- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Ralph Friedgen's life wasn't terrible. In fact, it was pretty good. He had a great family a wife who supported him every step of the way (and there were lots of steps) and three daughters. He was making decent money.
He liked where he was living and working. So why not? Why not build a home on a lake, a really nice home, for when he finally retired after a long and successful career as an assistant football coach?
There are worse things than never getting to be a head coach, like his dad was, and he knew it. So what if it didn't happen, even though he was as qualified as anyone? That's the way it goes. He can't say he didn't try.
When he was young, his wife-to-be, Gloria, typed out more than 100 job-seeking letters, each of which produced the same response: "No." Later, when he applied for dozens of head coaching jobs, he got the same answer.
At Georgia Tech in 1999, Friedgen won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football. He turned quarterback Joe Hamilton into a Heisman Trophy contender and he had the No. 1 offense in the country. And still the answers came back, "No."
And so, "I about gave up on it," he said, meaning the dream of becoming a head coach. "I figured if it didn't happen then, it was never gonna happen."
Friedgen said he applied for "half the jobs" in the ACC, including Maryland a few years ago. Nothing. Why not? Friedgen has no idea. Maybe it was his appearance. He is a big man. Very big. Most of his hair is gone. Bald and big doesn't sell very well, not in a world where image is everything.
"I think people have an impression of what a CEO should look like," he said, and he wasn't it.
And yet, as he was working out the details for the home on the lake down in Georgia, his retirement home, he thought this, too: "Watch, now that I'm doing this, I bet something happens."
Something happened, all right. Even without Hamilton last year, Georgia Tech still had a prolific offense and Friedgen no longer could be ignored.
When Maryland opens its season on Saturday at Byrd Stadium against North Carolina, Ralph Friedgen, class of 1969, will be on the sidelines as the new coach of his alma mater, a head coach for the first time at the age of 54. He was an assistant for 33 years.
But you won't find Friedgen pondering the meaning and the importance of it all, the sheer rightness of how he not only got the job, but probably the best job he could have. Even though he shows up at his office at 5:30 a.m. and stays until past 11 p.m., there just isn't enough time. He barely has enough time to coach, not with everything else that comes with being "El Supremo," as he has kiddingly called himself.
"I think it's to the point now of what an awesome responsibility I have," he said after a practice last week. "And it's a little overwhelming because of everything we've got to get done. It's a lot bigger job than what I anticipated.
"I've been preparing for this for awhile, and I haven't been surprised by much other than the demands on my time. I'm still a coach and I still have to organize things, and yet everyone kind of wants a piece of me."
Even though he was advised to learn to just say no to the demands, Friedgen, who heard "no" way too often himself, continues to spread the word and preach the gospel about Maryland football.
"Our program needs as much exposure as it can possibly get," he said. "It's a very fine line of trying to do all these other things that help expose our program and bring notoriety to it, keep people excited, and actually get the job done."
Friedgen began meeting and greeting from the moment in late November he signed a six-year contract worth between $700,000 and $800,000 a year to replace Ron Vanderlinden, who had a 15-29 record in four seasons. Absent of any preconceptions, as straightforward as a quarterback sneak, Friedgen tells people he is embarrassed that Maryland hasn't won consistently since coach Bobby Ross left after the 1986 season. He insists he is going to rectify the situation.
"I didn't wait this long to be unsuccessful," he said.
Friedgen, who also holds a master's degree from Maryland, repeatedly summons the fact that the university has more than twice as many alumni in the area as Georgia Tech has living alums. He talks about "opportunity" and "potential" and about reviving the traditions, since evaporated, started by former coach Jerry Claiborne and Ross.
"My goal," he said, "is to unite not only our university, our faculty and our students, but also our alumni. Make them proud to be part of Maryland again."
It's been a tough sell. Friedgen likens Maryland football now to a struggling corporation with tremendous upside and a new CEO of proven ability and big plans. If this was a stock, he said, people would buy it. "But I can't get people to buy a four-pack of tickets that runs about nine dollars a ticket," he said. "It's cheaper than going to the movies."
Season-ticket sales are up a modest 250 from last year. Friedgen said the alumni are telling him, "Well, let's see what this guy's gonna do."
His response is, "The definition of faith is believe without proof." Believe in us, he says.
"What I'm asking you to do," Friedgen said, "is have faith in us, our coaches and our school, and be part of it."
After he was contacted about the job by athletic director Debbie Yow who rejected Friedgen in 1997 and hired Vanderlinden Friedgen insisted on and received a greater financial commitment to the program from Yow and C.D. Mote, the university's president. He got the means to hire seasoned, accomplished assistants like Charlie Taaffe and Gary Blackney, and he now has a glitzy new computer system. Friedgen wants more, of course, like an indoor practice facility and an academic center, and it wouldn't hurt if the school amended its academic policy to where "it looks at the total person and not just the grade point average," he said.
