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Dropped for a loss

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

Jamari McCollough strode out of the training room in Maryland's football team house in a dead-of-winter day only to witness something entirely unexpected.

It was unmistakable. Ralph Friedgen, his old-school, sometimes larger-than-life coach, was standing on a scale without a shirt on.

Except there was a surprise.

"I'm like, 'Something's different about him,' " McCollough recalled. "He looked waaaay smaller. So I started talking to other people, and they said he's lost a lot of weight. He's looking smaller and smaller and smaller."

And smaller still. The Fridge - nix that, the Mini-Fridge - is down 80 pounds since October thanks to a diet almost custom-made for his schedule, the discipline to stick with it and the desire to take care of his health as he slips deeper into his 60s.

"Eighty pounds is a lot," offensive coordinator James Franklin marveled. "It's like a sixth-grader."

His wardrobe is changing by the week. His treadmill is receiving its most regular work in years. His wife, his players and his colleagues notice a more energetic man bouncing around College Park.

And while he's only a little more than halfway to his goal of dropping 150 pounds, Friedgen is progressing in battling perhaps his most defining - and troubling - trait.

"I pretty much did it because I have three daughters," said Friedgen, choking up during a recent afternoon in his office. "I want to be around to see their kids and their weddings. [And] my wife nagged the heck out of me."

Friedgen is the face of his program, and whatever ecstasy and misery the Terrapins endured in the past eight years almost always were credited to the man who was recognized as much for being large as he was for remaining in charge.

Only one of those was ever needed, as Friedgen discovered in recent months while slimming down to 320 pounds.

"I go into places and they'll say, 'That guy looks a little like Friedgen,' " he said. "I hear them saying that. They don't quite know because I've lost weight. One guy said to me the other day, 'You look a lot like that head football coach at Maryland.' I said, 'I get it all the time.' "

• • •

Friedgen didn't always face these problems. A glimpse of photos from his time as an assistant in the mid-1980s demonstrates it. He wasn't tiny - about 250 pounds a couple of decades ago - but his weight wasn't out of line for a former college offensive lineman in his early 40s.

But then he took a pro job in San Diego right when electronic breakthroughs started to seep into the NFL. Friedgen's reputation for exploiting computers to improve the performance of players and coaches is well-known, but the initial burst of technology sat him down more.

Gloria Friedgen noticed her normally active husband playing golf less and less, instead tethered to a computer. And even after he returned for a second stint at Georgia Tech, he remained glued to his office and gradually gained weight.

"Ralph was an offensive lineman gone bad," Gloria Friedgen said.

The stress of a head coaching position didn't help matters, and every welcome development was soon followed by something regressive. Induced by the promise of boosters to donate $500 for every pound lost, Friedgen slimmed down during his second season. Eventually, though, the pounds came back.

His family remained worried, enough to make a concerted effort to visit his office a few years ago. It was an emotional and direct meeting, and Friedgen's daughters voiced their concerns about what could happen if he didn't make changes. Friedgen purchased a machine to control his sleep apnea but little else.

All along, his problem was simple. He ate too much, and his 18-hour days packed with meetings and film review and practice left little time for healthy food preparation. He acknowledged the red flags - diabetes in his family, his father's fatal heart attack - but could do little about it.

Eventually the desire to change grew, and it soon intersected with an opportunity. Paul Intlekofer, the executive vice president for marketing of Maryland-based diet company Medifast, contacted Friedgen and agreed to meet after one of the coach's weekly radio shows last fall.

Intlekofer was a Maryland fan who attended a couple of games a year and joined the football booster club. So while there was a business interest, he also wanted to help his favorite program - assuming Friedgen was ready to commit to it.

"He said, 'I want to do this, and I want to lose 100 pounds,' " Intlekofer said. "My philosophy is I want to hear that from you. If you're not serious, it's not going to work for either one of us. You really have to focus. And he said, 'Let's start on it now.' "

Friedgen began Oct. 10, in the middle of a bye week. He gave up bagels, a personal favorite, as well as all other breads, pizza, ice cream and (other than an occasional drink) alcohol. Deleting the carbohydrates his body didn't quickly metabolize was crucial.

