Maryland, which has been quietly seething over its strongly held belief that Vanderbilt improperly made contact with quarterback Danny O'Brien, has filed a complaint against the Commodores football program.
At the same time, Maryland told O'Brien, offensive lineman Max Garcia and linebacker Mario Rowson that they are free after all to transfer to Vanderbilt — or any other school — if they wish. Maryland said the three players were being given "a full release from the football program with no transfer restrictions."
The implication is that Maryland decided it didn't want the players — whose earlier release terms limited their transfer options — to be stuck in the middle of a dispute between the Terrapins and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.
Franklin is Maryland's former offensive coordinator and "head coach in waiting." He left for Vanderbilt in December 2010 after incoming Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson declined to guarantee that Franklin would be the next coach.
Franklin hired former Maryland assistants John Donovan and Charles Bankins, and strength coach Dwight Galt, at Vanderbilt. O'Brien said he maintained his relationship with Franklin after Franklin left, although it could not be determined by The Sun whether the two had been in contact as O'Brien made his decision over the past few months to leave College Park.
A rival school can't encourage a player to transfer without permission. And it can't provide athletics aid in the first academic year if the player transfers without that consent.
Franklin was on the road Wednesday and could not be immediately reached for comment. He has said previously that he maintains relationships with his former players. But he told 104.5 The Zone, a Tennessee radio station: "I don't like innuendos and comments being made about tampering and things like that."
The Southeastern Conference had no comment Wednesday on the complaint, and declined to specify what, if any, sanctions could be levied if the allegations were upheld. The penalty for a school's improper contact generally depends on the specific situation.
Vanderbilt vice chancellor David Williams said in a written statement: "We have been informed by the Southeastern Conference that the Atlantic Coast Conference has filed a formal complaint involving Vanderbilt University football on behalf of one of its members. We are complying with SEC and Vanderbilt procedures and are conducting an investigation on the matter."
The players' original releases had excluded Vanderbilt, upcoming ACC opponents and upcoming nonconference opponents such as West Virginia and Temple.
At the time, Maryland's thinking was that it didn't want Vanderbilt to benefit if the school indeed made improper contacts. Some in the media criticized Maryland for keeping too tight a grip on its players.
"While at first I thought it was important to limit the institutions to which they could transfer, I have since reconsidered my decision," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said in a written statement. "At the end of the day, I want what's best for these guys and I wish them well in their futures. As a program we are looking forward to putting this distraction behind us and to moving forward. Spring practice opens on March 10 and we can't wait to get back out on the field."
A dozen players with eligibility have left Maryland since the end of the season. The program has been buoyed by the announcement that Good Counsel wide receiver Stefon Diggs, Maryland's biggest recruiting success story in years, is coming to College Park.
O'Brien is the former ACC Rookie of the Year whose picture once adorned Terps' promotional literature. He was recruited by Franklin. Those close to O'Brien have said previously that Vanderbilt and Wisconsin could be options for him.
But O'Brien is still early in the process. A source said he is expected to return home to North Carolina this weekend to talk to his parents and others about possible transfer options.
O'Brien said in Maryland's statement: "I am pleased to be able to move on and pursue a graduate degree and continue my athletic career at the school of my choosing. I would like to thank Coach Edsall for his support throughout this process."
O'Brien has said he is on track to graduate in the spring and could enroll in a graduate program at another school and play right away. He has two seasons of eligibility left.
O'Brien's 2011 statistics — a 56.4 completion percentage, seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions — paled compared to the season before. After regaining the starting job, he broke his left arm in a loss to Notre Dame in November and would have been limited in spring practices.