Maryland's players hope to give Coach Ralph Friedgen a nice send-off in Military Bowl

"We want to go out and play well to support Coach," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of Ralph Friedgen, above. "We know it is his last chance. [The game] has a little more meaning now. We definitely want to send Coach Friedgen out the right way." (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 12:31 AM

Most Maryland players had wanted no part of the Military Bowl because they craved a warm-weather postseason destination. But as Ralph Friedgen's head coaching tenure nears a close, Wednesday's game against East Carolina at RFK Stadium has taken on added significance for players: a chance to give their coach an emotional send-off.

"We want to go out and play well to support Coach," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "We know it is his last chance. [The game] has a little more meaning now. We definitely want to send Coach Friedgen out the right way."

With the possible exception of the first quarter of the regular season finale against North Carolina State on Nov. 27 - a game that carried little tangible significance for the Terrapins - Maryland's players have not come out flat all season. And in recent days, they have talked about the motivation behind and importance of winning Friedgen's last game at his alma mater.

Throughout the season, players said they harbor strong feelings toward Friedgen in large part because he stuck by them during the disastrous 2009 season, in which Maryland lost a program-record 10 games. And they remember that Friedgen maintained high expectations for them - an ACC championship - this season even though they were predicted to finish last in the league's Atlantic Division.

"He cares for us and he has just been awesome to me, especially the past five years," said linebacker Alex Wujciak, who called the opportunity to play for Friedgen on Wednesday "kind of an honor."

The past month has been a whirlwind for the Terrapins. Following the 38-31 victory over N.C. State, they left Byrd Stadium with renewed hopes of playing a bowl game in a warm-weather locale. They wanted a game against a marquee opponent to serve as a springboard into a highly anticipated 2011 season.

Within days, Friedgen won his second ACC coach of the year award, quarterback Danny O'Brien won league rookie of the year honors and six players earned all-conference recognition. The accolades underscored the extent of Maryland's turnaround; one season after winning two games, the Terrapins (8-4) engineered the second-biggest turnaround in the nation.

But then came a dose of reality. Despite finishing in a three-way tie for third in the ACC, Maryland fell to the eighth slot in the ACC bowl pecking order in large part because of something players had no control over: a diminished fan base and concerns over how well Maryland's fans would travel to a bowl game.

Next came Vanderbilt's drawn-out courtship of James Franklin, Maryland's offensive coordinator and the head coach-in-waiting the past 22 months. When Franklin was officially named the Commodores' head coach on Dec. 17, Maryland's players lost the program's most valued recruiter and a charismatic offensive mind who played a large role in attracting players such as O'Brien to Maryland.

But on the same day came a more telling sign of things to come: In a teleconference with reporters, first-year Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson declined to guarantee that Friedgen would return in 2011 even though he had announced just a month before that Friedgen would return for the final year of his contract in 2011.

Over the next three days, players relied partly on media reports to learn that Friedgen would be fired despite posting a 74-50 record in 10 seasons. Friedgen sent a teamwide text message, one team source said, letting players know that they could meet with him if they wanted and that he deeply cared for them. Many did meet with him.

On Dec. 20, Anderson made Friedgen's firing official with a news conference in which he said that had Franklin not left Maryland, Friedgen would be returning next season. And that week, with final exams concluded, players began practicing again amid rampant speculation that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is waiting to replace Friedgen soon after the bowl game.

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