- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The middle-aged man standing at the microphone during Maryland’s kickoff football press conference Monday was a mere shadow of himself. Fortunately. Since last fall, coach Ralph Friedgen has lost 105 pounds through determined dieting, bringing him down to a practically svelte 295.

“I feel very good,” Friedgen told the media, “but I don’t want it to be the [main] topic here.”

As indeed it shouldn’t have been. The main Terrapins topic should be whether Friedgen’s latest, relatively inexperienced team - the roster includes just 12 scholarship seniors - can scale any kind of heights this fall.

Right now, the odds seem against it. The addition of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech in recent years has turned the ACC, once noted primarily for men’s basketball, into one of the country’s tougher football venues. A preseason poll ranked Maryland no higher than fifth in the six-team Atlantic Division, which probably suits Friedgen just fine.

“The kids aren’t getting much respect, and maybe that will be a motivating factor,” he said. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

It’s more than a little startling to realize that alumnus Friedgen is beginning his ninth season at Terptown. That equals the illustrious tenures of Jim Tatum and Jerry Claiborne and trails only patriarch Curley Byrd, who directed teams known as the Old Liners for 23 seasons (1912-34) in the leather helmet era.

In some way, it seems only yesterday that Friedgen got the job and spurred the long-dormant Terps to a 10-1 regular-season record in his first year.

But it wasn’t yesterday, as any disappointed Maryland fan can tell you. Since going 31-8 over Friedgen’s first three seasons and visiting two major bowl games (Orange, Gator), his Terps have been a decidedly ordinary 33-30 overall and 18-24 in the conference.

True they have played in three bowls during that period - Peach, Champs Sports, Humanitarian - but these were nothing to brag about. Nowadays it seems like practically every team with a winning record goes somewhere like Boise, Idaho. Big deal.

Nobody appears to be yowling for Friedgen’s scalp or even his diminished torso, but Ralph needs to get the Terps back on track as a consistent and entertaining winner. For one thing, his anointed successor is already on the premises: assistant head coach/offensive coordinator James Franklin. For another, a major expansion of 59-year-old Byrd Stadium is ongoing, and only a consistently successful program will put 65,000 or so fannies in the seats and fill those 64 luxury suites in the new Tyser Tower.

It remains to be seen whether the current gang can take notable steps toward that end. But the beginning of fall practice is a time for hope, so Friedgen was smiling as he answered questions before the first session.

Like this: “We have a lot of young guys with a lot of talent.” (Even given his slimmer frame, it was impossible to tell whether he was crossing his fingers behind his back.)

This: “We’ll keep working and hope it all falls into place.”

And this: “We have a lot of young receivers I wouldn’t be afraid to put in the game.”

So it went, with optimism the operative word. And no wonder. The Terps don’t face an opponent bent on knocking off their collective block for 25 days, when they invade Berkeley to play California on Sept. 5. And their first ACC date isn’t for nearly another month, Oct. 3 against Clemson at home.

In an area where the Redskins dominate the sporting scene and Navy has become a steady winner, it behooves Maryland to take the next major step toward flexing its football muscles once more. Inconsistency of the sort exhibited by last fall’s 8-5 outfit won’t get it done. That bewildering bunch managed somehow to beat California, Clemson, Wake Forest and North Carolina. It also managed somehow to lose to Middle Tennessee and Virginia and do a 37-3 fold against Florida State with a division title still possible.

Say what?

The Fridge proved long ago that he can coach. Now it’s time for him to prove again that he can win week in and week out or thereabouts.

It’s a big order, but Ralph Friedgen is a big man. Just not as big as he used to be, in more ways than one.



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