Aug. 26, 1997
Vanderlinden's Game Plan Built on Vision of SuccessBy John Eisneburg
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Ron Vanderlinden, Maryland's new football coach, was at it again the other day.
"I feel like we're just the team to rise up and take this conference over," he said after putting his team through a morning workout.
It was just the latest bold statement from a coach who has neither won nor lost a game yet, but has already shaken the landscape at College Park more than his two predecessors combined.
On the day he was hired last December, he told reporters, "We won't be successful until we win the ACC championship."
Earlier this month, he told a gathering of ACC media, "I'll be disappointed if we don't go to a bowl."
Now, the Terps are going to "rise up and take over."
It's almost as if he doesn't realize he's at Maryland, which has lost 22 straight games to ranked opponents, generated two winning seasons since 1985 and fallen far behind dominant Florida State in the ACC.
But here's the thing: He does know he's at Maryland, and he's convinced his vision of the future will become a reality.
He's so convinced, in fact, that, incredibly, he's almost discounting the possibility of failure.
"I feel like we're going to have to screw it up not to be successful," he said.
Talk about putting pressure on yourself.
But Vanderlinden, 41, just shrugs.
"Pressure, who cares about that?" he said with an easy smile. "If I don't win in five years, I'm out of here, anyway. What difference does [pressure] make?"
Such raw boldness would sound preposterous if Vanderlinden hadn't come from Northwestern, where, as the assistant head coach, he was essential to one of college football's biggest turnarounds in years.
Having apprenticed there and at Colorado, where he was part of another turnaround that resulted in a national championship, he has a pedigree that demands that he be taken seriously, no matter what he says.
"[Former Colorado coach] Bill McCartney taught me that if you don't set your sights high, you'll never reach them," he said.
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden isn't losing any sleep yet, you can be sure of that.
But you can also be sure that the other coaches in the ACC and the East are looking at the Terps differently now, with more respect. Vanderlinden and his first-rate staff of assistants command that, with 44 bowls and three Super Bowl appearances among them.
They might not take down Florida State, but they're proven pros with a winning track record, and it would, indeed, be a surprise if they don't remake the Terps into a bowl-caliber program.
"I'm a good coach," Vanderlinden said, "and I have been allowed to bring in a fine staff."
Their reputation is such that other coaches already are trying to use the expected rise in the Terps' fortunes against Vanderlinden in recruiting.
"Recruits tell me that other coaches are saying Maryland is just a steppingstone for me, that I'm going to go back to the Midwest [for a bigger job] when I win [at Maryland]," Vanderlinden said.
Note the "when" he wins, not "if" he wins.
"I'm just glad to hear that they have me winning," Vanderlinden said, laughing.
But is it true that the Terps' job is just a steppingstone?
"I think we're going to get it going and maintain it a long time here," he said. "You never say never, but this is a great situation. It isn't a steppingstone."
Of course, it's just a little too easy to envision a better future for the Terps now, while Vanderlinden is still undefeated and judged on the merits of his high reputation and crisp, professional-style practices. Reality will hit soon, with September games against Florida State and North Carolina.
The ACC media, hardly convinced, picked the Terps to finish sixth among nine teams.
But remember, Vanderlinden isn't promising an instant miracle. He has a lot to overcome, and he knows it.
"There were a lot of things that didn't get done [before at Maryland] as a championship- level program does things," he said. "There was divisiveness, too much concern about little things, baggage. These are things holding us back as we build. We have to get beyond them. My message to the team is that we have enough talent to win this year, but we have to come together."
He has already redesigned the helmets, upgraded the academic support system, installed a new offense and convinced the players he is for real.
"Not to take anything away from [former coach Mark] Duffner and his staff, but I'd love to have a few more years [to play] under this system," said senior quarterback Brian Cummings.
Senior defensive end Eric Hicks said: "At first, you're kind of apprehensive when you hear the things he said, but he makes you believe it."
Vanderlinden has set his targets so high that, well, who knows if he'll ever hit them? But with his record and system, he represents the best chance in years for Maryland to reclaim a semblance of its football glory. The optimism generated by his hire is warranted.
Of course, he's still a rookie head coach learning how to be the boss, how to coach the coaches, how to meet the many demands on his time. His biggest concern now isn't X's and O's, but getting the right players in school and keeping them eligible.
"I'm learning a lot," he said. "But I like where we are, exactly where we are. I have a vision, and we're getting closer to it all the time. I have felt from the beginning that this was a place where we could succeed. I really feel it now."