By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Riding on the team bus after one of the worst losses of his career, Ralph Friedgen's blood boiled. His Maryland football team had been shut out at Virginia earlier that night, and Friedgen was contemplating a harsh punishment: park the bus beside the practice field, turn on the lights and conduct a middle-of-the-night practice to flush away the pain, one tackle at a time.
He decided against it.
When told the story about the near moonlight madness in the wee hours of Oct. 5, linebacker Moise Fokou's eyes grew wide before he said: "Whoa, I did not know that. It would have created a little division. A lot of players would have been mad."
To bolster the performance or psyche of this team, credit Friedgen with making a handful of subtle and large moves, including injecting life into practice with popular music, maintaining confidence in a struggling place kicker and signing off recently on wholesale defensive line changes. But equally important have been the few moves not made by Friedgen, who has more frequently chosen discretion over an iron fist this season to retain the confidence of an erratic team that enters Saturday night's game against Florida State with a chance to take control of the ACC's Atlantic Division.
"I have such affection for these kids," Friedgen said. "I am very happy and very proud of them. It is like when you see your children don't do well and you want them to do well. You don't know sometimes whether to scold them or cuddle them. It is that type of deal with these guys."
Friedgen knows that every action will prompt a reaction from players. He said he has taken a softer approach with this team, which sometimes goes against his nature, because of the presence of 30 seniors and the faith he has in their character. But at times, he agonizes over such decisions, and "I battle myself with my immediate reaction."
Consider Friedgen's reaction to Maryland's 23-13 loss at Virginia Tech on Nov. 6. All week, coaches had stressed the importance of stopping the run, only to see a redshirt freshman rush for a school-record 253 yards. Friedgen was ready to unleash what he called the "wrath of Ralph" with a 5 a.m. practice to wake up players, literally and figuratively.
He decided against it.
When a reporter told players the idea, they cringed. "We just got back at 4 a.m.," center Edwin Williams pleaded.
"I never know if I am doing the right thing," Friedgen said. "You don't know where players are in terms of what is going on in their lives. You have to trust that the season is important to them and you really don't know that."
Senior defensive lineman Jeremy Navarre said Friedgen has realized that the "looser he is, the better we play. This team feeds off his attitude."
They have seen a more laid-back Friedgen in part because he handed the play-calling duties over to James Franklin, the first-year offensive coordinator. Friedgen felt he had been spread too thin the past two seasons and had fallen short in motivating players effectively.
There have still been some fire-and-brimstone moments. During a sluggish summer practice, Friedgen saw a chance to build character, saying: "I have to get off my fat [butt] and start getting every ounce of energy and every ounce of talent out of them. I kind of let them down a little, and I am not going to do that anymore."
And on Sept. 12, the night before the California game, Friedgen challenged his players with bluster, asking them to raise their hands if they ever had been told they were not good enough. Within many, it fueled a controlled rage.
Almost instinctively, Fokou expected to "get the sweat worked out of us" after recent losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech. In the past, Friedgen said he would have done exactly that.
A stern reaction to losses had been engrained in him as long as he has coached or played. As a child, a loss meant no dinner, dim lights and an early bedtime for Friedgen.
Over the years, he has learned to internalize the pain and not take it out on his players as much. And during this wildly unpredictable season, he has been particularly careful not to lose his team.
Players said his deft motivational touch after losses is a large reason why Maryland has responded to each of its three losses with strong victories against ranked opponents (California, Wake Forest and North Carolina).
"He understands we want the best out of ourselves," Williams said. "He knows we have good hearts."
Friedgen hardly talks about the character of this year's team without tearing up. As Navarre said: "We have all been with him for a long time. He is attached to this team."
Sometimes, Friedgen has learned, the best reprimand is left unsaid, the best practices are left unscheduled. This week, with the Atlantic Division title in sight, Friedgen told the team he will be a cheerleader in practice, his motivational touch will be light.
"I think this team is very important to them," Friedgen said. "I think that believing they can accomplish this is starting to become a reality."
Terrapins Note: Maryland officials are encouraging all fans to wear black to Saturday's game for a "blackout."