- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

The spring of 1999 brought happy news from South Bend, Ind.: The College Football Hall of Fame finally had found room to hang a plaque for Jerry Claiborne, the quiet man who had rebuilt football programs at Virginia Tech, Maryland and his alma mater, Kentucky.

But it took only a congratulatory call to the Claiborne home in Bowling Green, Ky., for delight to become despair. No, Faye Claiborne was saying, it wouldn't be a good idea to talk to her husband now. He had been diagnosed recently with Alzheimer's disease, and he was beginning to have trouble remembering old friends.

Then Faye made a request: "Please don't put anything about this in the paper. A lot of Jerry's friends don't know yet."

That request was honored, of course, and dozens of those friends were present in body or spirit, when Claiborne made it to New York City last December for the induction ceremony. But the shadows were closing in. The ultimate sadness came Sunday when Jerry D. Claiborne, 72, died of a heart attack following gall bladder surgery the previous week.

So what is there, finally, to say about the quiet man from Kentucky, despite the obvious fact of his 179-122-8 record at three schools where football had been mostly a dirty word before he picked up a whistle? How about this? He was the most decent, honest college coach I've ever met.

For quite a while after Claiborne took over at Maryland in 1972, he and I enjoyed, if that's the word, a mutual-lack-of-admiration society. He felt a sports columnist in Roanoke had gotten him fired at Virginia Tech despite a 10-year record of 61-39-2, and he vowed forevermore to speak in platitudes, if not parables, while dealing with the press. At Maryland, he really did say things like "footballs take funny bounces" and "we're playing them one game at a time" as assorted Scribes and Pharisees gnashed their teeth and rended their garments.

One memorable evening in 1975, after I had suggested in print that Maryland's program had gone as far under him as it could, Claiborne invited me outside a hotel lobby in Cincinnati for a breath of fisticuffs, which I had the good sense to politely decline. And, oh yes, the Terps were 11-0 and ranked fourth in the nation the next season.

That should have been answer enough to critics who dismissed Claiborne as a Southern-fried cornball whose replies to questions frequently started, "Well, ackshully, we feel lak …" and whose teams ran up the middle a great deal and employed the antique wide-tackle six defense. Funny thing, though: His 10 Maryland squads through 1981 were 77-37-3, a winning percentage of .671. Don't even bother to compare that with recent seasons in which the Terps have been about as strong as a spring shower.

And the best thing about Claiborne was that, well ackshully, he really did care about his players. All college coaches claim they do, but the interest usually ends with an athlete's eligibility. Claiborne stayed in touch with hundreds of former players. All respected him. Many, it's safe to say, loved him.

"He was a fair man, a decent man and an honest man you always knew where you stood," says WUSA-TV sports director Jess Atkinson, who walked on as a Maryland kicker in 1981 and eventually outlasted Claiborne by three seasons in College Park. "He gave me a chance as a freshman, and later on I realized how big a risk he took."

And, Atkinson says, Claiborne was a ferocious competitor. "I remember my first year, the guy I was competing against and I were having a horrible time making 32-yard field goals one day in practice, and coach got mad. 'It's not that hard,' he said and then he kicked one perfectly through the uprights… . You should have seen the grin on his face."

When Claiborne was elected president of the American Football Coaches Association in 1980, I spent time with him and his family and learned that he wasn't a rock-rumped kind of guy all the time. He told how his children used to have contests to see who could best mimic his heavily accented soft drink commercials. ("Hah theah, I'm Jer' Clayb'n. Ah think ah'll have a delicious Tab rat now whah don't you join me?") While they did so, Mr. Tough Coach was rolling around the floor, laughing uproariously.

And Claiborne cared about his profession as well as his own teams. He pushed for a shorter recruiting season so young assistants wouldn't have to live on the road. Once he invited Wake Forest coach John Mackovic to visit Maryland's then-innovative weight room. The ungrateful Mackovic implemented many of Claiborne's ideas and beat him the following season.

"I want to do everything I can to make coaching a better profession," Claiborne said. "Sometimes we get to where everything is cutthroat, and we don't try to help each other. I think it's important that we do."

To that most fitting self-epitaph, I'll add only the following: Jerry Claiborne was a very good coach and a very good man.

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