By Mike Wise
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Ralph Friedgen heard the noise and faced the music, all right -- the band, the alma mater and the throaty roar of a College Park crowd surprisingly pleased with his football team.
The doomsayer who was expecting jeers, a blowout loss and the cropping up of placards calling for the coach's job hasn't paid close attention to the comeback nature of the Friedgen era.
The monster Friedgen created by winning 31 games and going to three big-time bowls in his first three seasons almost devoured his reputation whole this past week, as Maryland tried to rebound from a hideous loss at Middle Tennessee.
Seven days after the Fridge's worst setback since resuscitating a program that had been to one lousy bowl game in the 15 years before his arrival, he translated his own bunker-down existence to his reeling team, which flat-out woke up yesterday.
Maryland and its Message Board-Mugged Coach 35, No. 23 California 27.
This was clearly a monkey-off-the-back affair, a clear message from Friedgen and his players to their critics: People, please, stay out of the chat rooms while at work.
Convening his players the night before the game, the under-siege coach asked the underdog Terrapins a simple question: "Who in this room has ever been told he is not good enough?" he said.
Guess whose right arm went up first?
"I raised my hand," Friedgen said. "I said, 'How does that make you feel?' "
He proceeded to tell them they had an opportunity to reclaim their reputation on national television against a Cal team that had dropped 66 points on Washington State the week before, to hush their detractors who were certain they would fall to 1-2.
Friedgen might as well have been addressing the man with three more years remaining on his contract worth nearly $6 million after 2008, the former offensive lineman who came back eight years ago to fix his alma mater's broken program.
He ended up refurbishing things so well, in fact, that Byrd Stadium began selling out in the fall. Boosters who never traveled to a football game after November suddenly were booking reservations for the Orange and Gator bowls. And the main benefactor who gambled on giving him the job in 2001, Athletic Director Debbie Yow, began to have her legacy immediately tethered to the large-and-in-charge football coach who graduated most of his kids while filling up the university's coffers.
What a grand time, those first few years.
But after a combined 10-12 record in 2004 and 2005, major questions arose, not the least of which was whether Friedgen could keep enough of the area's best recruits at home.
The program appeared in real trouble in 2006 when the Ralph Redemption Tour began. Coming back on a Virginia team it trailed 20-0 at halftime for a wild 28-26 win, Friedgen's Terrapins catapulted themselves to a 9-4 season and another decent bowl in Orlando.
Yet after a disappointing 6-7 effort last season, neither the upsets of two top 10 opponents nor a berth in the Emerald Bowl, where the Terrapins essentially got a can of nuts for losing to Oregon State, could silence the Internet crazies anymore.
Which brings us to that inexplicable loss last Saturday and to the petri-dish scrutiny of this week, which ended with the Fridge questioning his own motivational techniques after the crucial win over Cal.
Yes, even the barrel-size man -- who once barked "We must protect this house!" in a sports-apparel commercial that now gets mocked all the time -- wonders whether he has become a caricature of the man on the screen.
"The first year I was here, I could get to those guys," Friedgen said, explaining how he could emotionally tug on his former players' hearts and minds, turning them into a frothing bunch of football players. "I don't know if I'm losing my stuff, or no one's listening. It's kind of like a comedian when no one's laughing at your jokes."
Chris Turner, Maryland's Spicolian quarterback who sports a frizzy blond mop and wore flip-flops to yesterday's postgame news conference, said it's not the coach; it's the unfocused players who should be accountable.
Turner made the grandest statement yet that he needs to stay on the field even after Jordan Steffy returns from injury, throwing two touchdown passes, converting every big play he needed to and finding Darrius Heyward-Bey on the prettiest of post patterns for a score after halftime that rocked the Golden Bears' confidence.
Maryland's defense did not allow a touchdown until less than seven minutes remained to a team that crushed another Pacific-10 opponent by 63 points last week. Cornerback Kevin Barnes simply laid out Cal's Heisman hopeful running back, Jahvid Best, in the first half, a hit that unfortunately led to Best losing his cookies on the field before he was taken to the locker room.
The Terrapins clocked Cal defensively, they opened the windows and let the air in offensively, and Turner got the protection he needed from his line. This was a vintage bounce-back showing from a Friedgen-coached team.
Sure, the critics will be back soon enough, using Friedgen as their tackling dummy for everything wrong with Maryland football. The anonymous denizens of the message boards should remember this: Friedgen, 61, won't be the coach here for 10 more years, but whether his tenure ends this season or in three years or more, Maryland won't part ways with him because he wasn't good for the university.
No, Ralph Friedgen will go because he no longer will be able to hold back the beast he created from scratch, because he himself set the bar so extraordinarily high those first few years, when an afterthought of a division I-A program that never was going to be Michigan or Penn State decided it wanted to at least be part of the conversation again.
On this humid day, when Cal went down hard and the pitchforks and torches were lowered for the afternoon, it made you realize:
Boy, did the Fridge ever get people talking.