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Friedgen Deserves Much Of 2001 Blame

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

 

April 26, 2004 COLLEGE PARK — Football coaches, much like lawyers and politicians, are famous for distorting the truth whenever it suits their purposes. Maryland's Ralph Friedgen is known as a stand-up guy and straight shooter, and deservedly so for the most part, but even he isn't immune to some misleading commentary. Friedgen often has talked about Maryland's lack of experience and the fact that so many youngsters dot the depth chart. The fourth-year coach correctly points out that a dearth of upperclassmen is hurting the program. Indeed, eight members of the Terps' 2001 recruiting class are no longer on the team. Those players would be either true seniors or redshirt juniors in 2004. However, Friedgen is off-base when he tries to pin the blame for the current situation almost entirely on predecessor Ron Vanderlinden. "We had 13-14 players committed when I came in here. Many of those recruits that I inherited aren't around anymore. That class, from an attrition standpoint, is big," Friedgen said recently. "We've got a hole in our program, and it's having to be filled by sophomores and freshmen. I think we're one more good recruiting class away from being where we want to be." Maryland football beat writers, none of whom were covering the Terps in 2001, would have no reason to doubt Friedgen's word on this. Most sportswriters at daily newspapers, including those who contribute to the national preview magazines each summer, don't follow recruiting very closely. They have no reason to doubt Friedgen's comments on the topic and thus are inclined to use his quotes without even considering their accuracy. Some pro-Maryland media outlets do know the truth but nevertheless published Friedgen's recent comments about the 2001 class without challenge. So it's up to the ACC Sports Journal to set the record straight by reminding fans exactly how that recruiting class came together and pointing out what happened to the departed players. Maryland awarded 18 scholarships in 2001. It was a relatively small class that definitely was affected by the coaching transition. According to scholarship numbers at the time, the Terps could have signed an additional three players that year, without having the program go beyond the NCAA-mandated limit of 85. It was not a highly ranked class nationally, but it was notable in that Maryland landed 12 in-state prospects. That continued a trend in favor of Vanderlinden's oft-stated quest to "dominate the home turf." At the time Friedgen was hired in December 2000, Maryland had secured commitments from 12 high school seniors. All of those players honored their pledges, thanks largely to the work of two staff holdovers — then recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley and current recruiting coordinator James Franklin. To his credit, Friedgen played a role in retaining the 12 early commitments, visiting the homes and schools of local players such as tailback Mario Merrills and defensive back Marcus Wimbush while making personal phone calls to out-of-state recruits such as tight end Derek Miller and offensive lineman Russell Bonham. Staff's Risks Found Little Success Of the 12 players who originally committed to Vanderlinden, three are no longer in the program. Center Jason Holman failed out of school, and offensive linemen Raheem Lewis and Akil Patterson left the team. Lewis (in 2002) and Patterson (in 2003) both departed after receiving indefinite suspensions from Friedgen for undisclosed violations of team rules. Lewis, a roly-poly 335-pounder who just could not get himself into proper shape, later was murdered in an apparently random drive-by shooting. To be fair, it should be pointed out that two players who committed to Vanderlinden never arrived in August. Wimbush and committed in-state receiver Mike Evans both failed to qualify and thus were not really part of the class. Wimbush, who signed a national letter of intent and was announced on signing day, sat out while working to improve his SAT score and re-signed with Maryland in 2002. Evans was removed from the class prior to signing day, as the staff knew he would have to attend prep school. He never made it to Maryland. One important fact Friedgen never mentions in his discussion of this topic is that the bulk of attrition from the Class of 2001 involves players the coach himself recruited. He gave the go-ahead to sign junior college cornerback Jamal Chance, prep school running back Jason Crawford and four high school seniors: offensive lineman Tim Donovan, defensive end Will Ferguson, defensive tackle Randy Starks and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Foxworth is the only one of those players still in the program, and he would be a redshirt junior in 2004 had Friedgen not chosen to burn his redshirt season with just two games remaining in the 2001 campaign. Foxworth and Starks were two of the highest-rated prospects the Terrapins signed that year, and Friedgen deserves credit for helping land both. In fact, it was Friedgen who got Foxworth to renege on a commitment