By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 11:41 PM
For the first time in forever Ralph Friedgen failed to dress up in a Santa suit and reprise his annual role for his players over the weekend. Just didn't feel right, the Fridge said, explaining why he handed his jolly-old-fellow duties to another bear of a man, Maryland assistant Mike Lynn.
"Obviously we needed a change," Friedgen said, "so I thought'd I'd have another Santa Claus for you."
The coach laughed hard Tuesday night as he related that satiric poke, which was probably aimed at whoever the hell is running Maryland athletics these days - maybe an athletic apparel company, possibly the board of trustees or, the long shot, an athletic director who's been here about five minutes.
It was going on 6 o'clock in his hotel room, hours after his last practice with a Terrapin football team, 30 minutes before he ate with his players for the last time - the night before his last game.
Beneath the humor, the big man was obviously hurting.
"I've always been very loyal to Maryland," Friedgen said. "But it doesn't feel like they've been very loyal to me.
He added, "It didn't need to end this way."
No. It shouldn't have ended this way.
Before the Military Bowl ends Wednesday at RFK, the person or people who conspired to get rid of Friedgen should know: unlike the next booster-soothing choice who steps up to the podium, Friedgen saw coaching at his alma mater as a career destination, not a stepping stone for the next big job.
He could have left for Georgia Tech or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that first year; he stayed. He said no to the Falcons, Giants and Bears, who all inquired about the Fridge's interest after his third season at Maryland in 2003. Each time he said no, coaching in College Park was where he wanted to be.
"Even when things weren't going well, I was always happy at Maryland," he said.
But they just couldn't see fit to keep a guy who had taken them to seven bowls in 10 years after Maryland had been to 17 bowls in, yes, 108 years before his arrival.
It would be one thing to remove him after 2-10, his career nadir, last season. But after a rebound season of 8-4 with relatively the same players, a team that was a red-zone score against Florida State away from a chance to play for the ACC title and a spot in the Orange Bowl?
And after originally being told by the new athletic director he would return for 2011, the man who made the Terrapins an actual part of the national college football conversation again has to find out via ESPN, before he can even tell his own players? If that's how the Terps treat alumni, no wonder so many former graduates don't want to fork over big dollars to ensure no kid ever leaves the state for Happy Valley or Blacksburg.
"Pretty insensitive," said Friedgen of the way in which his ouster was handled.
Asked if any university officials have stopped by this week to either offer condolences or congratulations, he said, "Haven't seen a one."
On the guy who officially axed him, Kevin Anderson, the former athletic director at Army who was named the head of Maryland athletics in September: "Basically he's telling me he doesn't think I can do the job, but what has he done?
"The guy's been here a couple months," Friedgen added. "I don't know if he understands our culture, what we're about. Maryland is a different situation than a lot of schools. Every kid is not going to Maryland from around here.
"Do I wish I did a better job of bringing some alumni in? Yeah. But it's so tough to get them involved. Someone should tell Kevin: 'You're going to have to change a lot of things here other than coaches. So many things.' "
Friedgen isn't prepared to buy the theory that another Kevin is really running the athletic department, Under Armour's Kevin Plank, the former Maryland special-teams captain who now spearheads the athletic apparel giant. But, the coach added, if it came out that Under Armour funds were used to buy out the remaining year of Friedgen's contract, "I'd be disappointed."
"If they are involved, I'm pretty disappointed in it," said Friedgen, who has exchanged messages with Plank but has yet to speak with him. "I consider Kevin a friend. I was behind him from the beginning. Made one of his first commercials. So, yeah, I'd be disappointed."
Friedgen also knows what's done is done. Wherever the money came from, Mr. "You Must Protect This House" has been asked to vacate his office at the Gossett Team House, leave the only place where he really wanted to play or coach college football.
The players asked him to attend the team banquet, which he acknowledges might be complicated for the new coach. But he wants to be there.
"I'm kind of emotionally beat up right now," Friedgen said. "I haven't really slept. I nod off around 10 p.m., wake up around 2 a.m. and I can't go back to sleep."
He's been buoyed by 250-plus texts and e-mails of support. Growing emotional, he added, "I would have never thought I could've touched that many people that way, you know. People don't have to do that."
He added that one negative one was forwarded to him, from a Maryland English professor who wanted to know why $2 million was wasted on buying out a football coach.
"I felt like writing him back, something like, 'More people want to see me perform than see you perform.'
"Who knows," Friedgen said, the night before he coached his last game at Maryland, "maybe you'll see me back at Byrd Stadium."
Maybe. But it won't be the same. The Fridge is all but gone. Whenever that day came, the man who made Maryland football matter deserved a much better ending than the get-lost goodbye his alma mater gave him.