Time for Terps, Friedgen To Run Another Reverse

After leading the Terrapins to a 31-8 record over his first three seasons, this is a prove-it-or-lose-it year for Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen.
After leading the Terrapins to a 31-8 record over his first three seasons, this is a prove-it-or-lose-it year for Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Wise
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

On the day the senior quarterback was supposed to say all the right, homogenized things, Sam Hollenbach said the most honest thing: "We don't want people thinking we're an old Maryland team from the past. We want them to see us as a team capable of winning the ACC, a team capable of doing something in the future."

It's one thing to erase a program's dismal history, Hollenbach was essentially saying. It's quite another when you have to erase it again.

A day into their first practice, they might as well call 2006 the Season of Atonement at Maryland, where 10-12 the last two years is largely viewed by the coaches and the kids as an aberration.

But what if 31-8 the first three years under Ralph Friedgen was the aberration? That's the great fear in College Park, that the back-to-back 5-6 program Friedgen took over has returned, that three straight bowl games from 2001 to 2003 will be soon be remembered as the program's halcyon days.

It's that paralyzing thought, Friedgen knows, that made him take over the role of offensive coordinator at Maryland this season. On top of his other duties as head coach, head fundraiser and head disciplinarian, the hands-on man who rescued the Terps from oblivion will now call the plays to halt his own slide.

Many people at Maryland who care about Friedgen worry more about his yo-yo dieting than his yo-yo football program, and they don't want him to take on more stress merely because he has had a couple of down years with young kids who have yet to show their promise.

But the most concerned booster of all, Gloria Friedgen, is all right with the change. "Why not do what he does well?" she said of her husband's decision to run the offense. Gloria has been buying Ralph fruit, nuts and soups without cream at Whole Foods, trying to make sure he keeps off some of the 35 pounds he lost over the summer. She admits last year was hell at home and work for her and her husband, who had not known a losing season in 18 years before 2004. "He's not a good loser," Gloria said. "It overshadows his whole life. He cannot separate it."

"He doesn't see the 5-6 seasons as our fault," Josh Wilson, the senior cornerback who still has Gator Bowl memories from 2003, said. "He sees them as his fault. He doesn't see that we weren't mentally tough or experienced enough. He just takes it all on himself. I wish he wouldn't, but he does."

Maryland's season will rise or fall on two major counts. The first is whether Hollenbach returns as the confident quarterback who made big plays early in the season or the unsteady guy in the pocket who was sacked 21 times in his last five games. The second is taking at least two road games. Between West Virginia, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Clemson and Boston College, Maryland faces a gantlet of teams who went to bowls last season. Whatever happens, this is a prove-it-or-lose-it year for Friedgen.

After wins and losses, perception in college athletics is everything. Neither of Maryland's two biggest fundraisers -- Friedgen and Gary Williams -- made it to a bowl game or the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, which in most minds equates to back-to-back dreadful years in College Park.

The Terps actually won a record four national titles last season. But aside from women's basketball bringing in some coin, men's soccer, field hockey and competitive cheerleading don't pay many of Maryland's bills.

"Winning those national championships helped with the disappointment that we didn't go to a bowl game or the NCAA tournament," said Debbie Yow, the Maryland athletic director who's had Friedgen's back during his consecutive 5-6 seasons. "No question, we have to get back to the whole bowl cycle. I don't care what bowl. Same thing goes for the tournament. I don't care how many wins we get, I just want to get back there."

Yow doesn't do ultimatums, but she concedes: "It's an important year for [Friedgen and Williams]. More than any reason, for recruiting purposes."

Byrd Stadium and the Comcast Center are the university's real cash registers. When the customers are shuffling out of those facilities wondering what happened to their big-time programs, it's time to go home, sign on and unload your pain in front of the most pathetic support group imaginable -- Message Boards Anonymous.

Friedgen did not get hit as hard on fan Web sites last season as Williams, who many reactionary louts think has lost his recruiting and coaching touch and needs to find employment elsewhere. But then, Williams created a bigger monster than Friedgen, a national champion-sized monster in 2002. As the ACC gets stronger in football, the bigger quandary is whether Friedgen will ever field a team at Maryland with genuine BCS title hopes. And if he can't get to a bowl for a third straight season, will the reservoir of goodwill he built with university boosters run deep enough to keep him around until his kids mature and he gets the chance to be a top 10 program again?

The Fridge is good people. Direct, self-effacing and more philosophical than he lets on, Friedgen has created a persona of an old, stubborn bear, trying to fit that tiny Terps' baseball hat on his big, round head. He's as familiar as the old family sofa. But you're only as colorful as your wins make you in the fall. And more than ever in his six-year tenure, Friedgen needs to win this year. The ramifications of five wins again could transcend recruiting.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company