- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Reviving Maryland’s football program after nearly two decades of mediocrity wasn’t coach Ralph Friedgen’s toughest challenge. What will prove daunting is keeping the Terrapins in the nation’s top 20.

“Just like there’s problems you face on the way up, you face different types of problems just to stay there,” he said. “There are still problems.”

After winning an ACC championship in Friedgen’s first year and a prominent bowl game in the second, his third season offers the chance to prove the program’s short-term success isn’t a fluke. The No.15 Terps open the season Thursday at Northern Illinois seeking a second ACC title in three years and another 10-plus win season.

Despite the lofty ranking, the Terps are not yet among the nation’s elite.

Maryland, unlike fellow ACC members Virginia and N.C. State, has never beaten conference rival Florida State, and its nonconference schedule lacks the powerhouse opponents that ensure national respect. Of course, the Terps won’t have to add tough nonconference games because next year, with the ACC’s expansion, they could very well have Miami or Virginia Tech, or both, on their schedule.

So with those things in mind, Friedgen refused to slow down in the offseason despite having hip replacement surgery. He tried to rest and rehabilitate the hip at his Georgia vacation home, which is just a 9-iron away from a golf course that he never got a chance to play this summer, but his cell phone rang constantly as players checked up on him. Even Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, a close friend, called while Friedgen was still groggy following surgery. Beamer wanted to know Friedgen’s thoughts on ACC expansion.

Everyone seems to think Friedgen has all the answers. A 21-5 record in your first two seasons at Maryland — a school that had just two winning seasons in the 15 before Friedgen arrived — will give that impression.

As a result, Friedgen is overseeing a $12million renovation to the football building and $3million for practice fields that includes a new artificial surface. He has input on a 20-year plan that would turn nearby parking lots used by tailgaters into green space. He sparked a season-ticket surge that soon may lead to the addition of 15,000 seats at Byrd Stadium. He is starting a Maryland football Hall of Fame. He attends breakfasts with fans before home games and talks for two hours trying to add members to the Terrapin Club, the association that supports Maryland athletics. He even was added to the board of the kinesiology department — after all, he does have a physical education degree from Maryland.

“Ralph’s footprints are all over the facilities,” offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. “We’re still in the early stages of the program. There’s just so many things that need to be done.”

Friedgen has become the face of Maryland football. The Terps have a few standout players, but fans tend to focus on “the Fridge.” Increased demands on his time and his constant promotion of the program have forced the coach to rely more on Taaffe and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney.

“I’m starting to understand some of the things you go through when you come into a program that hasn’t won and is now winning,” Friedgen said. “Maybe people say I can’t do the things I’m doing, but I’ve been doing it for two years and have other things that will help our exposure.”

Of course, some exposure Friedgen can do without, like the fallout from an assistant coach’s illegal payment to a recruit — it drew a major NCAA penalty — that left Friedgen embarrassed.

Friedgen dreams of an overflowing Byrd Stadium, where season ticket sales were only 10,000 before his arrival. Byrd, which has a capacity of more than 52,000, will soon reach the maximum 30,000 season tickets — student and visiting tickets make up the rest. Maryland is considering adding another upper deck that could increase attendance to 65,000.

“We have so much more room to grow,” Friedgen said. “Why can’t we be another Michigan? We’re between Baltimore and Washington. Name me another major university that’s located between two major metropolitan areas. If we can continue putting a quality program on the field, I foresee one day this stadium will support 85,000.”

Still hungry?

Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier said building his perennial national powerhouse at Florida was more fun than maintaining it. That was one of the reasons the “Ball Coach” left for the NFL after 12 years in Gainesville.

Success is still too new for Friedgen to become bored with it. However, contemporaries said success will present new obstacles.

“A lot of people get there and can’t hold it,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. “I think Ralph’s capable. He’s got Maryland playing like they ought to play.”

Said Spurrier: “It’s easier to recruit at the top, but it’s a constant push. Just push every day to get better. That’s all you can do, and that’s all Ralph does.”

