Ever-optimistic Duffner may be too nice for Terps' good


COLLEGE PARK -- They should call this place Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood during the football season. And the coach of the football team certainly fits the description of Captain Nice, too.

Where else would a weekly poop session with a coach, whose team just absorbed a 70-7 shellacking, start with his commenting on what a fine day it was, weather-wise, then ordering up a standing ovation for the folks who prepared the mushroom soup?

There is much to be said about the good that can be created by positive reinforcement, the manner in which Maryland's mentor Mark Duffner chooses to deal with his team without exception. But there comes a time. . .

Did you know the Terrapins did a heckuva job the other night stopping Penn State when it had a first down on the Maryland 5-yard line? "And look at the number of times we forced them to punt," noted the coach, proudly.

Duffner then rattled off the names of several players who played well and what a positive experience it was because (1) it was an opportunity to play a fine team, (2) the Terrapins didn't quit, and (3) running back Mark Mason got through the fifth game without injury.

The coach was flying now: "Our simplified defensive scheme got more guys to the ball quicker."

Only problem was what happened when they got there: nothing. Most of the lads in red shirts didn't even get the number of the Penn State ball carrier as he sped away.

Ear-witnesses would swear the coach was talking about a tough loss to the Nittany Lions, not this 63-point humiliation. And this on the wings of losses that have seen Maryland allow point totals of 43-59-42-55. Remember, this ain't bingo or basketball.

As he has said after every pounding, Duffner offered, "I take the responsibility for the execution of our football team." That's very noble of him, but it's also foolhardy and, perhaps, counter-productive.

Football isn't charm school, basic training for a night at the ballet or a nature walk in such locales as Tallahassee, Chapel Hill and Blacksburg on warm fall afternoons. It seems well past the time when the coach should stop covering up for his staff and the hired hands.

After all, Maryland has handed out dozens and dozens of scholarships that are worth anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per year and with the acceptance of same by players comes the responsibility of performing reasonably well.

At the same time, the Terps have a battery of assistant coaches drawing handsome salaries who carry the responsibility of recruiting well and preparing players to perform in a reasonable manner. You begin to question their effectiveness when they put in 12- and 14-hour days consistently and, if anything, the team appears to be regressing.

After spring practice, what is now referred to as "fall camp" by coaches and five games against admittedly-tough competition, Maryland's team is giving indication that it is not football it is engaged in. Touch football, maybe, or flag football.

Mark Duffner insists he's never going to take a "woe is me, down in the dumps attitude," which is admirable. But if after each succeeding loss, the only things players hear is that they're a swell bunch and they're young and improving and things will be all right, the current sorry situation might go on forever.

"The key thing is for us to stay together," says Duffner. "We've got a second season starting now. We have to be focused toward the great opportunity we face at Georgia Tech this week."

Wrong, coach, the key is for the players to become better individually, then to put a cast out there that can play a reasonably balanced game in all facets of football. That means blocking and tackling, running and getting away from a hellzapoppin' offense that places an alarmingly inept defense on the field any more than necessary.

The Terps have been exciting to watch when they have the ball, as attests their scoring totals of 29-42-37-28 prior to Saturday night. But it was inevitable that some opponent would get serious about stopping them, as Penn State obviously did, and you saw the results: five sacks, four interceptions, two fumbles.

"These things put added pressure on our defense," said the coach. "We were disrupted in the execution of our attack and never were able to get into effective synchronization."

No kidding.

Captain Bligh, Simon Legree, Frank Kush, any of you guys interested in coming in here and kicking some positive reinforcement?

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