May 19, 2010
Profiling the nation's most embattled coaches.
Whatever else happens with Maryland this season or beyond, coach Ralph Friedgen's place in Terrapin history is reasonably secure: In 2001, he led the hapless Terps to an ACC title, breaking Florida State's nine-year hammerlock on the conference in his first season as a college head coach. When he followed that up with 10-win seasons and top-20 finishes in '02 and '03, it looked like the long-suffering UMD faithful had every reason to believe Friedge was fashioning their team into an annual contender.
Since that celebrated three-year run, however, Maryland has had only two winning seasons, and last year was an outright disaster: The Terps won only two games, one of them an overtime squeaker over I-AA James Madison, and endured double-digit losses for the first time in school history. The general consensus in College Park suggested Friedgen's job was saved only by the fact that the university couldn't afford his buyout. That's only one of the factors complicating his situation, but the end result remains clear: Having gone from hero to The Man Too Expensive To Fire in just six years, time is running short for Friedgen to prop uphis legacy.
Why he was hired. Friedgen had never been a head coach when he returned to College Park in 2001, but he had earned his billing as one of the top offensive minds in football. He spent five seasons coordinating Maryland's offense in the mid-'80s, a stretch that included three straight ACC titles; when he followed mentor Bobby Ross to Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets won an improbable national title in 1990. Friedgen also followed Ross to the NFL, directing the offense that powered the San Diego Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX.
From there, he returned to Georgia Tech and picked up right where he left off, coordinating an offense that became one of the most productive in the ACC and led the Jackets to four straight bowl games and three consecutive top-25 finishes before his sad-sack alma mater came calling.
The "Uh-oh" Moment. The '09 Terps opened the season with the fewest returning starters in the ACC, and the inexperience didn't take long to make itself apparent. The season-opening, blow out loss at California was embarrassing, but the Terps were playing on the opposite coast against a top-15 team with Rose Bowl aspirations. There were no such excuses the following week when they came home to host JMU. An easy get-well opportunity turned into a shootout instead, requiring a fourth-quarter Terp rally just to send the game into overtime, where they eventually won on a 26-yard field goal. The next week, Maryland went down to Middle Tennessee State for the second year in a row and would only win one more game the rest of the season, an inexplicable upset over eventual Atlantic Division champ Clemson.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. When your team's sitting at 2-5 and struggling to put fans in the stands, what do you do? Mess around with the uniforms, of course. Not that the motivation behind Maryland's camo-themed Under Armour unis last fall wasn't worthwhile: Along with South Carolina, the Terps were busting out the camo for their Nov.14 game to mark Veterans Day and promote the Wounded Warrior Project.
But if anyone was hoping the camo accents and words like "Courage" and "Commitment" would provide any extra motivation, well, that didn't quite work out: The Terps dug themselves into a 27-3 halftime hole against Virginia Tech, ultimately giving up 512 total yards on the way to a 36-9 pounding. By comparison, South Carolina's 24-14 loss to Florida looked downright respectable, though one assumes that neither result is exactly what the Wounded Warrior folks had in mind.
Can this marriage be saved? That's not a simple question to answer -- Friedgen's current contract is up in 2011, so in theory, Maryland could just wait him out. But Friedgen said last July that he might not be ready to retire at that point. And even if the university does somehow resolve things with Friedgen, they've got another relationship to work on -- the one with Friedgen's "coach-in-waiting," offensive coordinator James Franklin. Ben Broman of the UMD-obsessed blog Testudo Times does his best to sort it all out:
The Friedgen situation is an interesting case. It was a divisive issue among fans and probably among the administration. A large number of people were not sold on Frank taking over as head coach and thus didn't see the point in buying out Friedgen just to replace him with someone just as bad. The administration certainly didn't have the money to get rid of both. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Friedgen is being given an extra year or two to save his legacy, but it would seem to be a secondary issue compared to the finances.
The interesting thing about the situation is that Friedgen and particularly Franklin have started to build up some serious goodwill with the hardcore fans via recruiting. The early returns on the 2011 class are shocking considering they just went 2-10 and aren't regarded as a great recruiting staff; if one of the local studs, like Darius Jennings or Cyrus Kouandjio, come aboard, this has the potential to be their best class ever. That might actually save Friedgen's job, and will almost certainly save Franklin's.
Even with that, itís generally believed that there needs to be a bowl appearance next year. Athletic director Debbie Yow has said seven wins is "reasonable" when asked for an expectation; I'd be surprised if Maryland finished below .500 and Friedgen was still employed.
Approximate hotness of seat. Surface of the sun. Friedgen just went 2-10, he's got a replacement lined up, he's already had to escape a prime firing opportunity – if he doesn't get to a bowl this season, his goose is almost certainly cooked, particularly since the buyout of the final year of his contract would be mitigated somewhat by the million bucks Maryland then wouldn't owe James Franklin. If Friedgen does win seven or eight games, presumably the university would just let him ride off into the sunset in 2011, but either way it looks like the Friedgen era in College Park is entering its final months.