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Eileen Edsall, wife of Maryland football coach, stands by her man

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Sometimes on football Saturdays, Randy Edsall's wife will slip into the Gossett Team House auditorium, barely noticed by the media assembled to hear the Maryland coach's post-game remarks.

Thirteen years after her husband first became a head coach, Eileen Edsall is as passionate as ever about his career, but is practiced at fading into her football surroundings so as not to become part of the story. With all eyes fixed on the lectern where her husband is standing, the former basketball and volleyball standout -- who was once named the top female athlete at Syracuse University -- will position herself near the back of the room, silently sharing his good moments and enduring the bad.

Being a head coach's wife is a little like being the first lady. You are at once famous and insignificant, at least relative to your husband. Most football spouses stay publicly reserved for fear of becoming distractions.

But it can't always be easy remaining stoic. Not in seasons such as 2011, when Maryland lost eight straight games and local columnists -- Eileen Edsall remembers exactly which ones -- were roasting her husband in his first season in College Park after 12 years at Connecticut.

"Imagine being Randy's wife last year," said Under Armour CEO and former Maryland special-teams player Kevin Plank. "How would that feel? She's a sweetheart. She's super."

Sometimes, she will Google her husband's name -- not obsessively, she says -- just so she can know what hazards may lie out there that he needs to know about. She won't fight his battles for him, but she will act as a scout.

"I almost think sometimes people see him as some sort of a cartoon figure, like he doesn't have a real life, like he's been conjured up, like he's this machine or something," she said in an interview. "I think they portrayed him as some dictator. Yeah, he has rules. With 85 guys, you'd better have rules. Is he unreasonable? No. I think he's fair. Maybe if it's not what you're used to, you see it as unreasonable."

Athletic beginnings

The former Eileen Smith, 53, has blonde hair and blue eyes and closely resembles her husband. She watches home games from a suite and travels to the road games. She has a working knowledge of football ("I can see certain things just from watching enough games") and can grow frustrated when the Terps perform poorly.

Maryland's 38-7 loss to Temple last season -- during which scattered boos were heard inside Byrd Stadium -- "was the worst game I ever sat through in my life," she said. While some Terps played hard, she said others underestimated the Owls and "they were bigger up front and they just manhandled us."

Later in the season, a few media pundits called for Randy Edsall's dismissal, and others characterized him as strident.

"Does it bother me to read that stuff? You'd rather read nice things," Eileen Edsall said. "I don't even know if annoyed is a good word. I'd probably just blow it off as ignorance."

Her background probably helps her cope. Her father, Gary Smith, was a Rochester (N.Y.) City Court judge and Monroe County legislator, and she grew accustomed to having her identity tied to a publicly known family member.

Her sports background infused her with confidence. "She's an athlete," said Duke Edsall, a longtime college basketball official and Randy's brother. "She comes from that mold. That's the best way I can describe her."

She grew up as the middle child of five siblings in Rochester, often practicing with her brothers' athletic teams because girls weren't yet afforded the same opportunities. "I grew up competing with boys. That was my edge later in college," she said.

"She was a competitor," Randy Edsall said. "You don't letter in volleyball and basketball and do the things that she did without that."

A coach's wife

The Edsalls started dating at Syracuse when she was a senior and he was a graduate assistant who had been a backup quarterback.

She was reluctant to date a fellow athlete. "It's kind of hard. You've got classes, you've got practices, you've got games. And I was doing two sports so I was busy all year round. But once he graduated and was a GA, I felt, 'Well, he's not an athlete.'"

The relationship surprised Theresa Quilty, her former roommate and basketball teammate. "I had no clue either one of them even liked each other. She said he just kept coming over and hanging around and never leaving her apartment, so I guess she wasn't going to get rid of him," Quilty joked.

They have been married 29 years, through six football-related stops. Coaches' wives must often accept nomadic lifestyles more familiar to military families than civilians.

"I tell coaches' wives, 'Never fall in love with your house because you're not going to be there,'" said Lia Edwards, who followed her husband, Herm -- now an ESPN football analyst -- from Tampa Bay (where he was an assistant under Tony Dungy) to New York to Kansas City.

The Edsalls' moves could be complicated. When he became Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator in 1998, the couple's Jacksonville-area house "didn't sell right away, so we actually lived apart for 18 months," she said.

He went from Georgia Tech to Connecticut, and was hired by Maryland in January 2011. The family has moved into a large, contemporary home about 30 minutes from College Park. He has a six-year contract.

On the living-room wall are water-color portraits -- they were given to the Edsalls as gifts -- of many of the family homes they have left behind. "There is a lot of uncertainty, so you have to be able to live with that and not get too tied in to where you are," she said. "The 12 years we were at Connecticut are basically where our kids grew up."

Lined up on a shelf in the basement home theater are helmets representing each of his head coach or assistant jobs -- Maryland, Connecticut, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

There is a framed ticket stub in his home office to the first Maryland football game he attended as a fan (against Villanova) in 1972. There is the Baltimore Colts helmet he wore when he competed in the Punt, Pass and Kick competition as a boy.

There are photos of the kids -- each involved in football. Corey, 19, a former walk-on player at Syracuse, is now at Maryland and will work with the team to learn about the coaching profession. Daughter Lexi, 22, is starting an internship with the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.

Eileen said the kids have long understood that criticism of their father comes with being a major-college coach, and they should pay little heed.

Said Randy Edsall: Eileen "has to tell the kids, 'You know who your dad is, you know what he does.'"

Confident and supportive

Eileen is probably as naturally competitive as her husband, an avid golfer. In 1990 -- nine years after graduating -- she was named to Syracuse's women's athletics hall of fame.

"At 5-8 or 5-9, she wasn't the tallest player, but on both courts (basketball and volleyball), she was tough," said Quilty, a high school guidance counselor who remains close with Eileen. "She was definitely one of the unsung heroes on our team, doing the 'dirty work' underneath the basket, playing tough defense, not getting a lot of recognition, and hitting key shots with the men's-size basketball we had to play with back in the day."

Eileen Edsall has a long professional history, which includes time spent as a financial consultant, selling mutual funds and working in accounting. She has an ease in public that her husband sometimes lacks, particularly during sessions with reporters in which he can appear stiff or hostile.

"I was in marketing and finance and dealt with people and things all the time, so I'm very comfortable in that arena," she said. She lowers her voice before continuing. "Probably sometimes more so than him."

But she doesn't often share her football views publicly because she doesn't consider that her role.

"She would like to come out and say things, but she's not going to," Randy Edsall said. "That's not the way you do things."

Her approach differs from Ralph Friedgen's wife, Gloria. The former Maryland coach's contract was bought out before Edsall arrived.

Gloria Friedgen often greeted players with hugs as they left the training center to board the bus taking them to away-game charter flights. She organized game-day tailgates, helped raise funds for the university and sometimes arrived at practices with fruit or other snacks for the players.

Now that she and her family are settled, Eileen Edsall said: "I would absolutely help fundraise and show my face and do things to help the program."

But would she deliver snacks to the players? "It's not youth soccer," she said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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