Few like Fridge

A final farewell to Maryland's former head coach Ralph Friedgen

When Ralph Friedgen was hired as the head coach of Maryland, it was the beginning of a story Cinderella would envy – a man attempting to bring life back to his alma mater, a team that had struggled to contend for over a decade.

The Terps managed just two winning seasons from 1987 until 2000 when Friedgen took over. The team reached the postseason just once – a game that resulted in a tie in the Independence Bowl against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.

With the team needing direction, Maryland made Friedgen the team’s head coach, despite being denied interviews for the position on two previous occasions, and concerns that a man of his shape could physically endure the hardships that go hand in hand with running a college football team.

But the coach so fittingly nicknamed Fridge proved his doubters wrong. An Orange Bowl appearance and Coach of the Year honors in his first season, a 17-year bowl win drought snapped and consistent placement in the Top 25 in the first three seasons, and life was good in College Park.

From the 2004 season until last year, Friedgen’s team stumbled into mediocrity. A 35-38 record was punctuated by a 2009 campaign that torpedoed out of control. The Terps won just two games and the winds of change were suddenly swirling around the team’s head coach.

How did he respond? With a patchwork offensive line, redshirt freshman quarterback and a player nearly left into God’s hands after a motor scooter accident, Friedgen’s team suddenly materialized into the conversation for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best. The 8-4 record earned Friedgen a second Coach of the Year award after his team posted the second-best turnaround in history.

A trip to the Military Bowl was the fate the Terrapins were handed though, largely due to the game’s location and fan base’s reputation for not travelling well.

Nine days prior to the team’s final tilt, first-year Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson announced the university would buy out the final year of Friedgen’s contract for $2M, attributing the decision to offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting James Franklin’s departure for Vanderbilt. Anderson called it simply a business decision.

Friedgen was not putting fans in the stands, and Byrd Stadium has brand new luxury boxes that were left vacant during this season. Maryland averaged the lowest percentage of attendance based on their stadium's size in 2010, and experienced their smallest crowd in the decade when the team battled Florida International.

It was clear that Anderson intended on a sexier head coach when he joined the university. He told Franklin he would be just a candidate in a national search when Friedgen’s contract expired, and refused to consider signing Friedgen to an extension.

Many throw the name Mike Leach around – the former Texas Tech coach who brought the Red Raiders to annual contention in the Big 12, a conference distinctly better than the ACC.

What separates a coach like Leach and Tyrone Willingham from Friedgen is their character. No one cares as much about their players as The Fridge – no one.

In my first year covering the Terps, I had never seen a coach talk about his team so passionately, his players like sons – so proud of their hard work and so confident in their character.

When senior linebacker Alex Wujciak’s graduation was mentioned, when LaQuan Williams’ made a special teams tackle or when Pete DeSouza returned to the Gossett Team Football House following multiple leg surgeries, Friedgen did not curb his emotions. The 63-year old former offensive lineman cried, often, because the success of his sons on the field was matched only by their success off of it.

After the season, many asked if Friegden could have foreseen an eight-win season so quickly. Without hesitation, he responded yes. He said his players’ willingness to learn, fight and are motivated is the reason he continues to coach.

Players like Wujciak who refuse to get off the field; like Williams, a fifth-year senior who will finally graduate in the spring; like DeSouza who thinks he will be on track to participate in spring practice – that is why he continues to coach.

When The Fridge returns to the sidelines one last time next Wednesday at RFK Stadium, it is no question in my mind his players will come out more impassioned than ever. It is not a blackout game versus Florida State or an ACC Championship Game matchup with Virginia Tech.

It is the final chapter in a ten-year story of a man who, on multiple occasions, got the cold shoulder from the university, who overcame his fair share of adversity to become one of the winningest coaches in school history. His four bowl game victories are second to none.

I hope that when Friedgen takes the podium for his post-game press conference he cries, just as he has done so often this season. His character and passion for Maryland is unmatched; there are few college football coaches like Fridge.


Twitter: @samspiegs

TerrapinTimes Top Stories