on perimeter shooting and drawing fouls driving to the basket. They are not very athletic outside of a few players (though Jerian Grant is pretty good) and are vulnerable on the boards. If Maryland lost on a neutral floor to this group it would have been an ominous sign for conference play. Having come away with a win it still isn't clear how good Maryland can be but we are seeing signs that barring further injuries to a thin roster that Maryland won't have a Wake Forest in 2011 type of season.

Super sophomore Terrell Stoglin was dazzling in scoring 31 on 11 made field goals in 37 minutes. Stoglin shoulders a tremendous burden on this squad as he is the only player who can create his own shot and the most serious offensive threat. It is unrealistic to expect him to dish out 7 assists a game or play lockdown defense in addition to the scoring burden. He will have some difficult games in ACC play and will force bad shots from time to time but suppressing his gunner instincts isn't going to necessarily help this team be successful this year. Mark Turgeon's motion offense is still a work in progress and although the team did a better job of running sets in this game they are not going to win much playing "system" basketball regardless of how much Turgeon wants to run a balanced attack. I think he understands this but also wants the role players on the team to buy into his system. This is perhaps why Ashton Pankey seems to be in the dog house. On a thin roster there is no other explanation for his one minute of play against Notre Dame. Hopefully he gets his head on straight because Maryland will need his rebounding and toughness in ACC play.

Sean Mosley bounced back from a dreadful game against Illinois and had one of his most complete nights of the season. He was very efficient with the ball and made good decisions on offense. He struggled to guard Grant at times but when Mike Brey went with a five out motion (all five players on the perimeter) it was a tough assignment for Mosley. Mosley is not a superstar and never will be but if he can gain a little consistency he can be a very valuable compliment for Stoglin.

James Padgett has put together a decent two games adding 11 points and 10 rebounds. He did it only shooting 3/11 which for where he puts the ball up is horrendous shooting but he is hustling and getting better on the defensive boards. He is not the wasted scholarship that some fans considered him to be and looks to be on track for a solid campaign and potentially very good senior season. Overall he has ably replaced Dino Gregory's production and in some ways is better.

Nick Faust continued to struggle with his shot. He is now seven for his last thirty five field goal attempts (20%) and only 3/9 from the free throw line in the last three games. His struggles at the foul like may cause problems in a tight game since it is hard to keep the ball out of his hands with so few guards on the roster. Hopefully the softer schedule the rest of the month will help him regain some confidence.

This Notre Dame team is not very good and will likely finish near the bottom of the Big East but I think this was a very significant win for the Terps going into the underbelly of the non-conference slate. They will get Alex Len on the court at the end of the month and then hopefully Pe'Shon Howard in January. Things might not be looking to bad at that point.