Maryland (9-3) vs. West Virginia (8-4)
Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., NBC
Friedgen's On-Field Success, Off-Field Commitment May Have Terps Perched On Edge Of Golden Era December 15, 2003 COLLEGE PARK If there's one undeniable fact about Maryland football under Ralph Friedgen, it's that the team always gets better as the season progresses. Maryland started 1-2 in 2002 and finished 11-3, with a convincing victory over Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. The Terrapins opened 0-2 this fall and wound up 9-3. In both seasons, under trying circumstances, the coaches maintained discipline, built confidence and made adjustments that enabled the team to win nine of its last 10 regular-season games.
A win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day would give Maryland a remarkable 31-8 record during Friedgen's three-year tenure. The Terps would have posted double-digit win totals in each of the last three seasons, a feat matched by only three (Miami, Oklahoma, Texas) prominent programs. Washington State also could join that exclusive club with a victory in its bowl this year.
Friedgen clearly understands what it takes to win in the ACC, and Maryland officials plan to give him everything they possibly can to help him continue on his successful path. They know the Terps are in good hands as long as Friedgen stays in College Park, which could be for another decade if he stays healthy. The 56-year-old coach recently reiterated that he has no interest in other jobs and would like to retire from his alma mater.
I plan to be at Maryland for a long time, Friedgen said on Dec. 12, in response to reports that he would be a candidate for the Atlanta Falcons' head coaching vacancy. The only factors that could change that is if the (school) doesn't give me some of the things I want or the players decide they don't like me any more.
Friedgen, who has ambitious plans for improving the facilities at Maryland, has been frustrated at times by the pace of the progress. Phase II of the Gossett Team House expansion project is underway, but more funds are needed to complete Phase III. Friedgen also wants a private plane for recruiting trips, a second upper deck on Byrd Stadium and other improvements he deems necessary for transforming Maryland into an elite program.
Some things on the coach's wish list may not be possible, with the state of Maryland facing a major budget deficit and many athletic donors reaching their limit. Friedgen often has been disappointed with the amount of money being raised by the Terrapin Club and the football-specific Maryland Gridiron Network.
When it comes to supporting the football program with cold, hard cash, Maryland ($7.8 million in gridiron expenditures in 2001-02) continues to run well behind the pace set by Miami ($12.2M), Boston College ($10.6M), Penn State ($9.9M), Virginia Tech ($9.9M), Clemson ($9.6M), North Carolina ($9.3M), Virginia ($9.2M) and other regional competitors. Among the seven public universities in this year's ACC, the Terps had the lowest-paid coaching staff. That is the harsh reality. Only Friedgen truly knows how long he's willing to live with it.
To his credit, Friedgen has done everything possible to raise the profile of Maryland football. He rarely turns down a public speaking appearance, even flying to Georgia on a weekday during the season to address the Atlanta Touchdown Club.
Always ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, Friedgen was among the first college coaches to figure out ways to use the internet to his advantage. Maryland recently launched FridgeTV.com, a website that allows fans to see all-access video that shows the players and coaches in all sorts of settings, including practice, meetings, locker room and study hall. Previously, Friedgen had installed for his coaches an expensive, advanced video system, which he credits for two or three victories per season.
Many pieces appear to be in place for Maryland to evolve into a consistent program that routinely posts eight- to 10-win regular seasons and attends major bowls. The Terps have enjoyed tremendous coaching stability under Friedgen, who recently dodged another bullet and thus probably will be able to retain outstanding coordinators Charlie Taaffe (offense) and Gary Blackney (defense). Taaffe was a finalist for the Army job in early December but missed out when coaching legend Bobby Ross entered the picture.
Charlie and Gary have been great resources for me, being as they both have been head coaches before, Friedgen said. I know I can't keep them around forever. They're just too good not to get head coaching jobs some day.
Maryland already has a ready-made replacement for Taaffe in running backs coach Bill O'Brien, a Friedgen protÈgÈ who served as the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. There also are indications that highly respected and well-liked defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo could be a quality replacement for Blackney one day.
There were understandable concerns among Maryland fans when outstanding recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley left for Florida after last season. However, Friedgen made the right move by elevating receivers coach James Franklin, who by all accounts has excelled in the crucial position. Franklin has proven a tireless and energetic recruiter with an organized approach and a sound plan. He also has shown some moxie by staying on top of other staff members and pushing them to stay on top of their assigned areas.
It remains to be seen whether Franklin can control the immediate vicinity of D.C. and Prince George's County as Locksley did, but the early signs are positive. Maryland once again has done quite well in-state and needs only to close on a few elite prospects for this recruiting campaign to be considered a success. Meanwhile, the Terps continue to expand their recruiting base, pulling players out of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia on a regular basis. Franklin has made the Terps a force in eastern Pennsylvania, and the program finally seems to have made some in-roads into the fertile Tidewater region of Virginia.
The sustained success on the field, the exposure of national TV and another quality bowl only can help with recruiting. On paper, though, 2004 could be a rebuilding year for the Terps, with 13 starters and another half-dozen key reserves departing. Maryland must break in a new quarterback and replace three-fourths of its star-studded secondary.
Next season also marks another major transition for the Friedgen era. For the first time since the coach's arrival, the overwhelming majority of players on the depth chart will be Friedgen's signees.
Don't laugh, but the Fridge still must prove he can win with his own guys. The majority of players responsible for the program's success from 2001-03 were brought in by the Ron Vanderlinden regime. Starting in 2004, Maryland will be counting almost entirely on Friedgen-era players, and it's time to find out if the recruiting classes that were rated pretty well on paper prove to be as strong on the field.