Ralph Friedgen, Maryland football faces hazy heat in practice, hazy future off the field
It's a strange time for Ralph Friedgen and the University of Maryland. Friedgen will be coaching for his job when the Terps open their season Sept. 6 against in-state rival Navy. But the people who will make the ultimate decision about Friedgen's future won't be watching from a luxury suite, making judgments and evaluating options. We don't know who those people will be, and neither does Friedgen.
He ought to be used to life on the edge by now. He nearly lost his job last fall after a 2-10 season. But former athletic director Debbie Yow couldn't raise the money necessary to buy out his contract, which runs through next season, and given the state of the economy, the state of Maryland wasn't about to foot the bill. He kept his job almost by default, and his shaky relationship with Yow went from chat room speculation to public fact.
Yow kept Friedgen but set a bar for him: a winning season in 2010. Maryland is picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic Division, but it could do a little better than that with some breaks and some breakout performances. The Terps were painfully inexperienced last season; the pain will lessen somewhat this season, but they're still very young.
And maybe the bar doesn't matter any more. After all, Yow has left for North Carolina State, and university President C.D. Mote Jr. is scheduled to retire at the end of the month. That means a new administration will decide Friedgen's fate.
New brooms sweep clean, the saying goes. On Wednesday, Maryland announced the hiring of Neinas Sports Services to help it find a new athletic director, but the school will almost certainly choose a new president first. The new AD likely will want to hire his or her own football coach. After all, football is the cash cow for an athletic department, and fairly or unfairly, the football and basketball coaches are often the most public faces of a university.
But Maryland's new hires may be hampered by the coach-in-waiting contract Yow gave to assistant head coach and offensive coordinator James Franklin. If Franklin is not given the job in January 2012, when Friedgen's contract is up, the school must pay him $1 million.
So the school will get a new president, and the new president will hire a new AD, and the new AD will have to decide if he or she wants a new football coach. If so, that means a potential buyout of not one but two coaches. With season ticket sales down for the fifth consecutive season, and the economy less than perky, that's a questionable use of resources. The new president may be forced to hire a new AD who is on board with Franklin as head coach.
The Terps could use the continuity, if nothing else. Even Friedgen admits that other schools are using the coach-in-waiting scheme against the Terps when recruiting, given that no one knows how long the coach-in-waiting will have to wait, or if he will even get the job.
At 63, Friedgen does not sound like a man with a two-year expiration date stamped across his forehead. He has indicated that even if Maryland sheds him like an old skin, he doesn't consider his career over.
"If I am two [more] years here, I may be two years somewhere else or four years somewhere else," he said Tuesday. "I have not put an end line to it. Maybe some other people have, but I haven't. I plan on winning for the next two years and then we'll see what happens. As long as I enjoy coaching and being around the kids, I am going to do what I like to do."
Winning used to come easy for Friedgen, whose tenure at Maryland began with such promise and optimism. His teams won 31 games in his first three seasons but just 35 in the next six. Last season was the first 10-loss showing in program history.
The schedule this year does him no favors. The Terps open against the Midshipmen on Labor Day on ESPN, and while Game 1 usually isn't a must-win, a loss to the in-state rival would put a damper on Maryland's already dampened fans. They also have a non-conference game against rival West Virginia in Morgantown in Week 3. Barring a truly breakout season from junior quarterback Jamarr Robinson, it could be a long autumn in College Park.
"Do I feel a sense of urgency?" Friedgen said. "I have a sense of urgency to get this bad taste out of my mouth. Two-and-ten I think is the worst record I have ever had since I have been coaching. All I can do is the best I can, work as hard as I can. It would be a tremendous enjoyment for me to see these kids succeed for their sake because I know how much they put into this season.
"It was never a question of effort last year. There were days when they would motivate me. They worked hard to try to do what we wanted them to do. That is what the sense of urgency is for me, to see them get better, to see them reap the rewards of their effort, and to guide them through that. To me, that's what coaching is all about. To come through the tough times and enjoy the good times again. That's what I am hoping all the Maryland people realize, too. This team has paid the price. Now they have to go out and reap the rewards, and they need all the support they can get right now."
If new brooms truly do sweep clean, the same may be said of Friedgen.