NEW ORLEANS -- Mark Duffner doesn't want to talk about it.
Debbie Yow doesn't want to talk about it.
The topic is Duffner's longevity as football coach at Maryland, and both he and his boss, athletic director Yow, know that the noise and heat generated by the issue will be dictated by the usual factor: wins and losses.
Duffner begins the fourth year of his original five-year contract tonight at the Superdome, against Tulane. Pummel the Green Wave like the Terps did a year ago, and the fax machine in Yow's office will be quiet next week. Lose the season opener for the fourth straight time under Duffner, and attention will turn exactly where he doesn't want it.
Duffner and Yow will not comment on the terms of a performance-based contract extension they negotiated at the end of last season. The conventional wisdom says that the Terps must improve on last year's 4-7 record for Duffner to avoid having Maryland buy out the final guaranteed year, 1996, on his contract.
"Mark and I have an agreement related to the option year," Yow said. "There's nothing more to say. For him to have his best shot, I need to help him be able to stay focused. I've known Mark long enough to know that it [the talk about his future] does bother him."
Duffner, who has a three-year record of 9-24, seems more relaxed and confident than in preseasons past, despite his biggest crisis at Maryland.
Senior quarterback Scott Milanovich, the most prolific passer in school history, will miss four games on a gambling suspension. Milanovich's status was determined by July 19, and Duffner took solace in the fact that the Terps have had time to adjust to sophomore Brian Cummings leading the run-and-shoot.
"Had we found out on the eve of camp what the deal was, we would have had problems," Duffner said. "The players have had three weeks to work with Brian as the first-team quarterback. We've got no serious injuries. All in all, after Scott's situation was settled, it was probably the smoothest preseason we've ever had."
Augusts past have not been kind to Duffner. The arrests of two players from Baltimore on charges of credit card theft hung over his first preseason camp. In 1993, the kicking game crumbled when a highly touted transfer was sent home because of a bogus junior-college transcript. Last year, three defensive linemen were declared academically ineligible on the eve of the opener.
This year, the absence of Milanovich and wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, who will serve a one-game gambling suspension, means eight new starters on offense.
With Milanovich out and John Teter recovering from back surgery, reserve linebacker Gene Gray is the only Joe Krivak recruit who will play tonight. Half of the starters are third-year players, members of the first class Duffner had a full year to recruit.
That group includes redshirt sophomores such as Cummings, the short-yardage specialist of a year ago who has never thrown a pass in college. It also includes true juniors like Geroy Simon, fTC the slot receiver who set an Atlantic Coast Conference record with 77 receptions last year, and the Terps' two premier defensive players, linebacker Ratcliff Thomas and cornerback A.J. Johnson.
"Some people played before their time," Duffner said. "At times, we might lose sight of that, but when they make a sophomore mistake, it comes back that, hey, we've got to realize that he's still a young player. It doesn't matter. That's who we've got."