- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

Ralph Friedgen remembers looking across Byrd Stadium last November and seeing a team that didn't believe in itself. He saw a team that had accepted defeat even before the opening kickoff.

Maryland essentially conceded the season and its bowl hopes a week earlier when it lost to North Carolina after letting a fourth-quarter lead slip away. The Terrapins still could have had a winning season and earned bowl eligibility if they had beaten then 20th-ranked Georgia Tech in their season finale.

"I saw them when they broke the huddle that it wasn't real," said Friedgen, who was offensive coordinator of the Yellow Jackets, who led 28-0 at the half. "It was false. You can tell whether they are into it or not. I think I said to [Tech assistant] Bill O'Brien, 'They ain't ready to play. We can kick their butts.' "

A lot has happened since that day when Maryland concluded its 10th consecutive season without a bowl appearance. Coach Ron Vanderlinden was fired the next day, and Friedgen was tapped to return the Terps to glory.

Friedgen served more than 30 seasons as an assistant coach and wondered if he would ever get the chance to be a head coach before the Terps finally came calling. The Maryland alum saw a half-filled Byrd Stadium as Georgia Tech streamrolled the Terps last season. He saw little emotion or excitement but better memories of the Terps linger.

"The only thing I can think of is the last time I was here, and that was from 1982 to '86," said Friedgen, who was then an assistant to Bobby Ross. "I see it filled. We had temporary seats all around the concession level. We had the big bleachers in the end zone. We walked out and the place was rocking. That's what I see. I don't see empty seats."

The Terps were at the top of the ACC then, winning the conference title in 1983, '84 and '85, when they went 9-3 and won the Cherry Bowl. That was the last time Maryland won a bowl game. The Terps tied Louisiana Tech in the 1990 Independence Bowl. The '85 team also was the last Maryland team that closed the season ranked nationally when it was 18th in the Associated Press poll.

"What I've come into is to see where we've fallen in the last 14 years," Friedgen said. "I was there with Jerry Claiborne. I was there with Bobby Ross. They were good football coaches. I think I'm a good football coach. I think I know what it takes to win."

Friedgen has installed a high-tech offense and implemented a more demanding practice schedule. However, his most challenging project since arriving has been building up the team's shaky confidence. The coach admits he is unsure how his team will react under fire when it plays host to North Carolina today in the season opener at noon.

He is sure of one thing: The players on the sideline today are committed. When quarterback Calvin McCall, the on-again, off-again starter the past two seasons, said he would rather be a bit player on the Terps' basketball team than play football, Friedgen let him go. Fifteen players have left the program for a variety of reasons since the new coach took over.

"That's just how he is," said linebacker Aaron Thompson, who openly questioned the team's commitment last season. "His attitude is if you don't want to be here, I'm not going to make you be here."

The coach will be tested by a team that lacks depth, but has enough skill and talent to be in the middle of the ACC pack.

Quarterback Shaun Hill is a strong team leader, but he has few proven skill players and a young offense around him. Sophomore Bruce Perry is slated to take over at tailback for LaMont Jordan, although the position is more likely to be by committee with Perry, senior Marc Riley and true freshman Jason Crawford.

The offensive line will be severely tested today by second-team All-American defensive end Julius Peppers, who led the nation with 15 sacks last season. He will likely line up against Maryland redshirt freshman tackle C.J. Brooks.

Because there are concerns about a young offense, Friedgen expects his team to rely on its defense early on. He is encouraged by the defense's development over the spring and summer. Linebacker E.J. Henderson is becoming one of the best players in the league. Relatively unproven senior Charles Hill will be asked to anchor a young defensive line.

"I think the defense is more mature," Friedgen said of the group that starts five seniors. "I think they are more confident than the offense. A lot of our offensive guys, a lot of guys haven't played… . There is apprehension there. There is [a question of] 'Can I do it?' "

And the 54-year-old rookie coach is curious to see how he handles the top job. His only other head coaching experience was when he filled in for an ill Ross during a San Diego Chargers exhibition game. Friedgen led the Chargers to a win, but he doesn't know how well that prepared him for his current task. He is more nervous heading into this season than any in quite a while because this is his show.

"I have a lot of different types of emotions," said Friedgen, who has a house full of relatives in town for his debut. "I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm hoping I covered everything as a head coach. I'm hoping and praying our kids will play hard and play well. It's scary… . I'm proud of how they worked, and I'm looking forward to them playing with all they got on Saturday. If they do that, we'll be in the football game. And we'll win."

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