By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 12:58 AM
When the Maryland football team spent past holiday seasons preparing for a bowl game, Coach Ralph Friedgen served as Santa Claus. He would disappear during the team's Christmas dinner and emerge dressed as St. Nick, ready to dispense bowl gifts to all his players.
As the Terrapins settled in at their downtown hotel in advance of Wednesday's Military Bowl at RFK Stadium, Friedgen intimated he had a surprise for this year's Christmas party. Players figured that meant another Santa appearance, until they saw team administrative coordinator Mike Lynn had taken over the duties.
"I just thought we needed a change," Friedgen said with a laugh. "I guess a lot of people felt that way."
In the week after the school announced that he would be fired after Wednesday's game against East Carolina, that has been one of the few light moments for Friedgen.
Though his pending unemployment has begun to sink in, it hasn't made the situation any easier on Friedgen. During a formal news conference with both teams Monday, he had trouble holding back tears whenever a question was directed his way.
Later in the afternoon, he participated in his final practice. He said those moments, with his players, have served as a form of consolation even if the circumstances are less than ideal.
"Being with the players the last time, it's really special," Friedgen said. "It's kind of like you died a slow death. Everything you experience, it's for the last time, and it's been a very stressful week for me. . . . This has been a special group for me. Last year, when everyone was down on us, I never got down on the kids. It's because of the effort they gave every day. Many times they motivated me. I knew they were gonna be good. Everybody seems surprised by our success this year, but I'm not surprised in the least."
The feeling seems to be mutual. While Maryland's practices have served as a time to prepare for the challenges that await them Wednesday - like adapting to having plays called by running backs coach John Donovanâ instead of former offensive coordinator James Franklin - players admit they find themselves savoring the moment just a little bit more.
"As you can see, you can't take anything for granted," running back Da'Rel Scott said. "We're just trying to fight for him, go hard at every practice, every play and make sure he goes out with a bang."
They've also begun recounting their favorite Friedgen stories, such as earlier this year when a cellphone kept ringing during a pregame meeting, driving the coach into a rage until he realized it was his own device that was going off.
There have been no such outbursts this week, as Friedgen sometimes struggles to show just how grateful he is to be with his team for one last game.
"You definitely see it, especially during team functions when the whole team is together and he has to talk to us about next year and finishing this year strong," senior wide receiver Emani Lee-Odai said. "You always see the emotions in his face that this is coming to an end. This is home. This is family."
Returning to a relatively normal routine has helped. Friedgen said he's enjoying practice more now, and he's still watching film of practice every day. Friedgen called Monday's hour-long session a "dress rehearsal," but it also serves as the team's final on-field gathering of the year besides the actual bowl game.
As is tradition, every senior is carried off the field by his teammates. And though the practice was closed to the media, senior linebacker Alex Wujciak promised that, "all 13 seniors, a few juniors and maybe a few of the extra linemen we've got lying around," would usher Friedgen off the practice field for one last time as well.
"He cares for us and he's just been awesome to me, especially the past five years. It's kind of an honor," Wujcak said. "He's done a lot for us over the years, so I think it's just proper we send him out the right way."
Terrapins note: Junior wide receiver Torrey Smith said Monday that he would likely decide whether to declare for the NFL draft shortly after Wednesday's bowl game. While he has been gathering information that indicates he would be at least a second-round pick, Smith is still waiting on official word from the NFL's draft advisory board. "I'm pretty sure I'll know what I'm doing by next weekend," he said.