The coach at the center of the recruiting scandal at the University of Maryland is a straight- talking football man from the rural South who was under pressure to stem the flow of talented youngsters out of state.
Rod Sharpless had coached the team's inside linebackers and recruited high school players in the Baltimore area since 2001. He was on the verge of helping deliver one of the best area recruiting classes in school history, successfully competing against football powerhouses for top-ranked local players.
The cream of the crop, however, appears to be lost due to allegations that Sharpless gave a little more than $300 in cash to Gilman School standout Victor Abiamiri, something that is strictly forbidden by the NCAA.
Abiamiri, one of the nation's most-sought-after players, had told friends he was leaning toward Maryland, where two of his brothers play. But he would be prohibited under NCAA rules from playing for the Terps if the team had improperly lured him. He is expected to sign a letter of intent today with Notre Dame.
Sharpless, a 53-year-old Air Force veteran with 26 years of coaching experience, has resigned.
"He was a very nice guy. A good recruiter, soft-spoken. He just seemed desperate, like he had to get these boys," said Robin Petty, mother of Ambrose Wooden, a teammate of Abiamiri's who was also sought by Maryland but plans to accompany his friend to Notre Dame.
Sharpless has not commented on the incident and did not respond to messages left at his former office and his New Jersey home, where he lives with his 11-year-old daughter and his wife, Linda, a former Maryland assistant field hockey and lacrosse coach. But a longtime friend, Wilde Lake High School football coach Doug DuVall, said the alleged infraction is out of character for the man he has known for 30 years.
"He is an honest, hard-working guy," said DuVall, who, along with Terps head coach Ralph Friedgen, was a graduate assistant at Maryland in the 1970s when Sharpless was a starting linebacker. "He played above his athletic ability because he had the work ethic," DuVall said.
But Sharpless really flourished as a coach, both commanding the loyalty of his players and gaining the confidence of wavering recruits, he said.
"I've had guys come in here and promise kids laptop computers and leather coats and gold chains and everything else. He wasn't like that. He came in and looked for the best players. He worked like crazy," DuVall said.
The Terrapins have made a strong push to land the state's best players, a practice that energizes local fans and boosts attendance - and puts pressure on in-state recruiters.
"I guess you just want something so bad you make a mistake," DuVall said. "It's a tough business."
The Terps were making inroads in the Baltimore area, which is second in depth to Prince George's and Montgomery counties in its talent pool, said Sheldon Shealer, regional editor of Student Sports Magazine.
Since 2001, Baltimore-area high schools have produced 11 football players who received Division I-A scholarships. Of those, many considered Maryland, and three signed up, including Domonique Foxworth, a highly touted Western Technical High School graduate.
This recruiting class is shaping up as a strong one for Maryland, but would have been a blockbuster if the school had signed Abiamiri and his friend Wooden, Shealer said. State high schools this year graduated the highest quality class of football players ever, he said.
Sharpless had the trustworthy demeanor and experience to take advantage of the opportunity, friends said. He was born in Jacksonville, N.C., and served in the Air Force from 1969 to 1972. He earned a bachelor's degree in physical education from Maryland in 1975 and then a master's from Bowie State.
His first job was coaching football and track and field at Willingboro (N.J.) High, where his students included eventual Olympic medalist Carl Lewis. From there, he rejoined Maryland in 1977 as coach of the outside linebackers for three years - one of three professional stints he would serve coaching at his alma mater.
In between, Sharpless coached football at Richmond, Kentucky, Cornell and Virginia Tech, where he was co-defensive coordinator of a squad that won the Sugar Bowl with the nation's top-ranked rushing defense. At each practice, he would select a player to carry a rusty steel lunch pail onto the field - a symbol of the work ethic he sought to instill.
Sharpless was lured to Rutgers in 1996 to revive a lifeless defense. "I take a lot of pride in what I do. My profession is to teach and inspire learning," he told the Asbury Park Press after his hire.
Terry Shea, the Rutgers head coach who hired Sharpless, said yesterday, "This is really a shocker."
Shea said he would inevitably hear rumors of improprieties committed by recruiters - but never ones involving Sharp- less, whom he remembers as a disciplinarian who diligently enforced a groom- ing policy Shea imposed on players.
"Rod was very strong about that. It wasn't his idea, but he really administered that. He was a stickler for off-the-field detail," said Shea, now quarterbacks coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Eventually, Shea promoted Sharpless to associate head coach and gave him responsibility for player discipline.
"Rod was a very demanding coach. It took a while for players to warm up to him. But when they did, they were very loyal to him," Shea said.
E.J. Henderson, who thrived as a Terrapins linebacker under Sharpless, described him as "the best coach I ever had."
"He taught me a lot, not only football, but also how to handle yourself in life situations," said Henderson, who just completed his last season with the Terps and will likely be a high NFL draft pick. He was recruited out of Aberdeen High by a predecessor of Sharpless.
"He helped a lot of people. He always stressed the positive and he never lied to us," Henderson said. "He's more than a coach."
"He doesn't seem like he'd be the kind of person that would risk the reputation of a school, or put his job on the line for the sake of a recruit."
Sun staff writers Lem Satterfield and Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.