In their place were five minimeals, usually in the form of a low-calorie bar, oatmeal or soup that Friedgen could carry or quickly prepare - essential ease if he were on the road for a game or recruiting. There was also a "lean and green" meal - eight ounces of meat along with a cooked vegetable and a salad.

It was only about 1,000 calories a day. But because Friedgen was regularly nibbling on a bar, there was always fuel for his internal furnace, and his hunger subsided.

Within a week, he was down 16 pounds. By the time the Terps played in the Humanitarian Bowl - where Friedgen requested a room with a microwave so he could make his meals - his self-discipline helped melt almost 50 pounds away.

It wasn't instantly obvious, but some people around the program were more perceptive than others. One was former quarterback Jordan Steffy, who saw Friedgen drop a pen during a bowl practice.

"So I bent down and picked it up, and he said, 'That's getting a lot easier, isn't it?' " Friedgen said. "I had to laugh, but it is. I do feel a lot better that way. ... There's a lot of things that are a lot easier now. I don't have 80 pounds I'm carrying around. Walking up the stairs is easier now."

• • •

About a hundred groggy players assembled for a session during the final week of spring practice. No, their watches weren't lying. It was 5:45 a.m.

The hour meant little to the invigorated Friedgen. He was alert, firing off questions and fitting in a joke or two into the early-morning discussion.

Oh, and one other thing.

"He was dancing before practice," quarterback Chris Turner said. "I don't what he calls it. He does it ."

He was WHAT?

"He was dancing to a hip-hop song," Turner repeated, still a bit shocked at the sight.

Clearly, a looser Friedgen is better for everyone in the program, and his decision to hire Franklin more than a year ago and former Massachusetts coach Don Brown as his defensive coordinator in January reduced the need to obsess over the Terps' day-to-day details.

Instead, some of Friedgen's finest moments come around the house. He makes regular trips to his guest bedroom closet, where he has stashed old clothes that haven't fit since he first arrived at Maryland. Now some of those are too big.

Then there's a belt that a friend gave him as he started the diet. At the time, he couldn't get the two ends to meet. By late April, he was four notches into it.

"Hopefully it gets to the point I say, 'I need a new belt,' " Friedgen said. "Belts are a problem in my house because I have a lot of belts that can almost go two times around me now."

It's a nuisance Friedgen will happily address, especially since his health kick has made him more mobile and agile - the better for him to enjoy spending time on his boat - and keeps his spirits up even after a rough practice or a long day.

The grind of spring practice was nearly over late last month, and Intlekofer met with Friedgen and his wife at the team house. What he saw was far different than the man he met in a restaurant just seven months earlier.

"He was in khakis and boat shoes, and he just looked good," Intlekofer said. "We were walking, and I said, 'You don't have to run.' He was ahead of us and had a spring in the step and was flying down the hall."

Added Gloria Friedgen: "I'm thrilled he's finally doing this. He also speaks about losing more. It may be slow. Every time we tried to do weight loss, it's been somewhat successful in the offseason and then it goes into the season and the whole pattern of life changes. With this program he's selected, he's able to manage it."

He's also motivated, an issue Friedgen said derailed him in the past. He knows the weight will come off gradually going forward, but he's walking on his office treadmill three or four times a week. He has even suggested the diet to Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, who experienced similar results after starting it.

The work isn't finished, regardless of the compliments he receives from friends and fans impressed with his shrinking physique. Still, he's different - and happy with the change.

"The interesting thing is will I be able to stay with this for the rest of my life?" Friedgen said. "One thing I look at, and maybe it's an accomplishment, but I'm invested now from October to May? To lose 80 pounds - and let's say I lose 150 pounds - do I want to do this again? Know what I'm saying? To me, once I get down here, I don't want to get to that place again."