By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
November 11, 2002 COLLEGE PARK Let's face it, folks. Ralph Friedgen has been the best coach in the ACC over the last two years. More specifically, Friedgen, offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney combine to form the conference's best coaching triumvirate. The trio work together as a team. Friedgen is the leader who provides direction, but he gives Taaffe and Blackney plenty of responsibility and leeway. Basically, Blackney directs the defense with minimal input from Friedgen. And while Friedgen is the overall architect of the Terrapins' multiple offense, Taaffe sits up in the box on Saturdays and calls the plays. Long considered an innovative offensive mind in his own right, Taaffe has brought numerous successful elements to the basic package Friedgen has developed over the years.
There are only four programs in the country that can boast a head coach and two coordinators with more experience than Maryland. Among them, Friedgen (29), Blackney (32) and Taafe (24) have been in coaching for 85 years. Florida State is the lone ACC school that ranks higher, with head coach Bobby Bowden (42) and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews (35) providing the bulk of that group's 92 years.
Perhaps more notable is the fact that Maryland actually has three head coaches. Taaffe became the winningest coach in Citadel history during a 10-year tenure and more recently compiled a 25-14 record with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Blackney is the third-winningest coach in Bowling Green history, with a 60-50-2 mark in 10 seasons.
Yet the key factor is that Friedgen, Blackney and Taaffe respect and trust one another. Delegating authority to a pair of coordinators who understand how a program should run frees up Friedgen to concentrate on the myriad of other duties required of the head coach.
It has become apparent that one of the biggest factors in Maryland's strong two-year run is the systems installed by the staff and its ability to teach players how to perform their roles. This season's 8-2 start proved that different players can be plugged into positions from year to year, with minimal effect on the offensive and defensive schemes.
Maryland is in the process of duplicating its success of last season, with a much different cast of characters. The Terps could finish second in the ACC and earn a berth in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day, while relying heavily on players who saw little or no time a year ago. Another ACC title and BCS bowl isn't out of the question, either.
Further, the staff has proven it can win using players of various talent levels and abilities. Scott McBrien isn't as good a quarterback as Shaun Hill, yet he has the offense producing at a level on par with 2001. Chris Downs clearly isn't as dynamic a tailback as Bruce Perry, yet he's putting up comparable numbers in terms of rushing yards and touchdowns.
Similar stories abound throughout the lineup. When Mike Whaley failed out of school, Jamahl Cochran stepped up and performed nearly as well at rush end. When Cochran was injured, true freshman Shawne Merriman assumed the role with some distinction.
When reliable linebacker Aaron Thompson graduated, Leroy Ambush proved a capable replacement. When Ambush got suspended, freshman Ricardo Dickerson stepped in and did the job. Tony Jackson was All-ACC at free safety in 2001, and now Madieu Williams is having the type of season that makes him a candidate for the same honor.
Clearly, the coaching staff knows what it wants at each particular position and understands how to train players to meet that standard.
Friedgen himself has pointed out that sound coaching extends beyond the big three. Dave Sollazzo has earned plaudits from Blackney for his ability to build a solid defensive line out of obviously mediocre personnel. Durrand Roundtree, C.J. Feldheim and Scott Smith are among several players who have improved dramatically under Sollazzo's tutelage. Mike Locksley is best-known as Maryland's recruiting coordinator, but Friedgen feels the Ron Vanderlinden era carryover has done a remarkable job tutoring the team's tailbacks.
We've had a string of outstanding running backs here at Maryland, guys like La-Mont Jordan, Bruce Perry and now Chris Downs. I think Josh Allen has shown he can be the next one, Friedgen said. The one constant in that time has been Mike Locksley. You cannot overlook the job he's done.
Most impressive is the fact that Maryland's staff has proved it can develop players and tweak systems in-season. Friedgen would be the first to admit that the Terps looked abysmal early and simply were not good enough in numerous areas to compete with Notre Dame and Florida State. But games against patsies Wofford and Eastern Michigan gave the staff time to fix the team's problems, and Maryland looked like a completely different club when it resumed big league play against West Virginia.
Just like last season, Maryland is getting better and better as the season goes along. That's a sure sign of good coaching. So is Maryland's 4-0 record the past two seasons in games decided by seven points or less.
The Sports Journal has written many times about the abilities of Friedgen, Taaffe and Blackney to make in-game adjustments. The braintrust did it again versus N.C. State, a team on par with Maryland in terms of talent and experience.
That was evident during the first half, when the Wolfpack was dominating on both sides of the ball. But Blackney altered the defense enough to slow Philip Rivers and company, while Friedgen and Taaffe called a couple of great plays the direct handoff to Steve Suter that produced a 64-yard touchdown, and the bootleg keeper McBrien took 21 yards to paydirt that kept the Terps within striking distance.
Maryland is, in the words of N.C. State head coach Chuck Amato, one of the hottest teams in the country. One major reason why is that Friedgen has not allowed inexperience or injuries to slow the team's progress.
The Terps are relying on a slew of sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen, but the staff will not accept that as an excuse. As starter after starter went down with injury, Friedgen just shrugged his shoulders and said, That's football. Now someone else has to take the flag and carry it up the hill.
At Maryland, the flag is still going up the hill. That's a tribute to a bunch of hard-working players and a program built on rock-solid philosophies on offense, defense and in the kicking game. It's not difficult to see the top of the hill, where Friedgen and his talented assistants currently reside if not in the ACC standings, in too many other ways to count.