By Mike Wise
Friday, August 28, 2009
My greatest fear covering Maryland football was not that some kid would be carted off the field motionless or that some inebriated fool would start a brawl in the stands. My greatest fear was that I would be forced to write an obituary for a bear of a football coach who collapsed on the sideline.
Ralph Friedgen's considerable weight scared me -- and I wasn't alone.
Gloria, his wife, and Kristina, the second of his three daughters, actually performed their own intervention for the man they love. They became concerned about him dying before his time, just like the bear of a man before him, his father who coached for more than 30 years, Ralph Friedgen, who passed away at the age of 69.
"Yeah, they think that's what did it," Friedgen said early Wednesday morning in his office. "They came here, and they wrote me a letter, and sat out there." He had other reasons, too. He was 62 years of age. His family had a history of diabetes. And, yes, he weighed an unmanageable 401 pounds a year ago.
As he sat back in a red leather chair inside the Gossett Team House, Friedgen said how much it meant for Kristina to go on the Medifast diet with him, how she lost 40 pounds and kept going because her father wanted to lose more. The Fridge is down 105 pounds since the end of last season, fighting the battle of the bulge as hard and as consistently as he's ever fought it, hoping to make a lasting change in his lifestyle that will keep him around for everyone.
Including his Terrapins.
It is doubly tough to not let yourself go when your nickname is "The Fridge," when part of your image is tethered to your girth, when being the guy who could eat more than anyone else is lauded for his relationship with food (instead of observers looking at that third helping of meat-and-cheese lasagna for what it really is: an addiction).
"I gotta stay out of the dining hall," he said. "Like last night, they had all this pasta and sauce and I had swordfish and collard greens." He was hesitant to throw out his old clothes because of his yo-yo dieting history, "but I've gone ahead and done it."
Several years ago, the program had a catchphrase: "Are you in or are you out?" In the ninth season at his alma mater, he's all in.
"This might be the hardest-working group of kids," he said of his 2009 team. "You look at them and sometimes they don't get it right, but when you watch the tape, it's not because of lack of effort. They're playful, too. I had one kid come up to me the other day and smack me on my butt, and say, 'How ya doin' there, Coach?' Now, how many times would that happen in the past?"
Friedgen turned around a moribund program with three straight 10-win seasons from 2001 to 2003, and has averaged eight wins a season over his tenure. This year, Maryland should work green into its color scheme. Fifty-eight of Maryland's 85 scholarship players have three or four years of eligibility left. Thirty seniors are gone. Fourteen are left, including starting quarterback Chris Turner, the frizzy, blond, carefree Californian who plays for a man who, emotionally, is his exact opposite.
"I think where we probably differ is just personality," Friedgen said of Turner, whom he lauded for growing into a teacher and a leader. "I've never questioned whether Chris wanted to do well, or his intensity. He's just kind of laid-back. I'm very emotional.
"I think a lot of times, it's one of Chris's strengths, because he's able to let bad things roll off his back and just stay focused," Friedgen added. "The problem is, when he does a good thing, it's kind of the same reaction. But there's nothing wrong with his toughness; he's a tough kid. He's just a different personality."
Turner interned for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) over the summer, fielding every imaginable question and complaint. "He comes back, I said, 'How was it?' " Friedgen recalled. "He said, 'Man, they had me on the phone all day, just complaint after complaint.' I said, 'Welcome to my world when you don't play well.' Chris laughed at that."
Friedgen is slowly graduating toward the role Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden seem to have mastered. Instead of being the hands-on micromanager who ate but didn't sleep, he's become good at delegating and seems content with the role of paternal guidance counselor, who occasionally jumps into the mosh pit after a win.
"It's easier because I'm not doing four jobs, being a coordinator, fundraiser, head football coach. When you get spread too thin, no pun intended, it's hard to do it all," Friedgen said. "We wouldn't be having this conversation right now if I was the offensive coordinator. Now I can focus on the players. If you talk to them, you'll see that I'm more involved with them and where they're at, and their lives, and they need that."
Last winter, when another Maryland alum whom Friedgen once shared the same athletic dorm with was facing his most tumultuous days, Friedgen felt a kinship. He decided to lend a word of encouragement to a man who probably needed one: Gary Williams.
"I called Gary last year, and I said to him, 'Gary, for what it's worth, I think this is your best job coaching since I've been here,' " Friedgen said. "Those kids played their butts off and that really speaks to his role as a coach. Here he is, doesn't have a really big guy, the guy he's playing is playing against really big guys and they beat both teams in the national championship game [North Carolina and Michigan State]. That guy did a hell of job.
"I don't think there was a game they didn't play hard. And if we can do that this year, I'll be happy."
Friedgen's contract expires on Jan. 2, 2012, and he is intimating he might want to coach beyond that, meaning his hand-picked successor, James Franklin, the Terps' offensive coordinator, gets a $1 million payout. But with his weight dropping, with a defense he believes has the chance to be very good and with a quarterback whose calm has rubbed off on him, Ralph Friedgen just might cost Maryland the most worthwhile $1 million it ever spent.