Maryland's coaching search is into its 13th or 16th day (depending on your definition) and into its second calendar year. Christmas and New Year's have come and gone, and athletic director Kevin Anderson's self-imposed deadline/guideline of having a coach in place when coaches are permitted to resume off-campus recruiting on Jan. 4 looms ever closer.
Regardless of who is chosen to replace the fired Ralph Friedgen, the expectations placed upon him will be immediate. He will inherit a maturing team that, on paper, should have a better than usual chance of winning nine or 10 (or more) games next year; take over a program with a recent history of registering any sort of buzz locally only when it wins big; and assume control at a school in dire need of a massive spike in ticket and suites sales immediately.
In short, Maryland basically must deliver both style and substance in its hire.
As is often the case, the first part of that equation is easiest to discern. Some coaches provide sizzle; others offer the excitement of a doorstop. Anderson will be judged rapidly on that facet of his hire, and rightfully so; he's boxed himself into finding someone more than simply competent by firing an alum who won 60 percent of his games over a decade-long run.
Friedgen astutely observed after Wednesday's Military Bowl that Maryland isn't an easy job. Even by ACC standards and in the wake of renovations, Byrd is a second-division facility. There is no indoor practice facility. And the school's athletic department faces such a difficult financial situation, there are more than simply competitive concerns for a coach to contend with. Being a winner isn't enough; he must be a breadwinner, too.
There is also the underlying tension between the football program and the university's academic side, a give-and-take Friedgen found himself not winning as much as he would have liked over the years. Some things the school should be lauded for; Maryland limited the number of academic exceptions ("special admits" in College Park lingo), and it provided few if any majors to stash those prone to blowing off their studies.
At the same time, limited class offerings (whether it was time of day or the actual days a course was offered, as Friedgen often grumbled about) and minor aggravations that could be avoided (Friedgen once noted he didn't do a Friday walkthrough in Byrd before a road game because players wouldn't be excused from class, so he simply departed campus earlier and had the session after a flight) seem like needless nuisances.
It is an atypical job by State U. standards, starved for attention both regionally (with two NFL teams a short drive away) and within a mile of its stadium (basketball remains king in College Park). Apathy, as always, remains much more susceptible to inertia and far less fleeting than anger or frustration.
The stadium is mid-sized, the season ticket base ever shrinking. Friedgen posted six winning seasons in 10 years, and endured only one dreadful year. The Washington area provides a decent recruiting base, but qualitatively and quantitatively it won't provide enough to sustain a juggernaut --- especially when the likes of Penn State and Virginia Tech are well-established regionally and won't simply vanish regardless of how much time Maryland invests in the area.
No one, then, would dare suggest Maryland is a top-10 job today; very few would argue it is even a top-20 gig. Perhaps it never was, despite the occasional blips of national relevance (early 1950s, mid 1970s, perhaps mid 1980s and then 2001-03). Maybe it is a good one, surely better than Duke and Wake Forest in the ACC and arguably in the same tier under neutral conditions with Boston College, North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia.
So if Maryland is a decent job --- a reasonable conclusion, since Friedgen's average of 7.5 wins a season suggests neither transcendent greatness nor unmitigated disaster --- it isn't an elite one.
And getting there in any situation won't be easy.
Since 1961 --- a span of 50 seasons --- there are 67 schools with at least one top-10 finish in the Associated Press poll. For purposes of this discussion, the final 2010 regular season poll will represent this season.
In addition, the assumption here is a top-10 team constitutes elite. At this stage, such a season would rank in the 92nd percentile of all major-college programs. It's not an unreasonable definition, and if Anderson has declared he wants Maryland to go from "good to great," many of his school's more ardent supporters are going to adopt a definition of a top-10 team (or something very close to it) as the goal.
Plus, the fact a 9-4 team that will probably finish between No. 20 and No. 25 in the final poll barely registered a blip locally (granted, for various reasons, including previous season and underwhelming home schedule) suggests something truly spectacular is needed to attract and retain attention.
Anyway, from 1961 to 1980, exactly 14 schools collected at least five top-10 finishes. The list reads like a Who's Who of College Football: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana State, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Southern California, Tennessee and Texas.
