I bet that Elton John’s “Circle of Life” is playing in Randy Edsall’s head today. That’s because as Maryland’s football coach prepares for Saturday’s reunion game against Connecticut, his former employer, Jim Calhoun, the face of UConn men’s basketball for a quarter century, is retiring.
Five months before Edsall coached the Huskies in their first Division I-A game in September 1999, Calhoun won the first of his three national championships that brought so much attention to an athletic program previously really only known for women’s basketball.
As tremendous as Geno Auriemma’s seven national championships have been for the university, it’s still women’s hoops. It was Calhoun’s success that really helped put UConn and Edsall’s rising program in the minds of potential football recruits. The season after Calhoun’s second title in April 2004, Edsall’s team began competing in the Big East and earned the first of its five bowl bids during his 12 years at Connecticut.
The day after the most high-profile of those postseason games, a loss to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day 2011, Edsall abruptly left UConn to take over at Maryland without telling his players. That left a bitter feeling in the Nutmeg State – a Hartford Courant columnist calls Edsall “The Deserter” — that he regrets.
“If I could do it over again, I wish there was some way I was able to see the players and tell them face to face that I was going to leave,” Edsall said on a conference call with Connecticut media. “But due to the circumstances … I wasn’t able to do that. That’s something I’ve got to live with.”
Of course, Edsall’s former players have had to live with his decision, too. He said that NCAA rules have prevented him from talking to them since he left although he hopes to be able to say hello on the field after Saturday’s game.
“It’s not going to be hard to get fired up,” defensive tackle Ryan Wirth said when asked about facing Edsall and the Terps at Byrd Stadium.
As any coach would, Edsall has maintained that UConn just happens to be the next game on Maryland’s schedule, but even a man as stoic as the Terps’ coach wasn’t unaffected by spending 12 years at a school, especially when he was the architect of its football program.
“The state of Connecticut and the University of Connecticut is a really special place for me and my family,” Edsall said, noting that his daughter is a UConn graduate and his son was educated in the state. “I’ll always be indebted to the people (there). I was very proud of what we accomplished at UConn. (But) this is where I grew up. Watching games here, going to basketball camps here and being a Baltimore fan my whole life …”
Which is why Maryland was Edsall’s “dream job.” So when athletic director Kevin Anderson fired longtime Terps coach Ralph Friedgen after the 2010 season, the native of Glen Rock, Pa., just 45 minutes from Baltimore, quickly forsook the program he had built.
While Wirth would love nothing better than some revenge against his old coach, Huskie defensive end Trevardo Williams told The Courant that he would have done what Edsall did: pursue his dream job. Williams added that if he has a chance to talk to Edsall on Saturday, he’ll thank him for bringing him to UConn and wish him luck for the rest of the season.
Coming off an ugly 2-10 debut in College Park that was followed by numerous players, led by current Wisconsin starting quarterback Danny O’Brien, transferring because of their dislike for their new coach and with eight games ahead against teams that vanquished Maryland in 2011 before the season finale at North Carolina, Edsall needs all the luck he can get.
Edsall was just 9-24 during his first three seasons at UConn, but there was patience while he built a Division I program that went 65-46 over the next nine years. Despite Maryland’s 2-0 start this year after narrow victories over William & Mary and Temple, Terps supporters won’t be as inclined to be as generous if the 2012 season turns as negative as the 2011 campaign which ended with eight straight defeats.
“I think that we’ve turned the corner a little bit,” Edsall declared. “We still have a long way to go, but the energy and attitude has been good. We are moving in the right direction.”
For some at UConn, the wound over Edsall’s move has healed, but for others, it will be dandy if the slightly favored Huskies can keep turning their old coach’s dream job into a nightmare by beating the Terps.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin