By Mike Wise
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
About two years ago, during another tumultuous moment of the Fridge era, I asked Ralph Friedgen about a widely held perception: That in College Park, the football coach and the athletic director were believed to be tethered at the hip.
"Debbie and me, tethered at the hip?" Friedgen replied, deadpan. "That's quite a visual, isn't it?"
Debbie Yow inherited Gary Williams. But Friedgen was her first signature hire at Maryland. Bringing Friedgen back to his alma mater to resuscitate a slumping program 10 years ago was the first big, stick-your-neck-out move for Yow, a risk instantly rewarded by a Bowl Championship Series berth and 10-win seasons but now tested by the first 10-loss season in school history.
When all the public posturing was said and done, she stuck her neck out again and made the right decision early Tuesday morning. By retaining her former bread-winner -- by basically telling Friedgen, "Seven wins or else" -- the athletic director began the process of re-cementing a relationship that had become fractured almost beyond repair.
Friedgen's biggest supporter over the years certainly is feeling the heat today, her inbox no doubt filled with vitriol and financial details about how much money certain boosters have donated to Terp Nation and how the university is going to have to look for those funds elsewhere because she brought Ralph's tired old bones back.
Those e-mails probably all begin like this: "Hey Debbie, Notre Dame paid Charlie Weis to go away, Virginia told Al Groh to get lost and Florida State told Bobby Bowden to take his gold watch or else. And you can't get rid of Ralph? You can't pony up $4 million to buy his contract out?"
And, if she's honest, she will reply: "No, I can't. Not now."
Let's be clear: This was mostly about money -- or the lack of it.
The moment Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley frowned upon state funds being used to possibly buy out Friedgen's contract, the Fridge was very likely granted a stay of execution. Irrespective of whether the tide had turned against Friedgen at the highest levels of the university, if a very disenchanted booster wasn't going to sign that check, the cash wasn't going to be there.
Yow had to know that, and she acted appropriately.
Some angry souls will say sentimentality got in the way of sound decision-making, the sweet nostalgia of those first three seasons that produced 31 wins, of bowl representatives in orange blazers visiting the Byrd Stadium press box to scout, yes, the home team.
Or even the grand sight of a burly coach billowing into American living rooms and shouting, "We must protect this house!" -- launching not just a national ad campaign for a new player in the athletic-apparel market but affirming that Maryland football had indeed arrived.
Of course those good times mattered to Yow. But it wasn't going to stop her from pulling the plug on her first big hire if Friedgen, over 3 1/2 hours of meetings the past two days, couldn't convince her that the Terrapins would return to their bowl-eligible days next season, that 2009's fall into the abyss was sparked by not just youth but an ugly spat of injuries, all of which converged to form the perfect storm over the Gossett Team House.
"Ralph said it best when he said, 'We took our lumps this season and we won't take our lumps again.' There were a lot of factors involved," Yow said Tuesday morning. Later, in a radio interview, she admitted the decision was not an easy one and that all possibilities, including termination of his deal, played out in her head before informing Friedgen of her decision at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The realist will understand this was less about Yow's soft spot for Ralph than it was just plain good business.
For all the season ticket holders canceling today, for the projected $1 million Maryland could lose if it doesn't sell enough seats and suites next season, it could have been worse.
If Friedgen and his staff were out, goodbye four-star recruits. Hello, rebuild. And goodbye to millions more for another coach who wasn't going to be named Urban Meyer or Pete Carroll.
It's why the coach spent the first several hours of his new morning in College Park calling kids who were on the fence, re-recruiting the future because other programs had already convinced top-shelf players that their No. 1 patron at Maryland was out.
"We're going to be much better; I can promise you that," the son of the late Ralph Friedgen, a coach himself, said Tuesday morning. He added that he planned to stay as long as his alma mater wants him to stay.
Here's hoping he makes good on his promise to Yow, who, after some soul-searching moments and real doubt the past two months, decided it made sense to stick by her coach one final time -- maybe figuring that a 66-46 record over the last nine years, six bowl appearances and hope beat the alternative.
The only troubling part about the decision for those ornery, win-or-be-fired boosters: It confirms the worst fears of whether Maryland football should be genuinely thought of as a big-time program. When no one is prepared to stroke a check to exact change, like they would in the Southeastern Conference or Big 12, it supports the truth of what Terp Nation should truly expect given the resources and money involved.
For the better part of nine years, Ralph Friedgen has done the most with the tools given him, which really brings about some irony today, no? The monster he created never grew big enough to devour his career or contract at Maryland. It's why he and his athletic director are still tethered at the hip.