Friedgen believes all that will happen in due course, once he sets things straight. He has no doubt that will happen, even though there has been just one winning season since the 1990 team went to the Independence Bowl, the Terps' last bowl appearance.
"I'm bound and determined," he said, "to get this program to where it needs to be."
Friedgen started out at Maryland as a 190-pound quarterback and finished as a 250-pound guard. He played for three coaches and thought about transferring. He became known as a master of offense during a coaching career that began in 1969 as a graduate assistant at Maryland and continued there as a paid assistant.
After that, he got his first real coaching job when Ross hired him at The Citadel in 1973. From there it was on to William & Mary, Murray State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, the San Diego Chargers and Georgia Tech again. He worked with Ross for 20 of those seasons, a connection that included Maryland's last period of sustained success (39-16-1 from 1982 through 1986), a share of the national championship at Georgia Tech in 1990 and the Chargers' 1994 Super Bowl year.
Friedgen has been called an offensive genius a term he hates.
"I prepare very well," he said. "I prepare for every situation that comes up in a game. I work very hard. If that makes me a genius … I work hard to be prepared… . I prepare our staff. Everybody has responsibilities.
"They're written out, everyone is accountable. If they ain't gettin' it done, I'm on their butt. I hired good coaches. I expect to get it done."
Friedgen's offense is balanced, varied and complex, especially to opponents and those trying to learn it. Asked how much his study time has increased, senior quarterback Shaun Hill let out a deep breath. "Man," he said. "Probably about double."
"We ran a pro type offense at Georgia Tech," said Hamilton, a reserve quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who, guided by Friedgen, finished second to Ron Dayne in the '99 Heisman voting. "When I got to Tampa last year, some of the plays we ran and some of the protection was the same type of thing. He demands a lot. A quarterback has really got to be in tune with what he's trying to do."
Added Hill, "There's a lot on our shoulders and just a lot of things mentally you've got to go through before the play."
Even though Friedgen works crazy hours and pronounces himself on the "cutting edge" of computer technology, he seems to be more than just some mad scientist tinkering in the lab with sets and formations. He is tough, a stickler for details and discipline and going to class. Among several crackdown measures, he recently made a couple of favorite off-campus watering holes mostly off-limits to his players.
"He's a good motivator," said Hill. "He doesn't feed you a lot of crap. He'll say what's on his mind and get right down to the point."
Said center Melvin Fowler: "He's imposed a lot of discipline on us, which we were lacking slightly in the past."
Asked how he thinks his old coach will do, Hamilton said, "I'll say this: His teams will be well-disciplined and not make many mental mistakes that will get them beat. If they don't want to do things his way, they're gonna get out of there."
At Georgia Tech, Friedgen took a special interest in Hamilton, making sure he ate breakfast and attended class, working with him on his speech patterns and how to conduct himself. Every day, Friedgen gave Hamilton a new vocabulary word to learn.
"He was concerned about my well-being off the field and on the field," Hamilton said. "He was just concerned about me as a person."
In high school in Harrison, N.Y., Friedgen played for his dad, "Big Ralph" Friedgen, a legendary prep coach, former Fordham teammate of Vince Lombardi and Friedgen's most profound influence.
"I think I'm a very high-character person, and I was taught that at an early age," Friedgen said. "I was taught to be a competitor. I see so many kids today, when things get tough and they want to quit. I remember being just like that, wanting to quit Maryland and go to another school. My dad told me when I came home, the keys weren't gonna fit, that quitters don't live here."
Big Ralph died on Palm Sunday, 1986, two days after the Friedgens' middle daughter, Kristina, was born. But his players continue to keep in touch with his son. "There are still a lot of people older than me," Friedgen said, "who consider him [their] father."
Friedgen likewise has developed similar relationships. It's not uncommon for his former players to drop by at the summer home in South Carolina and hang out, talking football till well past midnight.
"He's really very good at what he does," said Friedgen's biggest fan, Gloria, a career teacher and former coach who works part-time at Maryland as an adjunct professor of education. "He's very intelligent about it. He approaches it like a science."
When they got married 28 years ago, right after The Citadel hired Friedgen, he warned Gloria about the life of an assistant coach.
"He said we were going to have to move at some point," she said. "One day, after we'd been there five or six years, I asked him when we would move. Then we moved three times in three years."
There were more moves after that. If all goes well, this is the last stop.
"I'm not here to go to another job," Friedgen said. "This is it for me. If I can put in a good 10 years at the University of Maryland and get us back to national prominence, I'll think I've done my share in life. And then it'll be time to go fishing."


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