John Feinstein: at Virginia and Maryland, fans lack a sense of place

(Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Football fans aren't restless at Maryland and Virginia; they're relentless. And that means both Ralph Friedgen and Al Groh are spending this week preparing to coach games that could very well be their lasts in charge of their alma maters.

The Post has reported that Maryland is prepared to swallow a considerable financial burden if it decides a change is necessary. That would entail about $4.5 million to buy out the remaining two years on Friedgen's contract and another $1 million if it wants to get rid of designated successor James Franklin as well. That's before spending a penny to hire a new coach and, presumably a new and better-paid staff.

At Virginia, Groh is in his ninth year (like Friedgen) and apparently on his ninth life because Cavaliers fans have been calling for his dismissal since a 5-7 season in 2006 ended a run of four straight bowl games. Groh saved himself by going 9-4 and getting to the Gator Bowl in 2007, but last year's 5-7 record followed by this year's 3-8 will probably mean the end.

Life as a major college football coach is very simple: Win and you're the toast of the town; lose and everyone wants you out of it.

Friedgen was 31-8, including an ACC title, an Orange Bowl trip and two bowl wins after three seasons. Since then he's 35-37. Groh wasn't as good starting out -- 22-17 although he also had two bowl wins the first three years -- and is slightly better since, 37-35.

So each has had success, Friedgen's obviously front-loaded. But here's the question that should be asked before Friedgen and Groh are sent packing: Is the next guy going to do any better?

Friedgen and Groh's successors, whenever the time comes, will face the same problem they did: bloated expectations. Maryland and Virginia are middling programs in a middling BCS conference. If the stars and the moon and the recruiting gods all align in a given year, each might make a BCS bowl game. Virginia reached the Sugar Bowl after the 1990 season under George Welsh, and Maryland got to the Orange Bowl in Friedgen's first season.

More often than not, though, the definition of a good season in either place is going to be an 8-4 record and a trip to one of those nondescript bowls that change corporate names every five years. Groh won back-to-back Continental Tire bowls in 2002 and 2003 (now the bowl is named for a car-care company), and Friedgen's last two bowl wins were in the Champs Sports Bowl and the MPC Computers/Humanitarian Bowl.

And yet, in the euphoria that came with moderate success, both schools spent much too much money expanding stadiums that are much too big with far more luxury boxes than they can reasonably hope to sell on a regular basis. You don't build stadiums or arenas based on how many tickets you expect to sell in your best season; you build them based on how many you expect to sell in an average season.

All of that being said, two- and three-win seasons don't cut it in very many places. Neither do three losing seasons in four years (Groh) or four losing seasons in six years (Friedgen). And both coaches lose even more leverage when you consider they're facing an ACC that has been decidedly mediocre the past few years. Building too many luxury boxes or putting in too many extra seats is not an excuse for losing to Duke.

Maryland's situation is made more difficult by Athletic Director Debbie Yow's ludicrous decision to name Franklin Maryland's "coach-in-waiting" after last season. The stated reason for doing so was the fear of losing Franklin to another school or an NFL team.

Really? Who retired and made James Franklin the next Joe Paterno? Or Pete Carroll or, for that matter, Ken Niumatalolo?


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