“If he had taken the job then, he would have been the head coach at Maryland a lot earlier,” Friedgen said matter-of-factly this week, after Locksley retold the story.
“I knew that was coming!” Locksley said, laughing.
With Locksley in his first year at the helm for the Terrapins — after 2½ seasons at New Mexico, a return to College Park as offensive coordinator and then three critical years in Nick Saban’s program at Alabama — Maryland has strengthened frayed ties to Friedgen, the most successful coach in recent program history. Locksley announced Tuesday that the program will honor Friedgen, the former Terrapins offensive lineman who worked on Maryland’s staff for three separate stints, on the field during the team’s Sept. 27 home game against Penn State.
The school fired Friedgen in 2010 even though he is the only coach in the past four decades to lead Maryland to a 10-win season. He won at least that many games three times. Friedgen, 72, has rarely stepped on campus since he was let go. Until last year, Maryland still employed Kevin Anderson, the athletic director who fired Friedgen. Nobody associated with the program reached out to Friedgen until former coach DJ Durkin did so last year.
But Locksley, a Washington native, watched the 1980s Maryland teams when Friedgen oversaw the offense. Locksley later worked under Friedgen during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, and they have stayed in touch. Locksley has mentioned Friedgen numerous times since he was hired as someone who shaped him as a coach and showed what’s possible for the Terps’ program. Locksley likens Friedgen to Gary Williams, the legendary and beloved Maryland basketball coach.
“I see Ralph as that person for Maryland football in that he helped get this program back to where it once was,” Locksley said. “And I think as an ambassador for our football program, an alumnus of the school, a guy that loves Maryland and loved Maryland like he did, and just the passion in which he coached, I feel it's really important for us as a program to make sure that we honor him.”
Locksley, who first joined Maryland’s football staff as the running backs coach in 1997, had only seen Friedgen coach from afar until 2000, during Friedgen’s interview process to be the Terps’ head coach. Locksley remained on the staff and was tasked with assembling a panel of football players to ask questions to some of the candidates.
“The best interview of the whole deal was the players that Mike put together,” Friedgen said.
Friedgen still remembers the best question, which came from Aaron Thompson, a linebacker from Baltimore. Thompson asked Friedgen: “How are you going to help us win?”
Locksley, when asked what he’s learned from Friedgen as a coach, distinctly remembers Friedgen’s answer.
The coach said he planned to teach Maryland’s players how not to lose, meaning the team would be disciplined and avoid self-inflicted errors. Those are the same qualities Locksley preaches now.
Locksley and then-receivers coach James Franklin were the only assistants retained from the previous Maryland staff, and they joined Friedgen in working to salvage a recruiting class full of players in danger of decommitting if they hadn’t already. During those early home visits, Friedgen remembers the recruits and their families asking tough questions about the coaching change and Maryland’s new regime. Locksley always had the right answers. Future third-round NFL draft pick Domonique Foxworth, who had decommitted, reaffirmed his Maryland pledge. Locksley stayed on the phone with Randy Starks’s mother for nearly three hours. (“And he just was relentless,” Friedgen said of Locksley’s recruiting work. “I would have lost my patience long ago on that.”)
Schematically, Friedgen’s pro-style system had both spread and option mechanics. Locksley and Franklin, the two coaches who will face off in Maryland’s game against Penn State, tested each other with flash cards early on. That offense prioritized getting the best skill position players on the field and the scheme evolved depending on the quarterback’s skill set, Locksley said.
“I should have hired you as my publicity guy,” Friedgen quipped.
That staff propelled Maryland into national relevance in 2001, Friedgen’s first year leading the program. Maryland won the ACC that season, the first of three straight years with at least 10 wins. Locksley calls those the “Renaissance years,” because the basketball team, which won the national title in 2002, had strong seasons, too.
“I think it’s really important when we go out and recruit that people understand as much of a sleeping giant as we want to make it, we’ve kind of been one of the upper-echelon programs,” Locksley said, “but just haven’t been able to sustain the success like some other programs.”
The Terrapins haven’t won that many football games in a season or a conference championship since. Friedgen’s 10-year Maryland tenure finished with a 75-50 record, seven bowl appearances and five bowl wins. After a 9-4 campaign in 2010, he was fired.
Friedgen, who now lives in Isle of Palms, S.C., worked as Rutgers’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and as a special assistant in 2015. During his first year with the Scarlet Knights, Friedgen’s team overcame a 25-point deficit to win in College Park. The only other time Friedgen visited was in 2018 when Durkin invited him to speak at a coaches clinic.
As Locksley says, coaches are “hired to be fired,” but alumni hold onto their programs. Friedgen knows of both paths. He still watched Maryland games, but his wife would leave the house when he did so on Saturdays.
Kevin Glover, a former Terps player who is the program’s director of player development, called Friedgen a few weeks ago to see if he would come up for the Penn State game. Friedgen said he might visit for a different game when the program honors the 1984 team that earned a marquee comeback win over Miami.
“Well, we want you to come back for Penn State because we're only going to honor one person,” Glover said.
“Who’s that?” Friedgen said.
Glover explained. Friedgen took a day or two before he agreed. He said he still doesn’t completely understand how or why the school wants to single him out. But next Friday, his family will fly in from around the country, he’ll watch the game from a suite, and fans will cheer when he is recognized on the field where he stood when Maryland football last flourished.
“The more I talked to people,” Friedgen said, “the more I realized that they were really going out of the way to make this a very nice thing for me. And I think that’s pretty special.”