- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2000

Ralph Friedgen came to the University of Maryland in 1965 as a quarterback.

He left as an offensive lineman.

He thought he should have won two letters in football.

He won only one.

"I played in five or six games for coach [Lou] Saban [in '66]," he said yesterday. "But then he left [to coach the Denver Broncos], and they never gave me a letter. I always felt I got shortchanged."

Friedgen's coaching career went pretty much the same way. He distinguished himself as an offensive coordinator at Maryland, Georgia Tech (twice) and with the San Diego Chargers most of the time under Bobby Ross but he couldn't land a head job. Lots of times, he couldn't even get interviewed. Oh, did it gnaw at him.

"[Virginia Tech's] Frankie Beamer and I were graduate assistants here," he said, "and he's been a head coach for 15 years now. [Georgia Tech's] George O'Leary another colleague has been one for seven. You wonder if you're ever going to get a chance."

Last winter, Friedgen was a finalist for the opening at North Carolina State. He didn't get hired. "So I built a house," he said with a laugh. "I told my wife [Gloria], 'You know, if we build this house, I'll probably get a [head] job.' "

And here he is, back in College Park as the latest savior of the Maryland football program. Maybe he should have built that house sooner, huh? After all, he has felt ready to be a head coach for some time now at least since '92, when he was considered for the Georgia Tech post after Ross left. Four years ago, he badly wanted the then-vacant Maryland job, but his alma mater, alas, never expressed interest in him.

"I'm not a self-promoter," he said. "I'm not on the phone looking for the next job. I'm sure that's hurt me. . . . At Georgia Tech [the second time around] the media was very kind to me. All of a sudden my name started getting out."

How could it not? With Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Hamilton directing the offense, Tech averaged more than 40 points and 500 yards a game last year and Friedgen was voted the top assistant coach in the country. Still, he ain't exactly well-known. Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said that during the search for a new coach, some Maryland football players recommended that she "interview that coach at Georgia Tech. You know, the one who coaches the offense."

That's one of the best things Friedgen has going for him: He's an offensive coach, and his offenses play an exciting brand of football. Ron Vanderlinden, his predecessor, was a defensive coach, and his offenses played a boring brand of football. When you have the Baltimore Ravens to the north and the Washington Redskins to the south, you can't be selling three yards and a cloud of dust.

If Yow didn't know that in '96, when she opted for Vandy, she does now. "I think our fans do enjoy an offensive game," she said. Indeed, it's probably the quickest way to put the fannies back in the seats. Attendance at Byrd Stadium has really dropped off in recent years, and the reason has been obvious: The Terps have forgotten how to throw a forward pass.

Friedgen will remind them. His offense has a little bit of everything one back, two backs, four wide receivers, two tight ends, you name it. But above all, it's balanced. Four times in the '90s Georgia Tech averaged at least 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing a game. Friedgen just has to find himself a quarterback, that's all. Vanderlinden never came up with one though freshman Chris Kelley, who was highly recruited coming out of Seneca Valley, might have some potential.

Friedgen and Vandy, in fact, couldn't be any more different. Vandy was 41 when he came to College Park; Friedgen is 53. Vandy looked fit enough to play; Friedgen looks like he borrowed Richie Petitbon's gut. Vandy was a Big Ten guy; Friedgen is an ACC guy. Vandy was strictly a college coach; Friedgen did five years of postgraduate work in the NFL (and went to the Super Bowl). Last but not least, Vandy came from outside the Maryland community; Friedgen is an alum and he's counting on other Terps grads to help him turn the program around.

"You ask Bobby Ross which place has more potential, Maryland or Georgia Tech, and he'd tell you Maryland," said Friedgen. "But Georgia Tech has tremendous financial support, the very best, up-to-date facilities. Why can't Maryland have that? There are only 68,000 living Georgia Tech alumni. There are probably 68,000 Maryland alumni living within 10 miles of this school."

Friedgen doesn't want much for Maryland. He just wants the Terps to be "a top-20 team year in and year out, and we'll see where it goes from there." Of course, you have to remember, he waited 32 years for this moment, 32 years as a mostly anonymous assistant coach. And he's dying to prove to certain people (read: college athletic directors) that he should have gotten a shot a long time ago.

"How many head coaches have accomplished as an assistant what I have?" he asked. "If I've accomplished more as an assistant, it's only logical that I should be able to accomplish more as a head coach. I'm looking forward to that."

Aren't we all.

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