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Time for Terps to move ahead

November 16, 1996

The air around College Park is thick with speculation that Debbie Yow, the University of Maryland's athletic director, will fire Mark Duffner if the football team does not finish with more wins than losses.

Considering that the Terrapins are 5-5 and play Florida State in their finale, it might be time for Duffner to find a good Realtor.

My observation of Duffner is that he's a great guy who cares passionately about his players, plays by the rules and burns to win. The type who deserves a lot more rope than many, if not most, of his peers.

But no matter how much school presidents and athletic directors drone on about institutional integrity and academic achievement, the bottom line is that football coaches are paid to a) win and b) put fannies in the seats, and Duffner is doing neither. The time has come to cut the rope.

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It's true that Duffner inherited the smoldering ruins of a program that had plunged faster than Texaco stock from the glory days of the 1980s. The talent pool was as deep as Steve Erckle (?), but not as fast or strong. But Duffner's in his fifth season, which means that practically all of the players on the Maryland roster are his recruits. And the truth is, Maryland still does not have the talent to challenge for the Top 25 in the foreseeable future.

Duffner's supporters attribute the team's struggles to injuries and plain bad luck. And it's true that some of the players Duffner was counting on most _ quarterback Brian Cummings, running back Buddy Rodgers and linebacker Ratcliffe Thomas, to name a few _ have been nicked. But here's a news flash, folks _ injuries are part of football. That's why it's essential to have several capable players at each position. Maryland doesn't.

What a difference a year makes. Last season, the Terps were 4-0 and nationally ranked. Byrd Stadium had a new deck with thousands of new seats. It looked as if Duffner had turned the corner and was on his way to building the type of program that fans had patiently awaited, the type of program that Duffner had built at Division 1-AA Holy Cross, where he won 60 games in six seasons.

Then Duffner made the decision that, in hindsight, triggered his demise just as surely as if he had swallowed hemlock. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit here and now that I thought it was the right call when Duffner replaced Cummings with former incumbent Scott Milanovich, whose suspension for betting on college sports opened the door for Cummings in the first place. But the move fractured the team and it never recovered, losing four of its final six games last season and five of nine this year before Thursday night, when the Terps knocked off Georgia Tech in what might be Duffner's final game at Byrd Stadium.

Though he denied it at the time, Duffner has since admitted promising Milanovich that he would be the team's starting quarterback should Milanovich, who was exploring the possibility of turning professional after the NCAA suspended him, return to College Park.

You don't need hindsight to realize that was a dumb thing to do. First, and worst, Duffner sent Milanovich _ and the rest of his team _ the message that it's OK to flout the rules, as long as you're productive on the field. The principled move would have been to tell Milanovich he was lucky not to lose his scholarship and that winning means more than outscoring an opponent on Saturday afternoon. Second, Duffner failed to consider that Cummings just might be a competent quarterback and a player whose leadership was respected by his teammates.

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