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C. Fraser Smith: Riding the football tiger in College Park

New University of Maryland football coach, Randy Edsall.

In for a dime, in for a dollar.

If you’re a Division 1 football university, certain troublesome truths can’t be wished away.

Coaches come and go — whatever they or the university may say about loyalty to school and players.

It’s all about the money, the prestige and the won-lost record. The graduation rate? Not so much.

If you can’t recruit well, you can’t win.

If you don’t win, you may have trouble filling the stands and collecting the revenue you need for other sports that will never draw huge crowds.

Recession or not, competition from professional teams or not, you have to have winning football and basketball teams. And that can get very complicated.

Lefty’s ghost

Sometimes the young athletes you recruit get in serious trouble. And then you’re in trouble.

As former University of Maryland Chancellor John Slaughter said even before the Len Bias catastrophe, you’re on the back of a tiger.

If you’re a university official, you know it. And there’s not much you can do about it.

But the University of Maryland did do something about it. You could see the dismal reality in the recent Ralph Friedgen ouster.

Friedgen, quite rightly, has been seen as the loser in a forced round of musical chairs. He had one year left on his contract, but the coach-in-waiting, James Franklin, left for Vanderbilt University.

So what, you say. Coaches come and go.

But in this case, reliable sources say Franklin was 100 percent of the football program’s essential infrastructure. He did the recruiting, and he did it very well.

Friedgen didn’t recruit. He didn’t like it and wasn’t very good at it. Apparently he admitted as much. Without Franklin, the program was bare — or potentially so.

Something had to be done quickly. Pressure built instantly to hire Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who was let go after being accused of mistreating an injured player.

Leach’s candidacy presented the ultimate big-time college sports dilemma for Maryland. Leach was colorful. He had a good won-lost record. He would come with the kind of sketchy background that, perversely, might put fans in the stands.

Maryland has had coaches like Leach — like him in the sense of intense, histrionic and single-minded.

Lefty Driesell might be the best example. After basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, the university faced every possible element of public scorn.

The basketball team was failing academically en masse. A player was dead. But the coach was insisting he had a beautiful program. Boosters backed him. Others reacted in shame and indignation.

The issue was recruiting

None of that happened with Friedgen.

“He was great, everything you want in a coach,” says a university booster and friend of Friedgen’s.

But the football team of the future was in serious doubt. Several assistants went off with Franklin, knowing that Friedgen, whose contract was up after next season, had at best one more year.

The new athletic director, Kevin Anderson, after first saying Friedgen was safe, reversed that decision, saying the move to oust him was a “business judgment.”

That’s one way to put it. Recruiting was at the root of it. If you can’t recruit, you’re out of business.

The Terps play in a metro area with lots of competition for the sports fan’s dollar: the Ravens, the Redskins, the Wizards and the Capitals. Media coverage tends to focus on the pros, leaving Maryland with little margin in off-years.

The school’s new president, Wallace D. Loh; the university system’s chancellor, William E. Kirwan, and others got behind the decision to let Friedgen go and to find a replacement immediately.

But in the end, they decided the school couldn’t afford the headlines they imagined if Mike Leach were to be the new coach: “Maryland puts revenue above education;” “Maryland lines up with coach accused of abuse;” “Maryland: Football power or aspiring research university?”

So they took a pass on Leach, choosing Randy Edsall, a relative no-name with a record of 74-70 at the University of Connecticut.

The move had its vocal detractors, who were hoping for a bigger name and a splashier hire. Others said College Park had saved its soul.

“He’s going to stand up for our values,” the booster said.

Now, if only values can fill the seats.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears regularly in The Daily Record. He’s the author of “Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big Time College Basketball.” His e-mail address is [email protected]