A typical Maryland football practice is clocking in almost a half-hour less than usual these days. There’s plenty of sessions in shorts rather than full pads, and the Terrapins even ventured into their cramped indoor facility last week.
All the while, coach Ralph Friedgen has remained almost relentlessly upbeat both on the field and behind the scenes, accentuating the improvement he witnessed and even joking about how to fix mistakes.
Here’s the kicker: The Terrapins are 2-8 with two games to go, including Saturday’s visit to Florida State. They’re mired in the worst season of Friedgen’s nine-year tenure, and could wind up with the first 10-loss season in school history.
Yet there’s little doubt that in the worst of times, a kinder, gentler Friedgen has emerged in what even he describes as a weird season. It’s a prospect veteran players couldn’t have fathomed unfolding even if someone traveled back to 2005 or 2006 to inform them it would happen.
“I would have said ‘You’re crazy, man. You need to fix your time machine,’” safety Jamari McCollough said. “I would not have believed that at all.”
The old-school coach whose formative football years were imbued with his father’s tough love —- one of Friedgen’s favorite tales is how after a loss, his dad (a high school coach) would come home and the lights would be out and everyone in bed shortly thereafter —- has arguably grown closer to this outfit than many of their bowl-bound predecessors.
In the midst of a trying season, the relationship between the coach and his players might be the most surprising development of the long autumn.
“I think what keeps me upbeat is their effort to do things right,” Friedgen said. “When I see someone not giving effort, then I am on their butts. We don’t do everything right. We don’t do everything right in a game. I think there’s such a thing as honest play mistakes. A guy will make a mental mistake or not do something right, and it’s not because of lack of effort or lack of intention.”
Friedgen’s public comments have rarely wavered. He steadily professed belief in the team’s talent level, even when it was clear the Terps were shorthanded on the offensive line and untested on the defensive line. He acknowledged inexperience, bemoaned some critical injuries and cursed some of the breaks that befell his team.
Criticism of players and assistant coaches dropped significantly this season, and time spent with players increased. Friedgen regularly has young linemen into his office to discuss how they can improve, 20-minute building blocks for the future.
Even at practice, players say there is a difference. Wide receiver Adrian Cannon invited Friedgen into the offensive huddle a couple times, a sign of appreciation for a coach who consistenly looked out for and defended his team this season.
“I think he’s been a more understanding coach this year than in past years, especially with what we’re going through,” safety Terrell Skinner said. “I think he almost has to be like that now because it’s been such a rough season. … It is strange. I’ve been here for five years now, and it’s the first time I’ve seen him like this. It’s kind of new to me.
Inside Maryland’s football complex, a similar sense permeates the building. No one is happy with how the losses piled up, but there isn’t an overbearing feeling of misery. It’s a team Friedgen still respects and enjoys, enough so that he still cracks jokes in team meetings.
“He just seems —- I don’t want to say happy, but he is happy,” quarterback Jamarr Robinson said. “Maybe not about our season, but he’s a more happier person. It’s different. Me and Chris [Turner] are sitting back here saying ‘Wow, we like him.’”
For his part, Friedgen insists work ethic remains a significant reason why he remains high on this outfit despite the record.
Nearly every week, he declares a Monday practice just 48 hours after the latest loss was productive, and how he appreciates an eager-to-please approach he hasn’t seen from more successful teams.
“I’m working and praying we can have some success and gain some confidence and grow from this experience,” Friedgen said. “It’s different for me. It’s not been easy on our fans, coaches or players, but to me, you have sit down and evaluate everything and say ‘Is everybody working to get better?’”
That, too, usually leads to a weekly list of plaudits. Friedgen sees guard Andrew Gonnella improving. And tackle R.J. Dill. And linebacker Ben Pooler. And countless more.
It’s a different approach for Friedgen, whose previous preference for 24-period, grind-it-out practices has given way to instructive 18-to-20-period sessions designed to maximize preparation without taking a physical toll on a beat-up bunch.
In turn, it’s provided a slight cushioning for the week-by-week blows the Terps have absorbed all season.
“As bad as this year is,” Friedgen said, “It would be a lot worse if I didn’t like them. Probably for them, too.”
—- Patrick Stevens