A Forgotten Dynasty: Tatum’s Maryland Terrapins

Being stuck in a basketball conference like the ACC makes it tough for any non-Florida team to become much of a factor in national football polls. This is especially true when neighboring states continually raid your territory and make off with your best talent.

Such has been the fate of the Maryland Terrapins for pretty much the last 55 years, interrupted only briefly by short periods of a few unconsummated thrills. Buffered by Penn State to the north and Virginia Tech to the south, and with a student body and administration that concentrates its energy on hoops and minor sports, it has been a long and hard road to travel both for students and alumni.

It wasn’t always thus. When “Big Jim” Tatum left his head coaching job at Oklahoma in 1947, the formerly moribund Terrapin program immediately went to the Gator Bowl, where they tied powerful Georgia. Two years later they returned to the Gator Bowl and beat up on Missouri, but the fun was just beginning.

After a minor regression in 1950, over the next five years the Terps won 44 of 50 decisions, three conference championships, with a national championship in 1953. Those five teams alone produced seven first team All-Americans, seven more on the backup team and 18 future NFL players.

But the most memorable day of “Big Jim’s” tenure was when his No. 3 ranked 1951 team went up against the national champion Tennessee Volunteers in the Sugar Bowl. The Vols were favored, but the Terps dominated the game from start to finish, cruising to an easy 28-13 win. The only thing that prevented them from being No. 1 was the then-curious custom of not conducting any further polling after the close of the regular season.

After that, the Terps did go on to win that 1953 national championship, sweeping through 10 games without a scratch, and overpowering every opponent in sight by an average score of 30-4. Ironically, Maryland then went to the Orange Bowl to play once-beaten Oklahoma, coached by Tatum’s former assistant Bud Wilkinson, only to meet the same fate as Tennessee suffered at the Terps’ hands in 1951.

After losing a tightly fought 7-0 defensive battle, the record books still listed the Terps as the 1953 champions, but true Maryland fans know that the real champions were crowned in New Orleans on that glorious New Year’s Day of 1952. It remains to this day their one moment of consummate gridiron glory.

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