to Purdue and pick Maryland instead. The Fridge and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney impressed Foxworth and his family during an in-home visit and thus turned the tide in the player's recruitment. Friedgen wasn't quite as involved with Starks, who was recruited hard by Locksley from start to finish. However, the newly named head coach did his part to help sway Starks to choose Maryland over Penn State. Starks, of course, blossomed into an All-ACC tackle and chose to declare early for this year's NFL draft. That decision was made against the advice of Friedgen, who contacted NFL general managers and was told that his player was not a certain first-round pick. Starks' decision ultimately didn't turn out as he hoped, as he was not selected until the third round by Tennessee. Unfortunately, not staying in school for his senior season may have cost Starks millions of dollars. Chance, who played at Lackawanna (Pa.) Community College, initially was recruited by Vanderlinden's staff. When Friedgen gave his approval to continue pursuing the juco cornerback, Chance became the first player to commit to the Terps after Vanderlinden's dismissal. Chance was a solid player who contributed as a backup corner behind Curome Cox for two seasons. He is slated to graduate in May. Meanwhile, Crawford, Donovan and Ferguson were all recruiting mistakes that must be laid directly at Friedgen's feet. Vanderlinden and Locksley never liked Donovan and did not recruit him, but Friedgen personally offered the DeMatha offensive tackle after carefully reviewing film of him. The coach took Donovan largely on the recommendation of DeMatha line coach Buck Offutt, a long-time friend. Donovan, the second player to commit to Friedgen, simply was not a Division I-A caliber lineman in terms of athleticism. He later left the program to help care for his ailing father, and the staff made no real effort to get him to return. Ferguson was an absolute reach from the start, a very late no-name addition to the class who never really had a chance to have his career play out in College Park. Friedgen foolishly offered Ferguson a scholarship shortly before signing day. The in-state product was being recruited exclusively by Division I-AA programs such as Towson and Fordham before drawing the interest of Maryland. In fact, the story of how Ferguson wound up getting a scholarship is funny in retrospect. His mother put together an amateurish highlight tape and sent it out to a few programs in hopes of getting her son a Division I-A scholarship offer. Friedgen called Ferguson a late bloomer and a sleeper on signing day, even admitting that the Terps were taking a big chance on him. "We got a tape on Will and were very impressed with the way he ran and hit," said Friedgen, who ignored Locksley's advice to take Ferguson as a preferred walk-on. Then there's the bizarre case of Crawford, the wayward youngster out of in-state Parkdale High whose story has been well-chronicled in these pages. Maryland knew Crawford was a risk, both academically and attitude-wise. The talented running back initially committed to Maryland in 2000, then stunned Vanderlinden by signing with North Carolina instead. It ultimately didn't matter, since Crawford failed to qualify academically and subsequently attended Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Fork Union was adamant about having Crawford honor his pledge to UNC, but the player privately contacted Locksley to express his desire to play for Maryland. Locksley somewhat reluctantly began re-recruiting Crawford and made him jump through several hoops in order to prove he could be trusted and that he truly loved the Terps. It is highly questionable whether Vanderlinden would have wanted anything to do with Crawford, after being deceived by him once before. However, the arrival of Friedgen gave both sides a clean start, and things progressed quickly. When Friedgen was hired, Locksley showed the new head coach a tape of Crawford and explained the background of the player's situation. Locksley told his new boss in very clear terms that pursuing Crawford again was a risk. "My first reaction as I watched the tape of Jason was to turn to Coach Locksley and say, 'So you're telling me we have a chance to get this kid?" Friedgen said on signing day. "What are we waiting for?" Friedgen was an assistant at Maryland when Crawford's father, J.D. Gross, was a player for the Terps. That relationship helped push things along. Of course, Crawford's lack of character shone through time and time again during his turbulent two-year stay in College Park, and Friedgen finally got rid of the malcontent prior to the 2003 season. Like many of the others, the failed Crawford experiment certainly wasn't Vanderlinden's fault. Everyone agrees that Friedgen deserves an enormous amount of credit for most of the decisions he's made since taking over the Maryland program in December 2000. But the coach clearly (and understandably) made his share of mistakes, especially early, so he should be willing to take his share of the blame, preferably in the same head-on fashion he's tackled everything else in College Park over the last three years.