Of those schools, all but Arkansas and Pittsburgh would collect at least five more top-10 finishes between 1981 and 2010. Another 13 schools managed five top-10 finishes. In any case, the good programs of yesteryear didn't exactly disappear as time went on.
But before delving too much deeper, here's the rundown of top-10 finishes since 1961, broken into segments of 20 (1961-80) and 30 (1981-2010) years. There are 501 teams accounted for since there was a tie for 10th in 2007:
TOP 10 AP POLL FINISHES, 1961-2010
Yes, that's Maryland near the bottom of the chart thanks to its top-10 finish in 1976. It has one-time blips like East Carolina, Marshall and Tulane to keep it company, and half as many appearances in the final top 10 in the last 50 years as Miami (Ohio).
There's all sorts of goodies to explore in this chart (such as "Who knew Utah State ever finished in the top 10?"), but much of that can wait for another time.
Instead, it's better now to figure out how the 13 teams that didn't finish in the top 10 five times between 1961 and 1980 managed to do so five times in the ensuing 30 years.
That contingent of schools can be broken up into four subgroups: Those with immediate access to talent who simply started to procure it, those whose rise was connected to a vacuum created by a traditional power's decline or departure, those who were near-elite to begin with and those who don't really fit and thus qualify as patient builders.
BENEFACTORS OF GEOGRAPHY
Realistically, there are three places any football programs would like to be located in under ideal conditions given the absolute ease of access to qualitative and quantitative levels of talent: Florida, Texas and southern California.
Yes, there are other places teeming with talent, and even some random places can churn out a few elite players. But over time, those three are the places to find the best guys.
In that sense, the rise of Florida, Florida State and Miami is not remotely surprising. Texas A&M's run of top-10 seasons (85-87-92-93-94) is tied to this, though Texas' malaise in that stretch helped considerably. And UCLA, which had eight top-10 finishes between 1982 and 1998, also had the advantage of a hotbed of talent in its own backyard.
That's not to say there were other reasons those schools improved dramatically. But being right around the corner from plenty of talent certainly was an advantage.
It isn't easy to take a .500 program and turn it into an annual 8-9 win team, but it's far from impossible. That sort of improvement does come at the expense of someone else --- this is a zero-sum game --- but typically not an established power.
When the elite experience significant declines, opportunities are created for others. Perhaps those up-and-coming programs would have reached the top tier anyway based on their quality coaching and superb player development. But a big boy's stumble certainly doesn't hurt.
These five schools warrant credit for making strides, but they might have had a little help from their foes:
* Colorado. The Buffaloes rattled off top-10 finishes in 1989, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2001. Meanwhile, Oklahoma didn't finish in the top 10 for a 12-season stretch between 1988 and 1999. Particularly when the Big Eight still existed, the Sooners' struggles swung open the door for Colorado, which won a share of the 1990 national title.
* Iowa. The Hawkeyes have tossed up occasional top-10 seasons (1985, 1991 and 2009), but they also had a three-year run from 2002 to 2004 when they established themselves as a mainstay near the top of the rankings. In that same stretch, Penn State went 16-20 overall and 8-16 in the Big Ten. Rather than two or three teams making slight strides to exploit the Nittany Lions' decline, Iowa just made a substantial (though not permanent) leap into the Big Ten's first tier.
* Kansas State. The Wildcats have a decent case to be included in the group with the patient builders. But while Bill Snyder's work in Manhattan remains remarkable to this day, Kansas State's rise (1995-1997-1998-1999) occurred without a relevant Oklahoma to make life miserable. By the time the Sooners emerged under Bob Stoops, things were going well enough that the Wildcats added top-10 finishes in 2000 and 2002. But with both Oklahoma and Texas cooking throughout the Aughts, K-State couldn't maintain a place among the elite (and neither, it should be noted, could Nebraska).
* Washington. It's easy to forget just how good Don James' Huskies were throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. But they completed the 1981, 1982 and 1984 seasons in the top 10 while Southern Cal had a mini-dip into the second 10 for most of a four-year stretch. It wasn't a disappearing act, but it was a hole large enough for an already good program to exploit.
