Depending on which head coach you believe, tonight's Maryland-Navy game will either signal the renewal of a crackling in-state rivalry after a 40-year hiatus, or it will be just another game. The outcome will either go a long way toward determining the arc of this season, or it won't. Either Maryland will have to fight through its crippling inexperience against a savvier Navy team, or the Midshipmen will have to fight through their crippling inexperience against a BCS conference team.
Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen and Navy Coach Paul Johnson -- friends from their time spent coaching in Georgia who have sat next to each other at several awards banquets in recent years -- have not agreed on much during the weeks of buildup to this game. Friedgen has come down on the side of a renewed rivalry, a crucially important outcome and a young Terrapins team facing a more experienced foe. Johnson has pooh-poohed the rivalry talk and the importance of the season opener, while calling the notion that the Midshipmen are more experienced "almost laughable."
One thing upon which virtually everyone agrees is that he would just as soon not hear about the exploits of Jerry Fishman for another 40 years.
Fishman was the Maryland linebacker who, in the teams' second-to-last meeting in 1964, twice made obscene gestures toward Navy fans, an incident that has often been blamed for scuttling the series. He remains unapologetic and, in recent weeks, has taken advantage of recent media attention to launch all manner of provocative one-liners in Navy's direction, prompting Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow to put out a statement disavowing his comments.
Friedgen came to Maryland as an undergraduate the year after L'Affaire Fishman and has vivid memories of his freshman team's loss to the Midshipmen. He has lectured his players about the history between the two programs, consistently predicting that tradition and proximity will spawn a greater-than-normal intensity tonight.
"When I was going to school here, we always talked about the Navy game. . . . When we played them in anything, it was a big rivalry," he said. "Anytime you have two major college football teams located 30 miles from each other, it has to be a rivalry."
His players have been slightly more guarded. Cornerback Josh Wilson, whose Upper Marlboro home is approximately equidistant from College Park and Annapolis, referred to Navy as "our forefathers' rival," while linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said he was "too young to know about all the history."
Indeed, many Maryland players and fans consider Virginia their chief rival, while several players have described this year's prime-time meeting with Virginia Tech or their late October trip to Florida State as the dates they most look forward to. West Virginia, whom the Terps have faced 25 straight years, also ranks high on the list of area rivals.
Navy will not start a single player from the state of Maryland on offense or defense -- the Terps will start nine -- and Johnson has often pointed out that "we have a couple of rivals and they both start with A," referring to Army and Air Force.
Johnson has also insisted this season opener will not define his team's season. A win "would make us 1-0," he said. "That's it. If we lose, we would be 0-1."
But the Maryland game does signal a departure for Navy's fourth-year coach, who was named the national coach of the year after last year's 10-2 campaign despite playing a schedule perhaps best described as forgiving. After facing two Division I-AA opponents a year ago, the Midshipmen have none on their schedule this year. And while none of their opponents is coming off a winning season -- they were a combined 43-79 -- the Midshipmen will face four teams from BCS conferences in addition to Notre Dame.
The Terps, coming off their first losing season during Friedgen's four years in College Park, are trying to erase memories of last year's meltdown and a reputation as slow starters, and thus have none of Johnson's offhandedness about tonight's game. Maryland lost its season openers in 2002 and 2003; last year brought a narrow three-point win at home against Northern Illinois.
"We need to get off to a great start, winning our first game, getting some momentum, shaking off the losses of last year," running back Mario Merrills said. "It's definitely important to get this thing moving again."
Friedgen has been even more emphatic. His voice grew husky this week as he described his first losing season of any sort since 1988.
"I don't like it, I don't like it at all," he said. "We've got to get back out and reestablish ourselves, gain the respect back that we've earned. I don't know about them, but I'm ready to go."
Staff writer Jon Gallo contributed to this report.