Terps seek 'social' coach, reflecting new era

Local Penn State boosters clapped and howled encouragement as James Franklin, the school's perpetually amped-up football coach, delivered a dose of bravado in the ballroom of an Inner Harbor hotel.

While there are other colleges in the region, said Franklin — not specifically naming the University of Maryland, where he once was in line to be head coach — "they might as well shut them down because they don't have a chance!"


The animated speech, part of a 2014 outreach trip, is standard fare for Franklin, who exemplifies the growing need for coaches to be energetic — sometimes theatrical — salesmen for their programs in appearances and in social media.

As Maryland embarked this week on a search for a football coach to replace the fired Randy Edsall, the university's president and its athletic director publicly highlighted the urgency not only to win games but to attract an "outsized personality" to "excite the fan base."


More than ever, analysts say, major-college football teams are too vital to a school's brand to be led by coaches lacking in charm or appeal. Schools, they suggest, ideally want coaches with the combined attributes of football tacticians, role models and talk-show hosts.

In its second season in the prosperous and competitive Big Ten Conference, Maryland wants to raise its profile around the state.

"You want a face for the franchise, someone who is a solid communicator not only with players but with the media at large, with donors and alumni," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a communications and advertising agency headquartered in Bel Air. A Penn State graduate, Brightman cites Franklin and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin as examples.

The personable Sumlin is savvy with social media. Texas A&M shattered a number of attendance marks last season, including drawing 110,633 fans for a game against Mississippi, a Southeastern Conference record.

"Being a public figure and a football coach has changed over the last decade dramatically because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle," said John Maroon, a public relations consultant retained by Maryland in 2012 to work with Edsall on improving his public profile.

Edsall was dismissed Oct. 11 after compiling a 22-34 record; the search for his successor could last weeks.

"The person we might be looking for is probably not looking for a job," said Barry Gossett, a regent and top donor. "I wouldn't think we'd have any viable candidates to talk with until after the season."

Edsall, who was hired in 2011, called Maryland his "dream job." He framed and displayed in his home the ticket to the first Terps game he ever attended, in 1972, when he was 14. As coach, he tried to expand the program's reach by scheduling scrimmages in Baltimore, Frederick County and Southern Maryland.


But Edsall, characterized by media pundits as strident, could be stoic and guarded at news conferences. Maryland tried to work with Edsall on his presentations, essentially coaching the coach.

Instead of having Edsall stand behind a lectern, Maroon suggested that he meet with members of the media in less formal settings.

"He was so intent on being a football coach that he wasn't focused on that portion of his job," Maroon said last week.

Edsall, who declined to be interviewed for this article, abruptly walked out of his final media availability after a question about his pregame routine in a 49-28 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 10.

By then, donors were calling for a change.

"When he was brought in, I think he was the right guy. The program needed some cleaning up and some discipline," said Joel Pitt, an insurance company executive and member of the Terrapin Club, which raises money for athletic scholarships.


Under Edsall, the team raised its scores in the Academic Progress Rate, which measures whether athletes are on track to graduate and was a problem before he arrived.

But Pitt said it is different with Maryland having left the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten in 2014, and with the school collecting money — mostly from private donations — to turn Cole Field House into a $155 million football and academic center.

"It's a totally different story than five years ago," Pitt said. "My personal feeling is you've got to have a guy who does a really good job of reaching out to the donor and fan base."

The Terrapin Club raised $10.1 million in the 2015 fiscal year, which ended July 1. With schools now permitted by conferences to cover an increasing amount of athletes' expenses, the costs are rising, and Maryland's scholarship bill will total more than $13 million in 2016.

One metric used to measure support is the alumni participation rate. Based on the number of graduates who donate to the university divided by the number of living alumni, Maryland's participation rate in its first Big Ten season was around 9 percent. The rate at other Big Ten schools was higher — as much as 19 percent at Michigan, Maryland spokesman Brian Ullmann said last year.

Gossett said being Maryland's coach amounts to heading a highly visible "outreach program."


"Everybody looks at football," he said. "You have to be likable and be able to disagree sometimes with what is said about you — or to you. You've got to be able to keep your cool. You've got to have a thick skin sometimes."

In its inaugural Big Ten season last year, Maryland averaged 46,981 in home football attendance, an increase of nearly 14 percent over 2013. This year's team is averaging about 6,000 fewer fans — 40,769 — but has played only one marquee opponent, Michigan, at home.

Before hiring Edsall, who is making $2.1 million this year, Maryland or its search firm made contact with, among others, Gus Malzahn, now Auburn's head coach; Mike Leach, now at Washington State; and Rich Rodriguez, now at Arizona, according to interviews and records. Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson declined to be interviewed about potential candidates to replace Edsall but has said interim Maryland coach Mike Locksley will be considered. The school still was deciding late last week whether to retain a search firm.

Maryland President Wallace D. Loh is fond of likening college sports to the front porch of a house — not the most important part of the structure, but a highly visible one.

"I will never forget what the dean of engineering told me," Loh told The Baltimore Sun's editorial board this week. "When we won the national championship in [men's] basketball, which was 2001-2002, applications tripled to the engineering school. But not only in quantity but in quality."

Loh said Maryland needs "an outsized personality here. It's not just knowing the X's and O's."


Academic studies have linked winning football teams with donations to their universities.

"The success of intercollegiate athletics has been used as a powerful communication tool that increases good publicity and enhances the university profile, which could in turn result in favorable private giving," said a 2014 study in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics.

Following the success of Alabama's football team — which won national championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012 — the number of applications rose and the admissions department was able to be more selective, according to a Forbes report.

In basketball, a new study by Richard Borghesi, an associate professor of finance at the University of South Florida, found that "recruiting and competitive performance are responsible for 2.2 percent of all Division I university academic donations."

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Maryland's next football game is Oct. 24 at M&T Bank Stadium against Franklin's Penn State team. Last year, the NCAA lifted sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. Penn State fans needed a lift after that scandal, and the school says Franklin's swagger has helped them feel recharged. The school said donations to the Nittany Lion Club Annual Fund rose $1.4 million, or 8.7 percent, in 2014-15 compared with 2013-14.

As a Maryland assistant in 2009, Franklin was promised $1 million if not elevated to head coach. But athletic director Debbie Yow left for North Carolina State and her replacement — Anderson — considered "coach-in-waiting" agreements divisive. With no guarantee he would be Ralph Friedgen's successor, Franklin left for Vanderbilt before Maryland's coaching search began in December 2010, then became Penn State's coach in 2014.


Maryland, which declined to discuss Franklin, has developed a simmering rivalry with the coach that was stoked by his comment last year that "they don't have a chance."

"I was just trying to have some fun," Franklin said several months after the remark. "I come to things like this, and I don't want to be this boring, standard coach that gives these really dry answers."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.