COLLEGE PARK -- When Ron Vanderlinden is asked to name the zenith of his football career, he goes to the 1995 season. Going to Pasadena, looking out across a Rose Bowl improbably bathed in purple and then up at the San Gabriel Mountains, who wouldn't want to talk about that?
Northwestern's rise in the Big Ten is one of the items on Vanderlinden's resume that led Maryland to put him in charge of a program that has been a bust the past 11 years. As pleasant as it is to reminisce about coaching Cinderella, however, Vanderlinden knows that his philosophy also was shaped by a time in Colorado where players were branded as a bunch of thugs.
"I've seen both sides," Vanderlinden said. "I've been through the hard times."
A month shy of his 41st birthday, Vanderlinden talked two days ago of the influences that led him to Maryland, and to a room with a view of 48,000-seat Byrd Stadium. This is his first head coaching position, but revivals are old hat for Vanderlinden, who learned from his father and assorted coaches along the way.
The most important lessons, including a few on balance, came in the form of cautionary tales courtesy of his mentor, Bill McCartney.
Crowds of 50,000 men attend rallies held by the Promise Keepers, the rapidly growing Christian men's organization that McCartney founded while he was still the coach at Colorado. No disciple has been more faithful than Vanderlinden, who is the ninth former assistant of McCartney to get his own major-college program.
From 1970 to 1991, Vanderlinden spent 13 of 22 football seasons with McCartney.
Vanderlinden's star rose at Northwestern, where he was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for Gary Barnett, but his first coaching acclaim came as a recruiter.
He was on the other end of that business in the fall of 1969, when the coach from one of the nearby Catholic high schools came by to talk up the eighth-grade CYO team from St. Michael's in Livonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. Vanderlinden and seven other kids followed the man, one Bill McCartney, to Divine Child High.
Vanderlinden was 27 when he began a nine-year stint as a Colorado assistant, but the college of coaches wasn't what it seemed.
"No one will admit it," Gerry DiNardo said, "but we had no idea what we were doing."
Now in his second year as the hot commodity at Louisiana State, DiNardo was among the assistants who stayed on after McCartney's first season at Colorado, 1982. The staff was shaken up, and Vanderlinden, itching to move up from his first full-time job, at Ball State, talked McCartney into giving him a job.
After a 1-10 record in 1984, Vanderlinden was made recruiting coordinator. It was an endeavor McCartney, who had inherited a 3-8 team, couldn't stress enough.
"Mac [McCartney] didn't care if we just had won 10 or 11 games," DiNardo said. "He wanted to know one thing, 'Who are you writing to [recruiting] now?' That was his genius. When you start thinking about out-coaching people and lose touch with the reality that it's the players who win, you're in trouble."
"What I remember most about him [Vanderlinden] is the guys he recruited, he had nothing in common with them," DiNardo said. "He came across as straight, spiritual, a man with a strong family background, and he's calling kids with all kinds of backgrounds. I used to wonder how those conversations went."
Vanderlinden coordinated an influx of talent that led to an 11-win season in 1989, and a national championship in 1990. There was a price, however. A special report in Sports Illustrated slammed the Buffaloes, who had two dozen players arrested on an assortment of charges from 1986 to 1989.
" 'At What Price Glory?' that was the title of the article," said Vanderlinden, who had become a position coach in 1987. "We sat in the staff room for a week and half, and didn't talk about anything except who we were. Bill called us together and said we're going to become even more involved in the lives of our players than we had been.
"As time went on, Coach Mac tried to be more sensitive, to recruit young men who fit in. He tried to eliminate the guys who came in with baggage, with a history. Be firm, be fair, be consistent, and from that point forward, there were few problems. I let our players [Maryland's] know from the get-go, you step across the line, you're going to be dealt with."
When Gary Barnett left the Colorado staff in 1992 to take over Northwestern, Vanderlinden went east with him. There was no pressure in Evanston, Ill., and supposedly no hope either.
"I was told I was committing professional suicide," Vanderlinden said, "but I trusted Gary. I knew I could recruit, I knew he could recruit. We didn't say, 'Woe is us.' We wanted to compete against Michigan and Notre Dame for the best players in the Midwest, the best players in the country."
When Northwestern, with its stringent academics, climbed into the Top 10 last year, the critics couldn't believe it. Tom Lemming, a Chicago-based recruiting analyst, said admissions standards had been lowered.
"That's inaccurate," Vanderlinden said. "Did we ever attract a bunch of blue-chippers? No. Did Tom Lemming ever rank us in the Top 30 in recruiting? No. That's kind of a sore spot. What made us successful was a great job of evaluating talent."
It's not all just genes and chromosomes.
"We had a group of guys at Northwestern that trusted each other," Vanderlinden said. "The common denominator of a successful team at any level is chemistry."
