By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun
12:38 AM EDT, August 28, 2011
COLLEGE PARK —
Gary Crowton extends his right hand to display the damage. The wrist had to be stabilized with a plate and 11 screws after two players careened into him as he coached at an LSU practice several years ago. He also suffered a concussion and lost a few teeth. "Didn't miss a practice," he says.
At 54, Maryland's new offensive coordinator carries multiple reminders — physical and emotional — of being a football lifer.
He won a national championship as LSU's offensive coordinator, popularized a version of the wide-receiver screen as coordinator of the Chicago Bears, and was instrumental in bringing longtime friend Chip Kelly to Oregon, last season's national title runner-up. But he also endured Internet taunts from LSU fans who thought the team's offense was boring, and weathered having to step down as coach of a BYU program he had followed as a boy growing up in Provo, Utah.
After more than 35 years of playing and coaching, it's evident that Crowton is a survivor.
Less clear is where all his varied experiences and travels have left him philosophically. In a year of turnover unlike any in Maryland's program in a decade, Terps fans are looking for clues about the team's veiled-in-secrecy offense. They are eager to learn what offensive principles Crowton still holds dear.
The answer is not what fans might think by looking at recent history.
In his last two years at LSU, Crowton's Tigers averaged 24.8 and 29.7 points, respectively, and their passing offense ranked 97th and 107th in the nation. LSU fans flocked to message boards to say that the offense had regressed, that the team was too conservative, and that it was not making enough use of its blue-chip receivers. LSU had averaged 38.6 points under Crowton and head coach Les Miles in the national championship season of 2007.
The criticism irritated Crowton's friends in the coaching world who believe he was made a scapegoat.
"Gary was there when they won a national championship," said Brown coach Phil Estes, who — like Crowton — is a former New Hampshire assistant. "He didn't become a bad coach overnight. He's very loyal. He probably ate a lot of stuff at LSU that he probably didn't have to."
In a 50-minute interview, Crowton said bluntly that "No, it wasn't my offense" at LSU and that it would be unfair to make assessments based soley on those four years.
"Were there parts of that offense that were mine? Yeah. The philosophy that Coach Miles had was to be good on defense, be good on special teams and win it in the fourth quarter," Crowton said. "We won a lot of games in the fourth quarter. We beat Auburn twice in the fourth quarter. What it did is it shortened the game. We didn't have a lot of offensive plays. When you look statistically, it wasn't great, but that wasn't our goal. Our goal was to win games. We won 40 in four years."
Crowton, a former Colorado State quarterback and defensive back, said his "inner nature" is to be "exciting and open and fast-paced." He likes up-tempo offenses, although Maryland's isn't likely to be as fast as Kelly's at Oregon. Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien "is not the same quarterback as [Oregon's Darron] Thomas. There are different styles of quarterbacks and we have to play to the strengths of our quarterbacks," Crowton said.
Crowton said Maryland's offense must be suited to the particular talents of its players — and Maryland has two solid, experienced running backs in senior Davin Meggett (720 yards last season) and sophomore D.J. Adams (11 rushing touchdowns). Coach Randy Edsall, in his first year at Maryland after a dozen seasons at Connecticut, said he intends to make Meggett a "workhorse" but that the offense will have multiple looks.
Crowton "can adapt to the personnel he has been handed," said Oregon's Kelly. "At BYU, Gary was running the heck out of the ball."
Kelly, whose Ducks lost to Auburn in last season's BCS national championship game, said he landed at Oregon largely because of Crowton.
Kelly was New Hampshire's offensive coordinator — Crowton's old job — and the two were friends. As Oregon's coordinator, Crowton — who ran a spread offense — invited Kelly to come visit and introduced him to the Oregon staff in 2006. When Crowton departed for LSU before the 2007 season, he recommended Kelly as his replacement.
"I thought somebody was prank calling when [then-Ducks coach] Mike Bellotti called about the job," Kelly said. "I thought it was one of my friends." Kelly took the job, and then succeeded Bellotti in 2009. He and Crowton remain close.
Married with seven children, Crowton has a quiet intensity. Driving to scout a high-school game as Lousiana Tech's coach in the late 1990s, he was so focused on devising game plans that he drove 90 miles out of his way before he realized where he was.
Crowton is less animated than previous Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin (now Vanderbilt's coach), who sometimes leaped around the practice field like a linebacker after making a tackle.
Crowton, who is Mormon, is often found on the practice field wearing shorts, a T-shirt and cap, and holding a play list in an extended hand. He shouts sometimes, but doesn't swear.
"Now I know a lot of Mormons who swear. I try not to. It's kind of how I was raised," said Crowton, whose Mormon mission took him to South Korea. He still speaks a little of the language.
Crowton "is much more relaxed [than Franklin], I would say," said Maryland backup quarterback C.J. Brown. "He's very attentive to detail, a big-picture guy. But he still likes the intensity."
Said Estes: "Gary is a patient person, but he's a very competitive person. He has a lot of innovation in him. When I first met Gary, he had the Wacky Wildcat [so named because of the New Hampshire Wildcats] where you'd have a center and two guards, and the tackles would go split. He just came up with things you didn't see. You ever see the Muddle Huddle? It's things like that."
Said Meggett: "He always has something cool up his sleeve."
Edsall became acquainted with Crowton when both were Boston College assistants under Tom Coughlin in the early '90s. Edsall has revealed few specifics about Maryland's offense in advance of the Sept. 5 opener against Miami at Byrd Stadium.
In the interview, Crowton began several sentences by saying he needed to be careful not to reveal too much.
But he did drop a hint about his preferences. Asked which of his teams best represented his philosophy, Crowton selected his first BYU team that led the nation in total offense (542.9 yards per game) and scoring (46.8 points per game) in 2001.
Crowton had arrived at BYU with a reputation built largely on passing out of a spread offense. But the Cougars were balanced in 2001, rushing 505 times and passing 486. Running back Luke Staley rushed for 1,596 yards, quarterback Brandon Doman passed for 3,542 yards, and the team finished 12-2.
"Without giving away much of what we're doing," Crowton said, "that 2001 offense at BYU — that's me."
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