- Maryland's next hire, no matter who it is, will be operating under many of the same disadvantages Navy's longtime head coach has thrived under just a few miles away in Annapolis.
Maryland’s swift reversal of one of the dumbest decisions in recent college football history leaves plenty of questions unanswered. Chief among them is this: With D.J. Durkin now fired, who will run the Maryland football program beyond this season?
It would seem fair that interim coach Matt Canada, who is currently 5–3 and still may lead the Terrapins to a bowl game in spite of this mess, should get a hard look. But Maryland may want to completely purge any remnants of the Durkin era. The biggest problem when the school planned to bring back Durkin was how difficult it would be to recruit going forward, so it would make sense that the school would want a completely clean slate. That probably isn’t fair to Canada, who only joined this staff in January, but his performance this season will get him a head-coaching job or a high-paying offensive coordinator job somewhere else next season.
So if Maryland does engage in a national coaching search, what should the Terrapins do? They could try what they did last time and hire a younger, up-and-coming assistant who promises to lure enough recruits from the talent-rich District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia area to compete with the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East.
Or they could be realistic.
Maryland is surrounded by talent. But there are so many schools recruiting the area, the Terps still will struggle to get the best players to stay home. Randy Edsall signed receiver Stefon Diggs (Gaithersburg, Md.) and then wasted him. Edsall—with a huge assist from then offensive coordinator Mike Locksley*—also got a commitment from Potomac, Md., quarterback Dwayne Haskins in June 2015. But Edsall was fired that October and Haskins wound up choosing Ohio State. (Which he may have done even if that staff had stayed employed.)
*Locksley’s name can—and probably should—come up in this discussion. He’s currently running a history-making offense at Alabama, and few people recruit the DMV better. But he also had a string of controversies (and a 2–26 record) in two-plus seasons as New Mexico’s head coach. Given what has just happened at Maryland, the administration probably will shy away from a coach with a history.
Maryland could pray that its next hire will somehow magically convince all the good players in the DMV to say no to Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Virginia Tech and all the other historically superior programs swooping in—and then coach those players to the top of the Big Ten East. Or the Terps could meet reality on reality’s terms and hire a coach with a pristine background who would make Maryland different and better at the same time. And as an added bonus, the Terps probably wouldn’t even have to pay moving expenses.
That’s right. The Terps should look 28 miles east to Annapolis and hire Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo.
Yes, Niumatalolo is having a bad season this year. His Midshipmen fell to 2–6 on Saturday after losing to Notre Dame in San Diego. But over the course of his 10 years as Navy’s head coach, he’s been consistently good and occasionally great. Dealing with a far more difficult recruiting situation, the 53-year-old Niumatalolo is 86–54 in a period when Maryland football has gone 57–76. Yes, the Terps played in tougher conferences (the ACC and the Big Ten). But no Maryland coach had to make sure each player he recruited got nominated for admission by a member of Congress.
This is the part where the Maryland fans scream back that Niumatalolo runs the triple option and that fact should immediately disqualify him from consideration. After all, Niumatalolo was knocked out of the running for the Arizona job last year after quarterback Khalil Tate tweeted that he didn’t go to Tucson to run the option.
But here’s the thing: Maryland should be running the option or some other extreme scheme designed to close talent gaps. The Terps aren’t going to compete with the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions, Spartans and Wolverines playing the same game as those teams. Those groups will almost always play that game better.
So be different. Be the team no one wants to play. (And don’t tell me no one wants to watch the option. Ticket buyers want to watch winners.)
This is the part where Maryland fans will argue that they’ll never sign a five-star quarterback running the option. And they’re correct! But the fact of the matter is the five-star probably isn’t signing with Maryland anyway. The class of 2016 four-star, Haskins, landed in Columbus. The next guy probably will wind up there or in State College or Clemson. And if you run the option, you don’t need a five-star quarterback. You need a three-star quarterback that Ohio State and Michigan want to turn into a safety.
One of the most dominant quarterbacks in college football history fits that description. Tommie Frazier was an excellent quarterback at Manatee High in Bradenton, Fla., but Florida and Florida State weren’t keen on the idea of Frazier playing quarterback. Nebraska, however, loved the idea. Because Frazier was a much better thrower than anyone realized, Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne adjusted his offense to make the triple option Nebraska’s play-action. The result? The Cornhuskers devastated opponents, winning national titles in 1994 and 1995.
Meanwhile, Maryland fans should remember that while their team was going 2–10 as an ACC school in 2009, Niumatalolo’s former boss Paul Johnson was winning that league with Georgia Tech. Johnson won the ACC Coastal again in 2014. This may not sound like much to fans who crave national titles, but it’s far better than Maryland has done in the same period.
Niumatalolo is smart enough to build around the strengths of his roster. So if he got a quarterback with an excellent arm, he’d build that into the scheme. And he could field a strong roster. The toughest players to recruit are ready-made offensive and defensive linemen. Maryland will always struggle to sign those players because they’ll also have offers from the Alabamas and Ohio States. But the option requires smaller, quicker offensive linemen. Niumatalolo would be recruiting from a completely different pool, and Maryland would likely be the best offer for many of those players. Niumatalolo could get the best of that body type every year.
The recruiting pool is the biggest difference when running the option. Niumatalolo could offer a Big Ten scholarship to players whose speed and strength matches their Ohio State and Penn State counterparts, but who might not meet the same physical dimensions. And the pool for him to recruit at Maryland would be far larger than the pool he currently recruits from at Navy. Now, he must find players who would get admitted—and get that nomination from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate—to the Naval Academy, who would be willing to live the academy lifestyle, who would be capable of handling the intense academy courseload and who would be willing to commit to service in the Navy after graduation.
Maryland, on the other hand, is a large state school. There are easier majors for athletes and non-athletes alike. There is no military service commitment. Recruits don’t need a nomination. Niumatalolo could recruit players as good or better than the ones playing for Maryland now and win more games because they would play an offense that would drive opposing defensive coordinators insane.
Since running Ralph Friedgen out of the job following the 2010 football season, Maryland has been pretty lousy at choosing and managing football coaches. Let’s count the ways.
In the waning years of Friedgen’s tenure, Maryland had a coach-in-waiting deal with then offensive coordinator James Franklin that promised Franklin either the head coaching job or a $1 million payout by Jan. 1, 2012. Given that Franklin has succeeded as Vanderbilt and Penn State’s head coach since, we can assume that had Maryland simply honored that deal, the Terrapins would be better at football now. But Franklin probably would have left for a Penn State-type job after some success.
After firing Friedgen, Maryland brought in former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach for an interview. The Terps decided against hiring Leach and hired Randy Edsall. Edsall went 22–34. Leach was hired by Washington State in 2012. He’s currently 45–39 there. The 2018 Cougars are currently 7–1 and look like the best team in the Pac-12.
Though people who don’t understand football don’t realize it, a Leach hire would have been similar to a Niumatalolo hire. Niumatalolo runs an offense designed to control the game on the ground. Leach runs one designed to control the game through the air. Both are on an extreme end of the spectrum; they’re merely on opposite ends of the spectrum. And both allow the coaches to put up better numbers with less heralded recruits than the best teams in their leagues.
Maryland probably will go the hot coordinator route and hire someone like Ohio State assistant Ryan Day, who is an excellent coach but who would face the same challenges as all the other coaches hired to bang their head against the same brick wall. But if the Terps really want to have a chance when they play the best in the Big Ten, they’ll decide to be different.
And the guy who can make them different is just down the road.