I'll never forget the first time I saw George O'Leary, Ralph Friedgen's best buddy in coaching, on his own television show. It was November, 1994. Friedgen was out in San Diego, helping Bobby Ross get the Chargers into that year's Super Bowl, while O'Leary was making his broadcast media debut, following Tech's 20-10 loss to Clemson in O'Leary's first game as "interim" head coach. Obviously a little inexperienced in the limelight, O'Leary stared right into thr camera squinting so bad it looked as if his eyes were closed. "There," I thought to myself, "sits a football coach!"
It had only taken O'Leary twenty-six years to get there. It only took his friend Ralph thirty-two years.
Now it didn't take Ralph Friedgen thirty-two years to prove he was head coaching material. It was obvious to those that worked with him at The Citadel in the 1970s he was going far in coaching. But I submit that it's a discredit to athletic directors everywhere that it took such a biblical amount of time before one stepped up and allowed Ralph to finally realize his dream.
Ralph became a college assistant at Maryland in 1969. In 1973, he was hired as a defensive line coach at The Citadel by Bobby Ross. It was a coaching match made in heaven: two glamour-challenged football maniacs who would rather grade film than go on vacation.
By 1977 Ralph was offensive coordinator, a position he would hold on Boby Ross's staffs all the way to a Super Bowl. He put together one of the more impressive resumes along the way. The Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach was among his honors. He became the first coach to ever serve as offensive coordinator for both a collegiate national champion and a Super Bowl team.
But being glamour-challenged is a serious problem if you want to head a big-tim college program these days. Openings, it seems, are always filled by the more presentable candidates. Friedgen --and O'Leary-- lost their shot at the Tech head job in 1992, when the Jackets decided to hire the highly presentable Bill Lewis, who had a great resume and almost zero body fat.
Friedgen was a finalist for the Maryland job in 1997, when he lost out to the highly presentable Ron Vanderlinden, who, on the surface at least, had a great resume. Ron then went out and lost two of every three games he caoched for the Terps, while Ralph, back at Tech, was outcoaching every defensive coordinator in sight.
By this time, however, Coach Friedgen was beginning to doubt he would ever get his chance. He found himself with a serious image problem, a problem dating back to college. He entered Maryland in the 1960s as a quarterback. But by the time he graduated, he was an offensive lineman. Ralph, it seems, was disciplined as a football player, where he excelled, and at school work, where he earned All-Academic honors. But he apparently wasn't as disciplined at donut eating, and he eventually found out that athletic directors don't like their head coaches super-sized. To make matters worse, he also has an unusual speaking voice, the Homer Simpson thing. That's actually a little harsh, but the coach doesn't exactly remind anyone of Tom Brokaw when he opens his mouth. In fact, with a little effort, he could actually do cartoon voiceovers.
Oh, and did I mention Ralph is bald?
But in another rare, once-in-a-decade victory for the glamour-challenged, Coach Friedgen finally got his job.
First it was Coach O'Leary, then it was Jim Tiller at Purdue, and now, at long last, Ralph. Finally. Thirty-two years.
I personally have taken on this glamour-challenged assistant coach problem as a bit of a personal crusade. If I do my part, perhaps the less presentable head coach won't become extinct in my lifetime. Could you imagine if all the coaches looked like Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban? Would Bobby Bowden even have achance if he was just starting out today? Will Mark Mangino, the rotund offensive genius at Oklahoma ever get his chance? Will he, too, have to wait thirty-two years?
But at least Ralph has his job. And mark my words, he'll succeed. Maryland's a tough place to build a winning program, but Ralph will get it done. And now that he's there, I have one more team to root for.
This article was excerpted from "The Terrapins Have a New Fan," from JACKETS FOOTBALL 2001, by Danny Cameron. Published by Old School Publishers, Inc. All rights resrved.