Beamer said complacency is the real threat. Suddenly, players forget the lean times and become lax.

“Sometimes when you’ve had success, you just assume it’s going to happen again, and you don’t prepare the same way that got you to a successful level in the first place,” Beamer said. “Knowing Ralph, he’s not going to let that happen.”

Friedgen spent the past few weeks looking out for that attitude during practices. Are the older players still hungry? Do the younger ones know it can all quickly fade?

“Some of the younger guys are spoiled,” he said. “They have two [bowl] rings in two years here.”

Friedgen concedes he is concerned about his team’s readiness for Northern Illinois, a mid-major program capable of upsetting visiting Maryland. The Terps are the highest ranked opponent every to visit the DeKalb, Ill., stadium and the nationally televised game gives the Huskies all the ingredients for a shocker.

“You become a marked team,” Blackney said. “You become everybody’s red letter game. Some people find it harder to deal with success than adversity. You have different elements that come into the program and pull things apart that you have to guard against. The players can’t be complacent. Once you’ve raised the bar, anything less than those expectations isn’t very fulfilling.”

Going home again

Being in College Park — where he was an offensive guard from 1966 to 1968 on teams that finished an aggregate 6-23 under first Lou Saban and then Bob Ward — no longer feels like a flashback to Friedgen. For his first few months on the job, he walked the campus in the early morning and thought about his days attending classes. Memories of that period have been replaced by the grind of dealing with alumni, school officials and parents of recruits. Friedgen’s in charge now, and he has a long-time “basketball school” thinking about football.

“When I first came back, it was almost like deja vu, like I was a student,” he said. “It’s not that way anymore.”

But Friedgen hasn’t forgotten the importance of going to class. After all, he was a two-time Academic All-ACC with the football team’s highest grade-point average. Friedgen keeps lists of players who aren’t maintaining the necessary 2.0 grade-point average.

“For them to be successful in life is part of my responsibility,” Friedgen said. “I want their best academically, athletically, socially, morally. I’m going to demand it. If you think you’re going to come here and hang out and play ball, you have the wrong impression. I’m supposed to be an educator. I’m supposed to not only win football games but prepare these kids for the rest of their lives. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.

“Kids want discipline, but they need to know you care. It becomes harassment if they feel you don’t care.”

Running back Bruce Perry once was on the receiving end of Friedgen’s tough love, but the senior is on pace to graduate next spring with a criminology degree and a possible career as an FBI agent.

“He’s a master motivator,” Perry said. “When he steps on the grass, there’s not a soft side. Now if you go into his office, that’s different.”

Dare to be great

Friedgen knows there is still work to be done in College Park. You won’t hear him talking about his program having joined the elite.

Maryland was overwhelmed by three better teams in the coach’s first two years. Friedgen remembered thinking “Oh, God” when he saw tapes of Florida before the 56-23 loss in the 2002 Orange Bowl. Losing 22-0 to Notre Dame in the Kickoff Classic opener last season was a case of “stage fright” and when the team fell behind Florida State 31-0 two weeks later, he wondered “if we needed to put another digit on the scoreboard.”

The Terps weren’t quite ready for prime time, but the 30-3 Peach Bowl victory over Tennessee was a breakthrough. Maryland will learn soon whether that victory has a carryover effect when it travels to Florida State on Sept. 6. The Terps are 0-13 against the Seminoles — all double-digit losses. A victory could spark the Terps to their first undefeated season since 1951. A loss would mean another year of building.

“The team’s first goal [in 2001] was six wins and third place in the ACC,” Friedgen said. “I was almost embarassed to put them up [on the board]. Now their expectations are very high. Maybe they’re too high. I don’t know. … We’re at the stage now where we’re better, but how good can we be?”

Notes — Quarterback Scott McBrien (groin) will start against Northern Illinois after practicing yesterday. … Receiver Rich Parson is expected to return kicks.

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