By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 11:58 PM
"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.
Players said meetings between the Terrapin Council, the team's leadership group, and Friedgen have been more productive and less of a whine-fest. When players have cited heavy legs in camp, they say, Friedgen has curtailed the practice structure.
And in a move that took hold last season, Friedgen spends an extra 45 minutes when needed with young offensive linemen in his office, poring over practice tape because he said they needed "remedial" football work.
"They are working their butts off and they will be good, too," Friedgen said of the young linemen. "But it is not going to happen right away."
When asked if he would have been as patient eight years ago, Friedgen quickly said, "No."
He paused and looked away, toward his office wall decorated with framed pictures.
"I don't know, maybe that makes me a poorer coach," Friedgen said. "I don't know."
He paused again.
"You know, when you ask me that question, I think the thing that allows me to be patient is the effort and the attempt to do it the right way," he said. "If they were not doing that then I would not be very patient - I would be all over them.
"Even last year, a couple of our kids would not admit they made a mistake. They would be pretty defensive about it. Now they say, 'That is on me, I screwed up.' What do you say? We all screw up."
But no one expects the public to share his patience, not after the first 10-loss season in program history. His job security is tenuous. His fans are restless. His team faces two geographical rivals - Navy on Monday and West Virginia on Sept. 18 - in the first three games.
For recruiting success and for players' confidence, Friedgen understands the importance of starting this season fast. And players acknowledge the implications for Friedgen, even if he does not.
"We are supposed to pretend like we don't know what is going on, but we know what is going on. We are not dumb," Francis said. "We understand that we have to win. We have to win."
Friedgen likes his players' character and potential. Often unprompted, he tells reporters several times a week that he has a good feeling about the season. When reminded that he said the same before last season, he did not retreat.
"Maybe in my old age, I can look at kids and see that they are attempting to do what we are asking them to do," Friedgen said. "I know it is just not going to happen overnight."