- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

At this year's White House Correspondents Dinner, President Bush asked Ralph Friedgen about his diet. Not only was the "Fridge" recognized by the leader of the free world, but he received VIP treatment, complete with a brief chat. Bush said Maryland's national champion basketball team soon would visit the White House. Friedgen responded that he hoped to bring his team there for the same reason before Bush leaves office.

In the past, a grandiose statement like that about Maryland football surely would be followed by a sidesplitting laugh. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so farfetched.

After all, who would have imagined a coach once labeled a career assistant would win 10 games and the ACC title and end a decade-long bowl drought with a trip to the Orange Bowl in his first season?

"The thing that we have now that we didn't have last year is an expectation or our players do," said Friedgen, 55. "They have been to a BCS bowl, they liked it and they want to go back.

"At this time last year, they didn't know what they could do. They just wanted to win six games. So there's a little more confidence now."

In his second season, Friedgen has gone out of his way to ground the Terrapins rather than stroke their once-fragile egos. He discounted Maryland's preseason rankings the program's first since 1985, when Friedgen was the offensive coordinator and Bobby Ross his boss preferring to point out that their status as the No.21 team in the nation would be short-lived if the Terps lose the season opener to Notre Dame in Saturday night's Kickoff Classic.

Friedgen wants to limit talk of another big season before it starts. The Maryland alumnus insists the program is still in its infancy. There are only five seniors who are starters, and the Terps will have a new quarterback and tailback because 2001 ACC Offensive Player of the Year Bruce Perry is out for likely half the season with a torn groin.

Still, with All-American linebacker E.J. Henderson roaming the field and the national coach of the year on the sideline, Maryland football is buzzing with an optimism unexperienced in College Park for 15 years.

"The sky's the limit," said junior guard Lamar Bryant, one of four starting offensive linemen returning. "We go into every game expecting to win. We're going in trying to repeat as ACC champions."

The shrinking 'Fridge'

With Gossett Team House in the midst of a $3million expansion, season ticket sales up to more than 20,000 this year and fund-raising on the rise, one of the few things getting slimmer around the program is Friedgen's waist. Since April, he has dropped 43 pounds from what had been a 355-pound frame. Friedgen no longer stocks high-carbohydrates foods, going instead with salads, fish and chicken.

"I might set a record that I haven't had a beer this summer or potatoes or ice cream," he said recently. "I really don't miss anything."

Why the diet? Two Maryland boosters concerned about Friedgen's health pledged $500 each to the football team house for every pound he loses. The coach accepted the challenge, cut out junk food and set a goal of dropping 100 pounds by April.

Friedgen's wife, Gloria, prepares food to keep him on the regimen. A lunch usually consists of a good-sized salad; dinner is a small entree and vegetables.

"He was never a dessert person," said Gloria, who cooks on a George Foreman grill in the football offices. "He used to come home late and ate whatever we had in the refrigerator. When I married him, he was like 220. Not that I would expect him to get back to that, but under 300 would be nice."

The slimmer Friedgen is more mobile, though bulging discs in his back still slow him. And even though beer is out, he still enjoys his scotch at times.

"Maybe my stomach has shrunk," said Friedgen, who drinks lots of water. "I have one of these scales that has the decimal points on it. Some weeks, it doesn't move or it's a drop up or a drop back. Those days I go into the scale in the morning, and my wife hears a big cuss word coming out of the bathroom."

Closing the deal

Friedgen, who was an assistant for 32 years, agreed to a reported 10-year, $12million contract in December, a contract designed to keep the coach in College Park until 2012. As Friedgen was collecting coach of the year awards, Maryland wanted to keep suitors particularly his former school, Georgia Tech at bay. But nine months after the deal was announced, the contract still has not been signed.

"It has to do with attorneys talking about taxes and tax technicalities," Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said. "There is no issue. I couldn't always say that."

A dispute over a buyout clause caused some of the delay, according to an athletic department source. Friedgen wanted no such clause in the contract, leaving him able to depart without penalty should the university not live up to its promises of upgraded facilities and other improvements, the source said.

Yow and Friedgen's attorney, Jack Reale, declined to discuss specifics of the deal, but both said they expect it to be finalized soon.

The contract calls for a sizeable but not outrageous buyout, believed to be more than $250,000. By comparison, former University of Miami basketball coach Leonard Hamilton paid $1million to that school when he took the Washington Wizards' job in 2000.

