Tracee Hamilton: With Terps, It Can Be an Uncomfortable Wait
Following Maryland football this season is not for the faint of heart. Neither is coaching it, apparently. After Saturday's 24-21 victory over Clemson, Coach Ralph Friedgen revealed his strategy: "I was working my rosary pretty good."
It took a certain amount of chutzpah, asking for help from above after deciding to go for it on fourth and inches at his own 29-yard line with 6 minutes 2 seconds remaining and clinging to a three-point lead. The Terps, of course, failed to convert, and suddenly Clemson had the ball and plenty of time on the clock. Oops.
"The fourth down probably wasn't a great call by me," Friedgen admitted afterward. "I went over to [defensive coordinator] Don Brown; he says time to make a statement, four inches, you've got to make it."
James Franklin, the offensive coordinator and Friedgen's heir apparent, "wanted to go for it, the kids wanted to go for it," Friedgen continued. "I knew our defense was tired so I went for it. I was kicking myself for doing it. I let my emotions get involved, not my brain."
Clemson resisted this gift like it was a toaster at a bridal shower. After three futile downs, Richard Jackson kicked a 47-yard field goal that was good -- despite falling on his backside. But Friedgen had called the dreaded field goal timeout, and when Jackson tried again, he missed. And that was it.
Except it wasn't. Maryland's Davin Meggett promptly fumbled on first down, Clemson recovered and here we went again. Same song, second verse, except this time Jackson missed both the pre- and post-timeout 48-yarders.
With those two timeout calls, Friedgen probably bought himself a week of peace. His Terps are 2-3 and they've had some epic fails, including but not limited to losses to Middle Tennessee and Rutgers. There have been rumblings in College Park to match the rumblings in Ashburn (poor D.C. is stuck in the middle of a potential Maryland-Virginia earthquake sandwich).
There was a bit of a circle-the-wagons vibe coming out of Maryland this week, but the program has no one to blame but itself for the pressures it faces. In February, Athletic Director Debbie Yow named the 37-year-old Franklin the coach in waiting. If he doesn't take over after the 2011 season, he gets $1 million. What this leads to, of course, is speculation about the futures of both men when, say, Maryland gets off to a rocky start.
The coach-in-waiting arrangement has become a trend, and a bad one, like argyle sweater sets and TV shows about vampires. Florida State started it and now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.
Consistency in recruiting is the argument in favor. Maryland feared coaches were using Friedgen's age -- he's 62 -- to persuade recruits not to come to College Park. So big decisions -- financial and personnel decisions that affect the future of your program -- are being made out of fear of how that oh-so-stable and consistent species, 17-year-old boys, might react.
Basically, you're making it tougher to fire your current coach and tying your hands when selecting your next coach. Whenever you have an opening, don't you want to go for the best available guy, whether he's in your building or across the country? And if you're Franklin -- well regarded as a coach and a recruiter -- you're cutting off your own opportunities as well. A bird in the hand, perhaps, but no guarantees.
Of course, the coach-in-waiting system is probably preferable to shoving a beloved alum out on the street. I'm guessing the folks at Tennessee would say that whether or not they wanted Phillip Fulmer to stay on as coach, the method of his leave-taking was an embarrassment to the university. I'm certain Fulmer would say it was an embarrassment to him. One assumes that's not how Maryland wants to end its relationship with Friedgen. But if the Terps' slide continues, alums and the media will crow for such a move, and it's going to be tempting for Yow to do it -- even considering the $4.5 million she'll likely have to pay Friedgen to leave.
"I don't worry about what you say or what you write," Friedgen said to the assembled reporters on Saturday. "I've been at this 41 years. Comes with the territory. But I like winning. I've won most of my career. I haven't had many bad seasons. And I'm a competitor. . . . If they don't want me here I'll go somewhere else. I think I'm pretty well respected in the profession."
Friedgen has talked incessantly this season about his young team, but 16 upperclassmen were among the 22 position starters Saturday. It's not like these guys needed to hold hands crossing the street to the stadium. The Terps lost 30 seniors from last year's squad. That's too large a turnover for one season, and the responsibility for that rests squarely with Friedgen and his staff.
Before Saturday's game, a 3-9 finish for Maryland seemed possible. Given the level of play of both teams Saturday, it's hard to know now where Maryland is going. Near the end of the game, Friedgen said: "The biggest thing I was worried about, we'd find a way to lose this thing. We tried." They certainly did.
But let's be very optimistic and say Maryland can win at Wake Forest, beat Virginia at home and maybe get to an improved Duke team on the road. And let's give them one more pick-'em win -- you choose the victim. That's still only a 6-6 mark. All the rosaries in the world might not be enough to save Friedgen's job. Especially with his replacement just down the hall.