Ralph Friedgen is a heart-on-his-sleeve kinda guy, so this will almost certainly be a heart-on-his-sleeve kinda time. When you spend your life as a football coach, you inevitably speak on the rubber-chicken circuit. Friday, for Friedgen, will bring another lectern, another entrée, another crowd. But this one’s different. Bring the tissues.
“I can’t deny it,” Friedgen said by phone this week. “I might get emotional. That’s just how I am. I put a lot of years of my life into that place, a lot of hard work. It’s hard to get Maryland out of my system.”
Friedgen, once a Maryland offensive lineman and always a Maryland alum and for 10 years the Maryland head football coach, hasn’t been around College Park for the better part of a decade. You might have heard. Friedgen’s last season leading the Terrapins, 2010, ended with eight regular-season wins and the ACC’s coach of the year award. That December, he was fired, and he won the ensuing bowl game. Not for spite, necessarily. But damned if it didn’t feel good.
But since then, the most accomplished coach Maryland has had in more than a generation — not to mention the coach with the most personality, a coach not just with a pulse but with a real presence — has made scant trips to his alma mater. He came when he was an assistant with Rutgers, and cried after the Scarlet Knights won. But Kevin Anderson was still the athletic director. And Kevin Anderson fired Friedgen.
Friedgen felt he had been loyal to his school. But what did he learn about loyalty?
“It is complex,” Friedgen said. “It’s …,” and he paused. “I don’t know in college football if there is such a thing.”
The football coach at Maryland now is DJ Durkin, and he’s one Randy Edsall removed from Friedgen’s 10-year run. On so many levels, Durkin is what Friedgen is not. He got his first head coaching job at 38. Friedgen was 53. Durkin had no ties to Maryland. Friedgen, an established offensive coordinator in both college and the NFL, couldn’t get Maryland out of his system.
But without Durkin, Friedgen wouldn’t be coming back to campus.
“One of the great parts about college football is you’re part of a program, part of a tradition,” Durkin said. “There’s those who have come before you, and it’s important to embrace that and reach out to these guys.”
Seems natural, easy. Much of the time, it doesn’t happen. Coaches, for all their bravado, can be insanely insecure. Reminders of Friedgen could be reminders, by now, of what Maryland once was.
But Durkin didn’t shy from Friedgen’s standards. In 10 seasons, Friedgen went to seven bowls, had a winning record six times, and was at least .500 in-conference six times. That might not seem like much to Ohio State or Southern Cal. But consider that the four coaches who surrounded Friedgen’s tenure — Mark Duffner, Ron Vanderlinden, Edsall and Durkin — have worked 16 seasons at the school and combined for three winning seasons and two years above .500 in-conference. Friedgen won at least nine games five times. The number of non-Friedgen-coached Terrapins teams that won nine games since 1985? Zero (0).
And yet, here came a connection. The first time Durkin and Friedgen reached each other by phone, they talked for nearly an hour-and-a-half, Friedgen recalled. Friedgen told Durkin about some of the aspects of his program that he still valued, like the tombstones the Terps posted every time they took down a team ranked in the top 10.
“I wanted the kids to walk by every day at practice and know what they could accomplish,” Friedgen said. “It’s kind of a subliminal message.”
Durkin, establishing his own program on Friedgen’s old turf, lapped it up. He resurrected the idea, expanding it to include any teams in the top 25. One day at practice, Durkin had his team kneel around the tombstones.
“Never had we explained what it was,” Durkin said.
Still, even with this connection, the two coaches had never met. Then Durkin called with an offer: Come speak to our coaches’ clinic. Come back to campus.
“It kind of caught me off-guard,” Friedgen said. “I said, ‘Can you give me the weekend to at least think about it?’ ”
This was an offer to come home. What was there to think about?
“I wanted to know who the AD was,” Friedgen said. “I had some hesitance about that.”
Friedgen, it’s clear, wouldn’t have come back had Anderson still been in his old seat. But Anderson is, the school says, “on sabbatical,” whatever that means. No one expects him to return to his former capacity.
So Friday evening, after some 200 or 250 high school coaches watch the Terps’ spring practice, they’ll swivel their chairs toward the front of the room in the new Cole Field House indoor practice facility. They’ll look to Friedgen. He’ll have to clear his throat. He might have to wipe his eye. He’ll definitely have to speak.
“The talk I’m going to give, I’m trying to fit it into an hour,” Friedgen said. “I probably could talk three hours. Just the whole experience …” and he’s back on campus as a player, then as an assistant, and he’s telling stories about Bobby Ross, and how much he wanted the job at his old school but thought he’d never get it.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “When I start talking about it, there’s so many memories. And the more I think about it, good memories.”
Every other Thursday at home in Isle of Palms, S.C., just outside Charleston, Friedgen has breakfast at Page’s Okra Grill with whatever old coach might wander through the door. Sometimes it’s Les Robinson, the former N.C. State basketball coach and The Citadel athletic director. Sometimes it’s Fisher DeBerry, the longtime football coach at Air Force. Sometimes even Roy Williams, the current basketball coach at North Carolina, makes his way over from his vacation home. Sometimes they outgrow the space.
“We solve all the world’s problems,” Friedgen said.
One of the problems, however small, was that Ralph Friedgen, Maryland ’70, didn’t feel comfortable at Maryland. Friday, he’ll be back. It seems silly that it took this long. It just took Durkin to do it — someone confident enough in the future that he could embrace and respect the past.