Maryland's football season will begin tomorrow evening in College Park, a herald of autumn that not so many years ago would have elicited trepidation among the staunchest Terrapins fans and little more than a yawn from others. The 1990s were a litany of losing seasons. All that changed in 2001, as if a light bulb clicked on, with the return of Ralph Friedgen to coach at his alma mater. Immediately, Friedgen reintroduced a concept that had seemed permanently lost: winning. Some coaches have that wondrous knack for success where others had only failed, and none who fit the description of winner had been prowling the sideline at Byrd Stadium since Bobby Ross in the mid-1980s.
In three seasons Friedgen has lifted the Terrapins to college football's upper echelon. Who expected that? Under him, the Terrapins have won an ACC championship and finished three straight seasons in the top 20. Before him, Maryland could barely hold its own in an ACC most notable, then, for its basketball. Maryland football fans had to settle for being philosophical week in and week out. College Park had a startling number of existentialists.
Not now. Not even with Miami and Virginia Tech joining the ACC this season, and Boston College in 2005, and the landscape suddenly football country. Now the attitude among Maryland fans is: Bring 'em on.
That's what happens in the wake of 10-2, 11-3 and 10-3 seasons, and three straight bowl appearances. Maryland fans -- increasing in numbers -- will begin this season with hope, even confidence. Friedgen is Maryland football's Renaissance man.
His work, however, is not finished. He said so himself this week amid final preparations for the opener. Fans' expectations may be higher than ever, but they coincide with the need for an extraordinary coaching job if those recent records are to be duplicated. "We have a very, very young football team," Friedgen cautioned the media during a session on campus. How young? The team has a couple of dozen players with four years' eligibility. Just the other day or so, these kids were in high school. You know how it is when kids go off to college: In the first days, they're lucky to find their way to the classroom from the dorm (and if they do, their parents are just as lucky).
Friedgen might have expected a few quizzical glances from his players after handing out the playbooks, but he's also anticipating a group of fast learners. The starting quarterback, for example, sophomore Joel Statham, has thrown only 25 passes for the Terrapins. We all know that no team goes far without a successful quarterback, unless you have the Baltimore Ravens to play defense. Friedgen will have to, as that departed coach from somewhere around here used to say, "coach 'em up."
This season, Friedgen will have to coach 'em all up. This season will be his biggest challenge because he will be matching his youngest team against an array of impressive foes. Not even the opener is a given.
Northern Illinois is not to be mistaken for Southern Cal, but Friedgen's Terrapins have yet to prove they can beat Northern Illinois. So tomorrow evening, that will be the first test. Game 3 might be another. It takes place at West Virginia, raising the question: How often can one team beat up on the same opponent? In the last two seasons alone, the Terrapins have flattened the Mountaineers no fewer than three times: 41-7, 34-7 and 48-17. But: The past is no guarantee of the future.
Maryland's schedule gets tougher. By late October, the Terrapins will have had to grow up. There's a stretch of four games that not even the most powerful teams -- Oklahoma, Southern Cal -- would exactly relish: at Clemson, home to Florida State, at Virginia, at Virginia Tech. But if there was a time when Maryland football fans would have cringed at such a prospect, now there is a different attitude. Given what Friedgen has accomplished in the last three years, it might not be surprising if by late in the season his "very enthusiastic" squad, as he described it this week, had developed into a very good one.
It's no surprise that Friedgen expresses caution on the eve of the season: "I really don't know how this team's going to react -- they're so young. Our last scrimmage, I didn't think we scrimmaged very well until I looked at the tape and saw that we got after each other pretty good. But the problem as I looked at it, they're all freshmen out there. They're not mature enough yet. . . . There are so many things we don't know about this team. We'll find out a lot more Saturday."
But it's also no surprise to hear him speak promisingly of his players. "What I love about them is that they will compete," he said. "I enjoy coaching this team a lot." They're young, of course, but chances are they're also good. After all, he recruited them, and, with Friedgen, the quality of the players at Maryland has risen. Ralph Friedgen is a big man, but more impressive than his size is his remarkable record.