Maryland Terrapins football coach Ralph Friedgen yesterday pledged that he would run a clean program and called a payment to a high school recruit a “terrible mistake.”
In his first public comments on the matter, Friedgen declined to discuss specifics or name linebackers coach Rod Sharpless as the assistant accused of paying $300 to a Baltimore prep star to commit to Maryland. The school announced Monday that the NCAA would investigate the charge.
However, Friedgen yesterday sought to quash any skepticism about his 2-year-old program at Maryland by making its integrity a matter of personal honor.
“We are committed to running an honest program and a clean program,” he said. “I think you can look at my record for 35 years and that will show that. This incident is not representative of this program. If and when mistakes are made, we are committed to fixing them and making sure they don’t happen again.”
Maryland reported the incident to the NCAA after learning that incremental payments were made to Victor Abiamiri of Baltimore’s Gilman School, a player rated as the nation’s No.1 pass-rushing defensive end. The Terps consider the infraction a “secondary violation” that would bring only a letter of reprimand.
Abiamiri chose to attend Notre Dame; NCAA rules prevent a school from offering a scholarship to a player who has been recruited illegally.
Sharpless resigned under pressure after Maryland reported the incident, according to sources close to him. School officials are not able to discuss Sharpless’ departure under Maryland law because he is a state employee.
Still, Friedgen alluded to Sharpless, who coached linebackers the last two seasons after two short previous stints with the Terps. Sharpless also played linebacker for Maryland from 1972 to 1974.
“He made a terrible mistake,” Friedgen said. “I have known this person for over 25 years and he is a very good person and a very good man, and he is going through some tough times right now.”
There was no immediate fallout to the investigation yesterday, when the Terps signed the 21 players they expected to land. Several recruits were approached by other schools after the probe was announced, asking them to reconsider because of the investigation and the possibility of sanctions.
“I really appreciate the confidence players showed in our program,” Friedgen said of the recruits. “There were a lot of other people going after them and they still held fast. That shows me they trusted me and our program.”
The Terps gained six players rated in the top 25 nationally at their positions, including blue-chippers in Gwynn Park linebacker Wesley Jefferson and Dunbar tight end Vernon Davis. Friedgen hoped Jefferson can replace departing linebacker E.J. Henderson and likened Davis to another “Kellen Winslow.”
Jefferson was rated the consensus No.1 linebacker nationally and among the top 25 players overall.
“Wait until you see this guy play,” Friedgen said. “He epitomizes linebacker play. Every hit he has is a great hit. Everybody falls back. He reminds me of [Henderson].”
Davis could be converted to receiver, given his 4.4-second speed over 40 yards and 39-inch vertical leap.
“As an offensive coach, you kinda drool when you see some of the things you can do with a guy like Vernon,” Friedgen said.
Maryland signed 10 linemen, addressing what Friedgen considered to be the team’s greatest overall need. The Terps were especially pleased to get potential starting left tackle Brandon Nixon of Pottstown, Pa., who was heavily recruited by Penn State.
“Any time we can take a very quality player out of Pennsylvania, that’s a credit to our program,” Friedgen said. “If you look at this class and who we’re competing against for everyone, it’s what it’s supposed to be when your program is on the move. We’re battling the Michigans, Ohio States, Penn States, Stanfords, Notre Dames, Virginias. … All of our competitors were saying, ‘They can’t do it two years in a row’ [in 2002]. They didn’t have that excuse this year. I think we were able to broaden our horizons and get kids from other parts of the area.”
The Terps also signed receiver Keon Lattimore, the brother of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Lattimore was rated the fifth best receiver in the East by the Sporting News but also may play running back.