COLLEGE PARK -- Larry Slade will never forget his introduction to Maryland football.
"The first workout we had, the first time I saw the team, I said to myself, 'Oh my god, what have I done?' "
Slade was Mark Duffner's defensive coordinator in 1992 and '93, the one who got fired after the Terps set an NCAA Division I record by allowing 553 yards per game.
He came to Maryland from Washington, where he was the secondary coach for the '91 team that won a share of the national title.
And he left for Texas A&M;, where he is now the secondary coach for a team ranked No. 3 in the nation.
Maybe Slade wasn't as good a defensive coordinator as Kevin Coyle, who replaced him at Maryland. But his players weren't as good, either. They were younger and smaller. Many of them, Slade said, were only I-AA caliber.
Now, at last, the young players on defense are maturing, several transfers are contributing and those who were academically ineligible last season are playing again.
Maryland has a chance to go 3-0 for the first time in a decade when it plays West Virginia tonight. It would be quite an accomplishment, considering how far the program had fallen under Joe Krivak.
"I was stunned," Slade said from A&M; on Thursday. "I asked, 'Why? Why did it get this way?' I asked some of the alums. I heard there was a coach who wouldn't recruit in the spring because he was hunting and fishing. I heard they wouldn't recruit black players.
"It was all hearsay. I didn't know if any of it was true. But the result I saw was bad. Something happened. Part of it was an academic reaction to the Len Bias thing. I said, 'You've got to concentrate on finding a way, rather than keep being upset about it.' That's what we did."
Of course, Maryland was so far gone in Slade's two seasons as coordinator, nothing helped. Both years, the Terps finished last in the nation in yards allowed.
tTC Duffner fired Slade and replaced him with Coyle, with whom he had worked for 11 years previously at Cincinnati and Holy Cross.
The move was predictable -- Duffner wanted Coyle the moment he took over at Maryland, but the timing wasn't right. Coyle had just completed his first year at Syracuse, just gotten married.
Someone had to be the scapegoat for the worst defense in NCAA history, and that someone was Slade. "He [Duffner] has always wanted to hire Kevin," Slade said at the time. "It's hard not to be bitter."
Even then, he knew Maryland would improve, knew what was coming. In Coyle's first season, the Terps allowed 119 fewer yards per game. And this season, they're 74.5 yards per game below that.
What we're seeing here is the fruit of the coaching staff's labor, but it's also a natural evolution. Duffner is bringing in better players. And his original recruits are coming into their own.
Approximately half of Maryland's starters are redshirt sophomores and true juniors -- products of Duffner's first legitimate recruiting class. This is why new coaches get five-year contracts. These turnarounds don't happen overnight.
How badly did Krivak recruit? Maryland has sent only four players to the NFL in the '90s -- Scott Zolak, Larry Webster, Frank Wycheck and Steve Ingram. None is the next Boomer Esiason or Randy White.
"Scouts would come by and say, 'I don't need to spend a whole lot of time here,' " Slade recalled. "And it wasn't just the seniors. None of the juniors were prospects. None of the sophomores were prospects, either."
Now, suddenly, Maryland is hitting harder, rushing the passer better, reacting quicker to the ball. Two years ago, if a defender was caught out of position, the play went for a touchdown. No more.
Two years ago, the Terps started eight freshmen on defense. This season, they're starting none. They recruited five freshman linebackers. Not one has played a down.
No longer must they convert offensive players to defense, or lament losing half their defensive line to academic problems. Johnnie Hicks and Tim Watson are back, and Hicks last week played the best game by a lineman in Duffner's tenure, making eight tackles and forcing a fumble.
Would you believe Maryland knocked down North Carolina quarterback Michael Thomas 18 times? Or that cornerback Chad Scott, a transfer from Towson State, made an open-field tackle to stop a reverse to Octavius Barnes for no gain?
"The biggest thing we've got going right now is the attitude of the players," Coyle said. "The mind-set and attitude is very, very positive. That, more than anything we're doing from an X-and-O standpoint, is the biggest change."
It's the old story -- success breeds confidence, and vice versa. Slade complimented Duffner -- "He was going to work. That was an attribute of his." His only regret is that he couldn't stay to do his part.
"We all have that ego," Slade said. "I've always wanted to see things through. It's easy to say, 'I'm going to go to this place. I want to be in a top program.' But when you get into a tough situation, you want to see it through.
"When I was at Washington, I was a great coach. Everybody wanted to talk to me [about jobs]. Then I went to Maryland, we struggled a couple of years, and all of a sudden I wasn't such a good coach anymore."
The reason was obvious.
"You can't do it without the players," Slade said.