Catcher, center, captain
Albion (Mich.) College is midway between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, but it has held an informal alumni meeting at Northwestern the past five football seasons. Approximately 20 of Vanderlinden's former college teammates would come to a Wildcats game to see their old center work a headset and guide his "Reduction" defense.
Fred Cromie, a high school principal in Reese, Mich., made the trips. He didn't sound surprised when he heard that Vanderlinden spoke the words "national championship" in his first news conference at Maryland.
"That's why he was our captain at Albion," Cromie said. "He knows how to take people where they want to go. You should see him work a crowd after a game. He moves from a booster to a professor to a parent. He'll pull all those groups together."
Like Colorado and Northwestern, Albion was a football wasteland before Frank Joranko came in as coach, in Vanderlinden's freshman year, 1974. Two years later, the Britons were 9-0, and those seasons were the foundation for a program that peaked with an NCAA Division III title in 1994.
Vanderlinden was an all-conference center and caught for the baseball team. Any coincidence?
"I always liked being in control," Vanderlinden said.
And winning. Steve Robb, his Albion quarterback and now a high school coach in Milan, Mich., remembers going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for spring break after their junior year, and Vanderlinden playing "pickup basketball in his swimsuit, barefoot and bare chest, diving on the pavement for loose balls."
The following spring, Vanderlinden tore up his right knee sliding into second base. It wasn't an Albion baseball game, just a
fraternity softball game.
"There had been a force play the previous at-bat, and I felt we got a bad call," Vanderlinden said. "I was on first base, and I was going to go in hard, take out the second baseman. I went after him, hit the mud and snapped my knee. How smart was that?"
At least Vanderlinden's eligibility was up. He spent a year at Bowling Green as a graduate assistant, and two more in a similar role at Michigan. Bo Schembechler was not the most important person he met in Ann Arbor, because that's where he met his wife of 14 years, Lisa.
Lisa Vanderlinden, who teaches hearing-impaired children, is married to your standard, high-energy, major-college coach.
"Ron makes a lot of people uncomfortable at dinner parties," she said. "They'll be relaxing over coffee, and he'll be up clearing the dishes."
Vanderlinden's father didn't loll around much either. One of 14 children born to Belgian immigrants of Dutch descent, Pete Vanderlinden and his late wife, Mary, raised seven children. The first of two sons, Ron, was born about the same time Pete took a job with the telephone company. He stayed with Ma Bell for nearly 38 years.
"You name it, I did it," the elder Vanderlinden said. "Supplier, installation, cable repair."
The other primary influence, of course, was McCartney.
"When I first went to Colorado, I was skinny, not a very imposing presence," Vanderlinden said. "I can remember jogging with Bill a few years later and him telling me, 'I never expected you to be so demanding, so aggressive in your coaching style.' He had reservations, whether I would be up to the challenge."
The founder of the Promise Keepers does not grant sports-related interviews, so was not available to comment on his latest protege to make it big.
One of the reasons McCartney left coaching was to get his house in order, and to live up to the tenets of responsibility to family that he espouses in the Promise Keepers. He acknowledged neglecting his wife and children, including a daughter who has two children fathered by different Colorado players.
"Bill was so focused," Vanderlinden said, "he could be driving down the street, back seat on fire, and never notice. He had blinders on. At a certain point, he realized, 'I've been telling everyone to live one way, and I haven't been living that way.' "
Vanderlinden has the proper balance.
Last Monday, he and Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow were negotiating his contract via telephone. At 5 p.m, Vanderlinden told Yow the deal-making would have to wait another day. Chelsea, 9, and Reid, 6, were waiting for their father. On his last night at home before he went to Maryland, he had some promises to keep.
"He bought a Christmas tree, and took the kids to see the light show in Vernon Hills," Lisa Vanderlinden said. "Given what was going on, I would've totally understood if he had worked late, but Ron's always managed the proper balance."
Ron Vanderlinden is the ninth former assistant of Colorado's Bill McCartney to become a Division I-A head coach. Tepper resigned last month from Illinois:
Coach .. .. .. .. .. College .. .. .. .. At Colorado
Gary Barnett . .. .. Northwestern ... .. .. . '84-91
Jim Caldwell . .. .. Wake Forest . .. .. .. . '82-84
Ron Dickerson ... .. Temple ... .. .. .. .. . '82-84
Gerry DiNardo ... .. LSU ... .. .. .. .. .. . '82-90
Steve Logan .. .. .. East Carolina .. .. .. . '85-86
Rick Neuheisel .. .. Colorado . .. .. .. .. .. . '94
Bob Simmons .. .. .. Oklahoma State . .. .. . '88-94
Lou Tepper ... .. .. Illinois . .. .. .. .. . '83-87
Ron Vanderlinden ... Maryland . .. .. .. .. . '83-91
Pub Date: 12/08/96