Friedgen's fund-raising and personal contributions to the program may have resolved the dispute. The coach will donate $100,000 from his endorsements including deals with Healthy Choice and the Big Screen Store for the team house renovation.

"We've improved the situation for the coach over a longer period of time," Reale said. "I'll say that much."

Maryland's Spurrier

"He's Maryland's answer to what Florida was able to achieve with Steve [Spurrier]. He can be our Steve," said Yow, a former women's basketball coach at Florida who worked in the school's athletic administration during part of Spurrier's 12 seasons there.

Of course, the flip side of being a top college coach can be regular flirtations with the NFL. Friedgen and Spurrier opposed each other in the Orange Bowl and might have met again last weekend when the Washington Redskins played a preseason game at Tampa Bay if not for a leak to the media. Friedgen interviewed with the NFL club less than two months after agreeing to his new contract at Maryland.

"I came home," Friedgen said. "I was sick. I was tired. I was disappointed in some of the fund-raising. My lawyer called and said Tampa Bay called him and said they were interested in me as a head coach. I said, 'I'm not interested.' He said, 'I think you need to look at this. It's a lot of money.' He said, 'It's about 3-to-4 million a year for five years.' I said, 'See if they are offering it to me. They may be offering that to somebody else but not me.' He did, and they were. Now I'm kind of in. You know what I'm saying?"

The coach called a visit by two of the owner's sons to his Montgomery County home a four-hour fact-finding mission rather than a negotiation. The meeting was picked up by the press that night, and word spread to his players, who confronted him before the team's first winter workout at 6a.m. the next day.

Safety Dennard Wilson spoke for the players, who kept their coats on over their sweats and were prepared to walk if Friedgen gave the wrong answer.

"[Wilson] felt like we were disrespected," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Dennard wasn't the only one the whole team felt that way."

Friedgen doesn't know what he would have done had the meeting been kept quiet and the Buccaneers made an offer. But he said as soon as his players confronted him with a bluntness reminiscent of his own he knew he would stay.

"You can't put a price tag on that," he said. "That means more to me than $10million."

Friedgen later got some advice from Spurrier, who was an expert at meeting with NFL teams on the sly before jumping from Florida to the Washington Redskins.

"I did it in my home." Friedgen said with a chuckle. "Spurrier told me, 'Never do it in your home. You go to a hotel.' I said, 'Next time it comes up, I'll call you, and you can clinic me on it.'"

Finally fulfilled

Gloria Friedgen remembers when her husband's dream died. It was January 2000, and Friedgen was still the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech after being bypassed in another round of coaching hires.

His family, including three daughters, had put off building a lake house in Georgia partly because of the possibility Friedgen would get a head coaching job. Friedgen had been a college and NFL assistant for more than three decades. He was part of Georgia Tech's national championship team in 1990, was the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers' Super Bowl team in '94 and was named national assistant coach of the year with the Yellow Jackets in '99. As the years rolled by, a top job became increasingly unlikely. Hiring a contractor became symbolic.

"I said, 'Ralph, we need to move on,'" said Gloria, who first met her husband when they were graduate students at Maryland in the early '70s. "That evening, I said, 'Aren't you happy? You're so recognized as an excellent offensive coach. You have the Heisman candidate [in Joe Hamilton].' He said, 'I'm just not fulfilled.' There was a sadness."

That November, however, Friedgen finally became a head coach and better yet, at his alma mater. He immediately injected energy into a listless program. Friedgen said "last year was probably the most remarkable year of my life."

The blueprints he drew up years earlier on how he would run his own show finally came out of the drawer.

"He was made for this calling the shots and running his program," Gloria said. "I saw it, but I'm sorry others didn't sooner. But I think timing is everything. I think we are in the right place at the right time."

Success, celebrity and endorsements don't seem to have changed Friedgen, long known for his bluntness and meticulous work. He spent some time at his lake house this summer and hung around with his neighbors and old buddies, including Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and former Georgia Tech coach and now Minnesota Vikings assistant George O'Leary.

Beamer, who is in his 22nd season as a coach, was a graduate assistant with Friedgen at Maryland in 1972 under Jerry Claiborne.

"I didn't notice a lot of difference," Beamer said. "He's always been a confident coach, so that really hasn't changed. He's always been a great coach. A lot more people know about it now."

The Terps also see a coach unaffected by his newfound status.

"He's really not doing anything different," senior punter Brooks Barnard said. "He's the same honest, demanding guy. The only thing different is he's 40 pounds lighter."

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