The Trojans managed to get back into the top 10 in 1984, 1988 and 1989, and the Huskies briefly slipped back. But that would be it for USC until the Pete Carroll years, and U-Dub returned to the top 10 in 1990, 1991 and 2000.
* West Virginia. The Mountaineers had superb seasons in 1988 and 1993, but in context they were outliers amid a series of decent but not great teams. But then Miami and Virginia Tech (and Boston College) exited the Big East, and West Virginia dominated the conference en route to top-10 finishes in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Auburn had four top-10 finishes between 1961 and 1980, and also had one in 1958. Their rise can be explained as an understandable step forward, an exception in this overarching analysis.
Only two schools remain that have done plenty in the last 30 years without accomplishing much at all in the previous 20.
There's Wisconsin, which sprayed top-10 finishes across the board in 1993, 1998, 1999, 2006 and 2010. The Badgers routinely won four or five games in the 1970s, briefly established themselves as a seven-win team in the early 1980s and then collapsed and averaged two wins from 1986 to 1990.
But since 1993, when the Badgers won the Rose Bowl after consecutive 5-6 seasons, Wisconsin has just two losing records. It has 14 years of at least eight victories, and half of those netted 10 wins. The program sustained itself, and while both Penn State and Michigan experienced dips (the Badgers did exploit Ohio State's one .500 season --- 1999 --- in that stretch as well), for the most part Wisconsin has simply made itself consistently better.
The other outlier in the study is Virginia Tech, which never sniffed the top 10 until landing there at the end of the 1995 season. The Hokies probably benefited a bit from Miami's mid-1990s run-in with the NCAA and the seemingly never-ending level of mediocrity the ACC offered in the latter half of the Aughts. Virginia Tech wound up with top-10s in 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009, and may even add 2010 to that list if it beats Stanford on Monday in the Orange Bowl.
Time will tell if the Hokies really are patient builders rather than a perennially well-coached outfit that exploits underwhelming opposition. Their record in high-profile games --- both at the beginning and ending of seasons --- throws an accurate placement into doubt. But for now, this is where Virginia Tech will be pegged.
THE OTHER WAY
There is one more way to secure a top-10 team on a regular basis: To cheat egregiously. Southern Methodist did so in the early 1980s and scored three top-10 seasons (1981-1982-1984) before the NCAA sheriff shut the Mustangs down for a couple years. It isn't a sustainable method of remaining relevant --- eventually, someone squeals and a school finds a giant, humiliating mess on its hands. But it gets mentioned now so no cynics can suggest it was ignored.
Now back to Maryland. It has decent but not fantastic geography to its credit. It does not --- and historically has not --- dominate a particular recruiting area, sharing its home turf with other schools and picking its spots in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia's Tidewater area (the 757) to the south and New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the north.
Maryland is not a near-elite program, as assessed earlier. Even when it won 10 games in three straight seasons a decade ago, its highest final ranking was 11th in 2001. If it finishes in the top 25 this year, it will be its first season-ending ranking since 2003.
A look-the-the-other-way policy ultimately creates more headaches than it could possibly be worth, no matter how much some fans might relish the prospect of a renegade program rather than one that is squeaky clean. Hope is not a strategy, and neither is systemic cheating. At least not over time.
So that leaves two obvious avenues others have pursued in the last 30 years. One is the patience of a steady building project, a luxury Maryland probably doesn't enjoy. As much as a couple more nine-win seasons would be nice --- and should be appreciated --- a series of 8-4 or 9-3 regular seasons are unlikely to permanently move the needle even if the Terps average 500 yards passing a game.
Maryland's "fiduciary duty" (Anderson's words) effectively demands significant upgrades in football revenue in the short-term and the long-term. Patience is not a virtue in College Park, and the bandwagon mentality of the program's less ardent fans ensure this path isn't conducive to any designs of becoming a football power.
That leaves filling a void, and Maryland might have missed its best chance to do just that. Florida State was 30-22 (pre-NCAA fiat to vacate games) from 2006 to 2009. Miami was 28-23 in that same span. After combining for 27 top-10s between 1985 and 2003, the Seminoles and Hurricanes have managed none since.
