Friedgen in unfamiliar territory as ninth season comes to end

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

After coaching his alma mater in 111 games, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen is preparing to lead his team Saturday under most unfamiliar circumstances: The final game of his ninth season may be his last as head coach of the Terrapins.

Never before has Friedgen faced questions about his job security during what has been the only head coaching job of his four-decade-long career. An emotional Friedgen choked up several times during his news conference this week, declined to address his future and said he would tell disgruntled fans that "we took our lumps this year, but we won't be taking our lumps next year."

Despite leading the Terrapins to six bowl games in nine seasons, Friedgen's job is in jeopardy for the first time at Maryland because of four losing seasons in the past six years. Maryland (2-9, 1-6 ACC) needs a victory Saturday against Boston College (7-4, 4-3) to avoid what would be the first 10-loss season in school history.

Two ACC coaches -- Duke's David Cutcliffe and Florida State's Bobby Bowden -- this week praised Friedgen's coaching acumen, but each acknowledged the current college football landscape that places a premium on winning now. Previous success, they said, does not ensure future immunity.

"It's what we are," said Cutcliffe, who was fired by Mississippi in 2004 after posting his only losing record in six full seasons at the school. "It's going to happen everywhere. I was kind of doing my own mental study of how many coaches get to retire anywhere anymore. That's kind of the thing of the past. Everyone ends up being fired. So why would you be surprised?"

Bowden, whose Seminoles rallied in the final minute to beat Maryland, 29-26, last Saturday, said "it is the way it is now; it didn't used be to like this. Past success doesn't seem to mean anything anymore. Playing against us, he had us beat. It's amazing. That don't count anymore."

Friedgen's fate is expected to be determined after a meeting with Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow in the days following Saturday's season finale. Yow has said on multiple occasions that she would evaluate Friedgen and the program at season's end, as she does for all coaches at the school. Friedgen is expected to have to articulate a vision for getting the program back on course, sources familiar with the situation said.

For Maryland to fire Friedgen, who has two years remaining on his contract, the school would have to buy out the remainder of the contract, which amounts to $4 million. Sources who have been briefed on the financial details of his contract said last weekend that the cost of the buyout would not prevent Maryland from making a change if school officials felt one was warranted.

The possibility of buying out Friedgen's contract prompted reaction this week from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who told reporters he "would hope [the University of Maryland] would not use public funds to buy out the contract." O'Malley also said neither he nor any of his staff members have become involved in deciding Friedgen's future at the school.

Brian Ullmann, Maryland's senior associate athletic director, said the athletic department has not requested funds from the university for a buyout. And Jack Reale, Friedgen's attorney, has said neither he nor Friedgen has been approached about a buyout.

Amid increasing speculation about Friedgen's future, Maryland's players and coaches have tried to maintain focus on trying to snap a six-game losing streak. But such uncertainty, ACC coaches said, can negatively affect a team as it prepares for games.

Bowden, whose return as Florida State's coach has been in question throughout the season, said the uncertainty and speculation invariably becomes a "distraction, there is no doubt about it. But I think Ralph has been in it long enough, just like I have, to know you just have to go on. You have to ignore that as far as your preparation and your coaching is concerned. But it is a distraction."

Cutcliffe said he "lived it" during his final days at Mississippi, adding that the "thing most difficult is to lead your staff and players. They look at you maybe a little differently when all that is surrounding the circumstances there. I can't speak for Ralph, but I think all of us feel an unbelievable responsibility to our staff, staff members' family, children. That is what I found to be very unsettling."

Maryland's players want to see 14 seniors conclude their careers with a victory. They don't know if the game against the Eagles -- expected to be played before a less-than-capacity crowd at Byrd Stadium -- will also be the final game for their head coach.

Offensive coordinator James Franklin, who was named Friedgen's eventual successor in February, declined to address the unsettled coaching situation but said the team overall needs to maintain focus on Saturday's game.

"Focus on the things we can control, and our destiny, and our fate," Franklin said. "Focus on those things, work as hard as you possibly can, have a positive attitude, a great work ethic. Compete in everything you do. And everything else will take care of itself."

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