By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
In February, when Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow named offensive coordinator James Franklin the eventual successor to Coach Ralph Friedgen, the vision was for Friedgen to finish out his contract after the 2011 season before handing the keys to the program to the well-regarded Franklin, who had spurned lucrative NFL and college football coaching offers. But now, with the Terrapins (1-3) off to their worst start since 1997, Yow's plan now faces significant challenges.
Maryland will enter Saturday's ACC opener against Clemson having not beaten a power-conference team since Nov. 15. Friedgen is in danger of having his fourth losing season in the past six years. And the Terrapins have not finished a season ranked in the top 25 since 2003.
"It starts with me," Friedgen said Tuesday. "I don't like it as much as anybody, but you can't worry about what you have done in the past. It's about what you are going to do in the future."
At least equally troublesome for school officials is that the fan base is responding, using its wallet. Season ticket sales have steadily declined the past five seasons. The first three home crowds this season rank among the smallest since 2002, Friedgen's second season. And Maryland has yet to secure long-term commitments for 23 of the 64 luxury suites at refurbished Byrd Stadium.
The economic downturn has played a role in how college football fans nationwide have spent their money, but even Friedgen acknowledged that the comparative lack of success in recent years -- the Terrapins are 34-31 since the start of the 2004 season after going 31-8 in Friedgen's first three seasons -- is a large reason why attendance has suffered.
But what is Maryland -- and more specifically Yow -- to do? Friedgen is owed about $4.5 million for the two remaining years on his contract. Regardless of how this season unfolds, buying Friedgen out of his remaining two years is considered unlikely, particularly given economic conditions.
When asked Tuesday if Friedgen would return as coach next season, Yow said: "I will evaluate the status of the program after we play the entire season, not now, with eight games remaining. My focus is on supporting the team and our coaching staff. That focus will continue [until] season's end."
Yow added that she historically evaluates every sport at the conclusion of their respective seasons.
But Friedgen is facing significant scrutiny and questions about job security for the first time in his nine-year tenure. When asked Tuesday to assess his own performance this season, he said: "Obviously when you are 1-3, you are not going to say you did a great job. I have no problem looking myself in the mirror. I put everything I have into this. I didn't work any less. I really don't think I am any less of a coach than what I have always been.
"If you write a bad article, are you a bad writer? You have your good days and your bad days, too, right? I am not asking you that question."
Jack Reale, Friedgen's Atlanta-based attorney, said he did not anticipate Friedgen's buyout being an issue because "I don't see him going anywhere. I know there's some question about how things are going."
Another wrinkle to Yow's plan for the program's future is an obligation to pay $1 million to Franklin if he does not become head coach following the 2011 season. With depth at wide receiver and running back, much was expected of Franklin's West Coast offense. But the offensive line has been a glaring weakness, and Maryland ranks 84th nationally in scoring offense at 23.8 points per game.
A vocal segment of the Maryland fan base has been increasingly critical of Friedgen, who has asked for patience because the Terrapins are one of the nation's youngest teams.
"A lot of [the players], they are very young, and they are growing right now," Friedgen said. "I know people don't want to hear that, but that's the state of affairs, like it or not."
In four games this season, Maryland looked overmatched against a Pacific-10 Conference contender, California; struggled to narrowly defeat division I-AA James Madison in overtime; lost for the second straight year to Middle Tennessee, a team from the Sun Belt Conference; and lost to a Rutgers team playing without its starting quarterback.
Several Maryland players have said in recent days that Friedgen has not lost the team and that they still have full confidence in their coaches. Wide receiver Torrey Smith said the coaches should not be blamed because they are not the ones turning over the ball or committing a litany of penalties, two major concerns for the Terrapins.
"I mean, he is the coach," said Travis Ivey a senior defensive lineman. "Every day we go out there and try to do our best regardless of what he may say."
Friedgen has never won less than five games in a season at Maryland, but there is no guarantee the Terrapins will reach that mark this season.
Their easiest remaining game is probably Oct. 17 against a Virginia team that shut out Maryland, 31-0, last season.
"I am going to try to accentuate the positive," Friedgen said. "I am going to be upbeat but I am going to be demanding. I have not thrown in the towel one bit. I am still thinking about winning. I am still thinking about winning the ACC."