Ron Vanderlinden, who was brought in to revive Maryland's football program because of his hands-on experience in two previous highly successful reclamation projects, knows the telltale signs of improvement when he sees them.
And those signs - both on the field and off - are clearly evident to the 44-year-old Terrapin head coach as he enters year No. 4 of his rebuilding phase.
Just last season, the Terps came within one first down of reaching a bowl game for the first time since 1990, posting as many wins in 1999 (5) as they had in the previous two seasons. Maryland, which received votes in national polls for seven consecutive weeks, had one of the nation's premier offensive performers in running back LaMont Jordan, who spearheaded an offense that posted the 10th-highest scoring average in school history and ranked No. 1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing just three seasons removed from a dead-last finish in that category. The Terps had three first team All-ACC selections (the most since 1986) and five players earned All-America citations of one kind or another.
With 15 returning starters - seven on offense, six on defense, and both kicking specialists - among 40 returning lettermen, all signs point toward continued improvement for the Terrapin football program under Vanderlinden's leadership.
The challenge facing Vanderlinden when he took over as Maryland's 33rd head coach in December 1996 loomed large. The Terps had posted just two winning seasons in the previous 11 years and had finished no higher than fourth place in the ACC during that stretch. Moreover, he inherited a roster that, at least offensively, was built around the run-and-shoot.
It all added up to a major reconstruction project for Vanderlinden, who was selected to the post primarily for his previous experience in helping to revive dormant programs at Colorado and Northwestern.
"I absolutely think Maryland should be one of the premier programs in the country," said Vanderlinden when he was introduced as the Terps' head coach. "We have a beautiful campus in a great location, first-class facilities and an impressive stadium, a supportive administration committed to winning, and a large fan base with enthusiastic boosters. These are the essential ingredients necessary for success."
Since arriving in College Park, Vanderlinden has been tireless in his efforts to awaken the Terrapins' grid fortunes, focusing on his twin goals of "graduating all of our players and winning the [conference] championship."
Those were similar goals during his days at Northwestern, where he served as Gary Barnett's assistant head coach and defensive coordinator from 1992-96. In that span, a moribund Northwestern program - one that hadn't posted a winning season in more than 20 years - was transformed into a two-time Big Ten Conference champion and Rose Bowl participant.
The Wildcats won five league games in the first three seasons, but then went 15-1 in conference play on the way to capturing consecutive Big Ten titles in 1995 and '96. Northwestern played USC in the 1996 Rose Bowl and Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl.
At Northwestern, Vanderlinden was the chief architect of a defensive unit that in 1995 finished first nationally in scoring defense (17.2 ppg) and third nationally in turnover margin (+1.82 pg). In '96, the Wildcats finished 19th nationally in turnover margin. In addition to heading up Northwestern's defensive efforts, Vanderlinden oversaw the inside linebackers and punt return unit. The Wildcats were among the nation's top 10 punt return teams three times, finishing first in '92, fourth in '93 and ninth in '95.
During his tenure at Northwestern, Vanderlinden recruited and coached several of the most outstanding players in school history. Under his guidance, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald was the 1995 and '96 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-American. Fitzgerald also was named the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the year in '95, as well as the national defensive player of the year by Chevrolet and Sports Illustrated.
The success enjoyed on the field by the Wildcats was congruent with Vanderlinden's philosophy of high academic achievement. Northwestern earned recognition by the College Football Association as one of the exemplary academic programs in the nation.
Vanderlinden came to Northwestern after coaching Colorado's defensive line for nine years (1983-91), where he played a key role in turning around CU's program. Only three years after his arrival in Boulder as an assistant to Bill McCartney, the Buffaloes advanced to their first bowl game in nine seasons. All told, CU would make six bowl trips during Vanderlinden's final seven seasons on the staff, including the 1990 campaign, when the Buffaloes defeated Notre Dame and won the national championship.
In addition to his responsibilities coaching the defensive line, Vanderlinden also served as the Buffaloes' recruiting coordinator for two years (1985-86). While at CU, he coached three All-Americans and five first team All-Big Eight selections. From 1985-91, Colorado's defensive unit was considered among the best in the country, ranking No. 10 for fewest touchdowns allowed, 11th in fewest points allowed and 18th in total defense.
It was Vanderlinden's hands-on experience in two successful and stunning rebuilding efforts which attracted him to Maryland athletic director Deborah A. Yow.
"Ron won unanimous support of our selection committee, and that was great because he was always my top choice," said Yow. "Everyone has said that he is a dynamic coach, that he is knowledgeable, a relentless recruiter and a tireless worker. He's done twice what we want a coach to do: build up a program. And the rebuilding jobs were at good academic schools in Colorado and Northwestern. Based on those credentials, he was an early front runner."
Vanderlinden began his coaching career as a graduate assistant coach at Bowling Green State University under Denny Stolz in 1978. He then moved on to the University of Michigan, where he was a graduate assistant in 1979 and '80 on Bo Schembechler's staff. During his time in Ann Arbor, Michigan participated in both the Gator and Rose bowls.
His first full-time coaching position came at Ball State University in 1982, where he worked with the offensive line for two years. From Ball State he moved to Colorado, then to Northwestern.
Said Bill McCartney, former head coach at Colorado: "Ron is a student of the game. He brings energy and fire to the game. I expect Maryland to be a physical and very versatile football team. I expect them to run with authority and pass with continuity. On defense, I expect they will play with an aggressive, challenging style."
Vanderlinden earned his bachelor's degree from Albion (Mich.) College in 1978. A four-year starter at center, he was a two-time first team all-conference selection, earning the honor as a junior and senior, when Albion posted undefeated seasons. Albion also participated in the first Division III playoff game in school history. He also earned three varsity letters in baseball.
A native of Livonia, Mich., Vanderlinden and his wife, Lisa, have a daughter, Chelsea, and a son, Reid. Vanderlinden is one of seven children born to Pete and the late Mary Vanderlinden. Pete was one of 14 children born to Belgian immigrants of Dutch descent.
Terp Progress Under Vandy
Northwestern's Meteoric Rise To National Prominence
|Year||Overall||Big Ten||Bowl||Final National Rank|
|1995||10-2||8-0 (1st)||Rose||8 AP|
|1996||9-3||7-1 (T-1st)||Citrus||15 AP|
Colorado's Meteoric Rise To National Prominence
|Year||Overall||Big 8||Bowl||Final National Rank|
|1989||11-1||7-0 (1st)||Orange||4 AP|
|1990||11-1-1||7-0 (1st)||Orange||National champion|
|1991||8-3-1||6-0-1 (T-1st)||Blockbuster||20 AP|