- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Before he was hired as Maryland’s football coach in December 2000, Ralph Friedgen knocked on many doors. That didn’t work. It got to where the frustrated Friedgen felt like knocking down the doors the way he used to knock down opposing tacklers as an offensive lineman for the Terrapins in the 1960s.

Friedgen repeatedly was denied head coaching opportunities despite impeccable credentials as a college and NFL assistant and fervent recommendations from top football people. Even his good old alma mater refused to interview him the first time around.

No one ever told Friedgen directly, but the buzz rang loud and clear: He was too big, too heavy. The image was all wrong. He just didn’t look right.

As an unidentified NFL general manager told ESPN.com last year, “Image is part of it, but there are some guys who believe it’s a reflection of self-discipline. How can you demand self-control from players when you don’t have it yourself? It could be symptomatic of some other issues.”

Friedgen’s main issue these days seems to be that he wins too much to suit other coaches. Image? He is everywhere. His mug is plastered on a 20-foot billboard attached to a truck. He exhorts a supposedly fictitious team but clearly his own red-clad Terps in a nationally aired commercial for the Under Armour apparel company.

In addition to his TV show, which is standard stuff for coaches, he can be seen on a Web site, Jess Atkinson’s FridgeTV, which is not. He is constantly out there, selling the Terps, raising interest and money.

Season ticket sales have climbed from less than 18,000 in 2000, the last year B.F. (before Friedgen), to more than 31,000. Membership in the Maryland Gridiron Network, which allows people with lots of disposable income to donate directly to Terps football, has increased from a few hundred to more than 1,000. But perhaps the greatest testament to Friedgen’s appeal is that he manages to get hundreds of students out of bed to attend a 7:30 a.m. breakfast on Friday before every home game.

“He is a phenomenal fund-raiser and ambassador,” said Friedgen’s agent, Jack Reale.

Said Joe Hull, a senior associate athletic director at Maryland who oversees fund raising: “It helps to believe your coach is so good at what he does, you’re confident he’ll always do the right thing. And that helps when you’re trying to raise money.”

Image? The Fridge has become not just the face of Maryland football but the whole, 300-plus pound package. Now in his fourth season, Friedgen has totally reconstructed and revived the program, much like Gary Williams did with basketball. And Fridge Fever keeps spreading.

“If I’m driving to work at 5:30 in the morning, somebody will beep the horn and say hello to me,” Friedgen said behind his office desk yesterday, his fingers working a packet of no-cal sweetener. “I’m under such a microscope now.”

Not that this is bad. In fact, it is good. Very, very good. Friedgen’s late father, Ralph Sr., a coach himself, always used to tell him it was time to start worrying when nobody knows you. Besides, when Friedgen took the job at a decidedly middle-aged 53, he knew what he had to do.

“I had to go out and try to market us and get people to know who we are,” he said. “Not only our alumni but our recruits. It started by just going out and meeting people, by having my breakfasts. If you want people to be part of your program, then you’ve got to go out and meet the people. You can’t wait for people to come to you.”

Friedgen still works the room, but now they come to him, as well. It took some time at first, even after Friedgen boldly stated at the start to get in on this thing now because there might not be any room later. Prove it, people said. Fine. In Friedgen’s first year, the Terps won the ACC for the first time since 1985, played in the Orange Bowl and went 10-2.

Toward the end of that season, state senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller invited Friedgen to a political fund-raiser.

“I thought I was a guest,” Friedgen said. “I expected to stay a couple of minutes and leave, pay my respects. I get there, and there’s a reception line. I stayed there four hours, signing autographs, shaking hands, kissing babies. I’m looking at [Miller], and he says, ‘You’re the bait. Normally I get the Redskins, but you’re hotter.’ ”

There’s more. Friedgen somehow forgot to eat, so afterward he suggested the police officer driving him home stop at a popular sports bar for a burger and a beer. It was a Monday night, and everyone was watching the NFL game. When Friedgen showed up, “They just went nuts,” he said. “They put me in a back room with a police guard to not let anybody bother me. And I’m going, ‘What the [heck] is this all about?’ I had no clue whatsoever.

“You have to understand. I’m here this morning at quarter to six. I go home at 11 o’clock at night. When the season’s over, I start going into stores in Olney, and people are coming up to me. How’d this all happen? The way I’m received right now was never in my plans. I’m just astounded by it.”

Here’s how it happened: Friedgen instantly reversed years of football futility, winning 31 games in his first three years, going to big bowls, overseeing expansion in facilities and academic support and, now established as a hot commodity, saying no thanks to NFL teams suddenly interested. But there is more to it than this. Folks have fallen for the Fridge. There is a connection here. Fans relate.

“He is everyman,” Baltimore marketing guru Bob Leffler said, a sentiment shared by many.

The coach nobody wanted unintentionally has become a franchise unto himself, a marketing dream.

Pretty ironic, isn’t it?

“Very,” Friedgen said. “Very. I think what people see is that I’m kind of a regular guy who kind of speaks his mind. And I know sometimes I say the wrong things. But these are honest things that I feel. One guy told me my first year here that I did a good press conference.

” ‘How do you do a good press conference?’ ”

” ‘We almost believe you.’ ”

Being almost believable puts Friedgen in rare coaching air.

A note of caution: He is no one’s jolly fat man. Friedgen is, in fact, a dead-serious perfectionist with little patience and tolerance for mistakes and other nonsense. He embodies the word “gruff,” a slightly less edgy, less testy, less mean Bill Parcells. The Fridge is large, literally, and very much in charge.

For example, yesterday, noting that tailback Josh Allen did not practice the day before, Friedgen said during his weekly press conference, “I know what it is. I just don’t want to tell anyone.”

Friedgen also said third-year sophomore quarterback Joel Statham would be off limits to the media for a while so he could focus on his job. And when a reporter wondered whether Statham’s “mechanics” had anything to do with his three interceptions in last week’s overtime loss to West Virginia, the exasperated Friedgen detailed what happened on each play but not before saying, “Most people don’t know what the [heck] they’re talking about.”

Of course, most of those people, the ones who own season tickets and tailgate under those cute little tents and post their opinions on message boards and warn the world to Fear the Turtle, love this sort of thing. Mainly because they sense Friedgen is a good guy at heart, not quite one of them (a new contract extension through 2012 is worth upward of $1.5 million a year) but closer, say, than LSU’s Nick Saban, Southern California’s Pete Carroll and others who look like coaches are supposed to look.

Women, too, seem to be attracted to him. He kisses quite a few during the pregame “Terp walk” at Byrd Stadium.

“He’s a man’s man and a ladies man,” said Rich Daniel, who produces Friedgen’s TV show. “He’s everybody’s man. He’s a charming fellow. He’s very intelligent. He’s extremely kind. He has a heart bigger than his body.”

Said Jack Reale: “People can relate to him. There’s no pretense. He is absolutely genuine. You never have to wonder where you stand with him. His candor is refreshing, and I think people respond to that. He’s a throwback coach.”

Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow, who hired Friedgen, has heard enough about how he could not even get an interview in 1997 after Mark Duffner was fired. Yow instead hired Ron Vanderlinden, a handsome man who produced four straight losing seasons. Hearing the start of yet another question about why she would not consider Friedgen the first time, she begged off and said, laughing, “Statute of limitations.”

In other words, old news. Friedgen is today’s news. He wound up here, after all, not just a winner but a star.

Image?

“The rank and file of our boosters identify with him,” Yow said. “He’s viewed as kind of a blue-collar coach. … It’s a matter of trust.”

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