Just like normal people, coaches react to sporting disasters in various ways. Some scream at their chastened troops. Some drape a figurative arm around 60 or 70 shoulders and suggest self-induced amnesia. Some do both, contradictory or not.
Maryland’s 24-14 loss to Middle Tennessee State over the weekend certainly qualified as a catastrophe and the worst moment of Ralph Friedgen‘s eight seasons as boss of gridiron matters in Terptown. Chances are that the Fridge told his players to forget it - and to be gol-darned sure it never happens again.
By the time he met the media en masse Tuesday at his weekly press session, Friedgen could discuss the mess in Murfreesboro with some degree of comfort. In sports, you have to peer ahead rather than back, which in the Terrapins‘ case means Saturday’s noon date with No. 23 California at Byrd Stadium.
Asked whether he and his assistants had landed on his athletes with both feet, not to mention a few juicy epithets, Friedgen denied it while simultaneously suggesting there were no group hugs on the plane home.
“The players are as disappointed as the coaches,” he added. “The opportunities [to win] were there - we just didn’t take advantage. It was like you were watching a train wreck and couldn’t do anything about it.”
How will the Terps react, starting Saturday? Coaches usually are wrong when they try to assess a team’s character and resiliency, so Friedgen doesn’t really know. All he can do as Maryland takes the field against the Golden Bears is keep his fingers crossed and perhaps a prayer or two in his heart.
“I hope our players will have a little faith in me - probably more than you [have],” Friedgen said, gesturing toward reporters with a half-smile.
Well, we’ll see. The Terps will need more than faith against high-powered Cal, which is averaging “only 52 points a game,” Friedgen noted. These Bears are coming off a 66-3 squeaker over Washington State that must have resembled the 73-0 devastation of the Redskins by another batch of bruins, Chicago version, in the 1940 NFL title game.
Considering Maryland has never previously played California in football, the folks who draw up the schedules in College Park could be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. In fact, the Terps have met only three other Pac-10 schools over a century or so - the most significant engagement being a 7-0 victory against UCLA at Byrd in 1955, when the visitors were ranked No. 1 and the hosts No. 2.
(Hey, maybe Friedgen could suit up Ed Vereb, who scored the touchdown that beat UCLA on a 17-yard-run. I know Ed is 74 now but think of the inspiration factor.)
With or without Vereb, the Terps had better win Saturday. Another loss, following a lackluster 14-7 decision over Delaware in the opener and Saturday’s pathetic effort, might inspire true Maryland fans to circle Oct. 15 on their calendars - the day Gary Williams and Brenda Frese can open basketball practices.
Four short years ago, Friedgen was hailed in these parts as a combination of Amos Alonzo Stagg, Knute Rockne and legendary Maryland predecessor Jim Tatum rolled into one oversized package.
In his first season (2001), the long-dormant Terps went 10-1 and played Florida in the Orange Bowl. After his first three, the Fridge sported a 31-8 record capped by a 41-7 drubbing of West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. Athletic director Debbie Yow rewarded him with a fat, long-term contract extension that doesn’t look quite as smart now.
Whatever the reasons - and they surely are complex - Friedgen’s magic has gone with the wind. Maryland is 24-22 over the last four regular seasons and was lucky to visit two who-cares bowls, Champs Sports and Emerald.
If California emerges victorious Saturday - and the Bears are 14 1/2-point favorites - Maryland could be on its way to a fourth nonwinning season in five years. I know it’s early, but as far as the Terps’ football fortunes are concerned, it could be later than you think.
Nobody around here wants to see Ralph Friedgen fail. But in sports, winning (hopefully within the rules) is what counts. And right now his Terps are looking like losers.