- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

Ralph Friedgen pulled up to a stoplight yesterday, and a woman in the next car looked at him curiously.

"This lady was next to me and beeping her horn," the Maryland football coach said. "She motioned to roll down the window. So I rolled down my window. She said, 'You're the coach. Aren't you?' [Friedgen nodded yes]. She said, 'I'm behind you. I'm following you. I'm behind you. Keep going.'

"I was thinking to myself, '32 years and nobody knew me. Now they are stopping me at red lights.' It's a little strange."

Friedgen is recognized by more than motorists these days. Yesterday he was named National Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. The first-year coach got 48 of 72 first-place votes among media members and became the first Terrapins leader to receive the award. Miami's Larry Coker finished second with 14 votes.

"[Being] Coach of the Year is nice," said Friedgen, who has won all major coaching awards this season. "I'm very happy that people are recognizing our staff and how we've done our job. But I'm just happy that we have a winning program and are doing well. Those are the things that are really important."

Friedgen's latest award is yet another accolade in a year in which he took over a program that had suffered five consecutive losing seasons and turned it into the ACC champion headed to the Orange Bowl. The sixth-ranked Terps (10-1) face No. 5 Florida on Jan. 2 in Miami Maryland's first appearance in a New Year's game in 25 years.

Friedgen, who was an unanimous choice as ACC Coach of the Year, agreed to a new 10-year contract believed to be worth $12 million Tuesday. The 54-year old "Fridge" resurrected the program at his alma mater while leading the Terps to their first ACC title since 1985.

The coach, who spent the previous 32 seasons as an assistant coach, is flattered if not overwhelmed by the latest trophy. And he now has something in common with some of his longtime colleagues.

"[Virginia Techs] Frankie Beamer is a close friend of mine," said Friedgen, who recalls making $150 a month as a graduate assistant at Maryland from 1969 to 1972. "We were GA's together, and he's been an established head coach for what, 13 years? [Notre Dame and ex-Georgia Tech coach] George [OLeary] and I are close friends. He's been a successful coach for eight years. When we are sitting back on the porch by the lake [each has a summer home in Georgia], I've been an offensive coordinator for all that time and I feel like I'm a pretty good coach. I can at least say now I was Coach of the Year with those guys. I can kind of say I joined my peers."

The Orange Bowl appearance will be Maryland's first postseason appearance since 1985, when Friedgen was a Terps assistant under Bobby Ross. The charismatic coach had been linked to the opening at Georgia Tech early this week after O'Leary left. That helped prompt the new deal to be finalized.

"I think it probably would have happened regardless," Friedgen said. "This just kind of expedited things."

Friedgen's 32-year career as an assistant coach, which included five seasons with the NFL's San Diego Chargers, finally ended when he got his first coaching job after Maryland fired Ron Vanderlinden following last year's 5-6 season. Friedgen made an instant impact as the Terps upset North Carolina in their season opener and started the year with seven straight victories before losing to Florida State.

Maryland's No. 6 ranking is its highest since 1976, which is also the last time the Terps won 10 games in a season. Jerry Claiborne's team went 11-1, with its only loss to Houston 30-21 in the Cotton Bowl.

Notes Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe has been mentioned as a candidate for the Georgia Tech vacancy, but he said yesterday that he has had no direct contact and has no meetings lined up. Taaffe, a former Canadian Football League Coach of the Year with the Montreal Alouettes, said he would be interested in the position.

"It seemed like every coach in the East has been mentioned as a possible candidate," said Taaffe, who was coach at The Citadel from 1987 through 1996. "I would be interested in looking at it if the opportunity was there."

Taaffe spent six seasons coaching with current Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine, one at Georgia Tech (1974) and five (1976-80) at Virginia. …

Maryland has sold 20,000 tickets for the Florida game, easily surpassing the 15,000 mandated by the Orange Bowl. … The Terps' scheduled practice today was canceled because of final exams.

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