Maryland football Coach Ralph Friedgen is preaching patience this season

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 11:58 PM

Even though A.J. Francis recognized the burly, balding figure roaming the locker room after Maryland's first practice of training camp, the sophomore nose tackle didn't believe his eyes.

"Am I in the right place?" Francis recalled saying when spotting his head coach. "Everybody was like, 'What the hell is he doing here?' In the past, he really only came into the locker room on game days."

Instead of steering his golf cart to his office after practice, Coach Ralph Friedgen now swings a sharp right and makes a beeline for the locker room, where he spends 15 minutes commending, cajoling and chatting up players. At 63, Friedgen is ruling more with a helping hand than his usual iron fist.

There are no guarantees the personal touch will translate into more victories following a 2-10 season, but the scene offers a glimpse into Friedgen's psyche as he prepares for the most critical season of his head coaching career. At a time in his tenure when he can least afford patience, he feels his only option with this team is to exercise restraint.

"It has been a challenge for me," Friedgen said. "Probably the biggest complaint or criticism of me [in the past] is that I push them too hard. I only know one way. I have done it that way for 40 years now."

He has done it a little differently this training camp, which he says has been easier than those in the past. Sure, Friedgen has been careful not to further deplete depth at tight end and linebacker, units hit hard by injury. But more than that, Friedgen looks at a young team, which had just nine seniors on the preseason two-deep depth chart, and sees players still searching for confidence to win at the division I level. He said his biggest challenge is getting players to push through fatigue and adversity without breaking them mentally or physically.

"Trust me," he said, laughing. "Patience is not one of my virtues."

Two summers ago, Friedgen looked to 31 seniors to self-discipline a veteran squad. Last summer, Friedgen fed off the enthusiasm of one of the nation's youngest teams, even scrapping one practice for a team movie. This season, players learn football as Friedgen learns patience.

About the only time this team angered Friedgen was Aug. 23, after a 137-play scrimmage that he deemed "sloppy as hell" because of numerous penalties. Afterward, he scolded his team to reporters, vowing that players would know the cost of penalties the next day in practice.

But when the next day came, Friedgen let players disperse after a crisp, brief 18-period practice. For comparison, after the biggest scrimmage of 2009, Maryland went 24 periods. And in 2001, Friedgen's first season, the Terrapins went 24 periods every practice.

"Sometimes when things aren't going well, you go back and you try to draw up the perfect play," offensive coordinator James Franklin said. "In the end, it comes back to confidence, it comes back to trust, it comes back to having that positive energy on your team. And that's all about relationships."

There is more after-hours time with players. In the spring, after players indicated in a teamwide survey that there was some confusion about roles, Friedgen made clear to each player what his specific role is for this season.

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