Yes, Virginia Tech was around, too. But there was a vacuum, and none of the long-time ACC schools --- Maryland included --- stepped in to occupy it.
Now, Florida State has a 10-4 season under Jimbo Fisher and recruiting is going well in Tallahassee. Miami switched coaches after an underwhelming 7-6 season, and while Al Golden might not be a national championship-winning coach, his resume (both in his work at Temple and as an assistant) suggests he will be part of a steady program and The U will leave its penchant for 7-6 records in the rear-view mirror.
And, of course, Virginia Tech just recorded another season with double-digit wins. The Hokies hardly look like a candidate to fall apart as a program any time in the near future.
In short, every established trail to greatness over the last 30 years seems not to fit Maryland very well. The only other obvious-if-untested possibility --- having a single entity throw oodles of money at the problem to see if it will work --- has mixed results.
Oklahoma State has spent all of eight weeks in the top 10 since Barry Sanders' Heisman-winning season in 1988, though it should be noted all of them have come in the last three years. That's a modest return on investment for noted oilman T. Boone Pickens.
Meanwhile, Nike money has helped Oregon earn four top-10s in 11 seasons --- 2000, 2001, 2008 and 2010. A worthwhile observation: The Ducks contended with a fully loaded Southern California in just one of those seasons (2008) and a bowl-bound UCLA in one of those years (2000). The Pac-10 teams that have tradition, proximity to talent or both working for them generally were not strong when the Ducks were. Oregon's turned in some really good teams (much to its credit), but its influx of cash and wacky uniform combinations complemented declines from its greatest big-picture conference threats.
Maybe the Ducks are on their way to creating a new model of achieving elite status. But for now, it's no sure thing.
Let's return to the money question in the headline: Can Maryland be a football power?
In a window of a couple seasons? Why not. Look at the bottom third of that chart again. There's plenty of blips, and so many of them are largely connected with the presence of a superb quarterback who could carry a team thanks to his skill (and whose talent was utilized correctly). Among the QBs to lead their schools to rare top 10s: Doug Flutie, Matt Ryan, Jeff Blake, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Chad Pennington.
Maryland might just have such a quarterback in ACC rookie of the year Danny O'Brien. No one should count out a top-10 season in College Park in the next two or three years. There are enough pieces in place for the Terps to be a credible top-20 team at the start of both 2011 and 2012; get a couple breaks and stay healthy, and things could work out quite well.
But beyond that? It's highly, highly unlikely Maryland's dreams of going from good to great mean a sustained series of top-10 seasons lies in the future. Even five finishes in the top 10 over the next 30 years would be difficult to achieve if history is any indication (as it so often is for those who care to peruse it).
Fans of any middle-of-the-road program don't want to hear this, for various reasons. Some simply want to dream of how much they would enjoy big things, while others veer toward irrationality and label anything less than a 10-win season with the most hilariously overused word in sports --- "unacceptable."
Players don't want to hear this, because they truly believe they can win under any conditions. And take note: This analysis is no slap at any current players; it's an assessment of 50 years worth of data and looks ahead to well past the end of their careers.
Coaches don't want to hear this, because they possess their own agendas and don't need reminders Maryland is taking on the early characteristics of a coaching graveyard; Joe Krivak, Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden never found head coaching jobs again (though Vanderlinden keeps trying to secure one, bless his heart), and the 63-year-old Friedgen is probably past the age most schools would like for a long-term pilot of their football program.
And athletic directors definitely don't want to hear this, since they are the ones who pay the penalty with their jobs if their fanbase's hope for a big-time program is completely extinguished.
Whoever Maryland hires will have a fighting chance to rattle off a couple decent seasons. There are far worse situations to inherit. But it's a job with its own set of challenges and concerns and aggravations, and the course of college football over the last half-century demonstrates that making a leap from good to something special is remarkably difficult.
It's not impossible, but it's also not likely. Maryland and its fans should keep that in mind as they calibrate their long-term expectations, regardless of who is introduced as Friedgen's successor in the coming days.