Friedgen survives stormy seas

December 31, 2003|by BOB PARASILITI

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Ralph Friedgen was starting to feel like the captain of a ship that had run aground.

The University of Maryland football coach enjoyed virtually smooth sailing his first two season at the helm of the Terrapins. Just his mere presence turned the troubled Terps' program starboard, qualifying for major holiday bowls in his first two seasons.

But this year, it was much different. Maryland entered the season with high expectations. But the Terps blew off course, losing the first two games, and suddenly Friedgen went from commanding the Love Boat to performing damage control on the Titanic down to scrounging for crumbs on Survivor.

"It's a very small boat," Friedgen said with a chuckle. "They all jump off it quick."

Suddenly, Maryland went from a No. 15 preseason ranking to off the charts and paddling for the shore thanks to the 0-2 start. Somehow, Friedgen's deft touch helped guide the Terps through uncharted waters and a third straight New Year's bowl when Maryland faces West Virginia University Thursday in a rivalry rematch staged at the Gator Bowl.


"This means an awful lot," Friedgen said of this bowl berth. "Some had written us off. To me, we are the highest ranked 9-3 team out there."

Now, Maryland has its bearings. The Terps plugged all their leaks to win nine of their last 10 games and finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is recognized by the Gator Bowl invitation. From the start, the Terps' returning experience held them to higher demands but they were a far different team than anticipated.

Despite all the experience returning on defense, Maryland sorely missed the fierceness and personality of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Meanwhile, the three biggest offensive weapons - quarterback Scott McBrien, receiver Steve Suter and tailback Bruce Perry - were slowed by nagging injuries that would hamper them all season.

The opening losses to Northern Illinois and Florida State made it look like Friedgen was about to go down with the ship. Instead, he turned to his crew and made sure all hands were on deck for the long haul.

"I had a meeting with the seniors and put the team in their hands," Friedgen said. "I told them that there were a lot of seniors on this team and this was their last seasons. I'm going to be here next year, it was a matter of what kind of legacy that they want to be left behind."

The Maryland reclamation project was on. With the seniors empowered and taking a changed view of the rest of the season, the Friedgen campaign went for the rest of the team.

"I tried to get the others relaxed and having fun while they were playing again," Friedgen said.

The Terps began to turn the season back around. Without the glare of a top 25 rating, Maryland continued to knock off opponents and get their record and ship in order.

Maryland routed The Citadel before posting a convincing win 34-7 win over an equally struggling WVU to even the record at 2-2. After that, the Terps struggled at Eastern Michigan before posting less-than-impressive wins over Clemson and Duke.

The big test was coming on a nationally televised Thursday night game vs. Georgia Tech which would have proved the Terps were back. Instead, Maryland suffered a 7-3 loss, fell to a 5-3 record and were mired in doubt again.

The next nine days leading up to Nov. 1's became the most important period of the season. Friedgen went back and convinced the Terps to trust him and convinced them they were playing to mechanically.

A completely different Maryland team took the field and dismantled North Carolina, 61-17.

"I was pleased with the way we played," Friedgen said. "We played like a team from that game on."

The rest of the season was like a playoff push for the Terps. They won an important home finale against Virginia and overcame huge odds - including missed extra point late in the game by a usually reliable Nick Novak - to knock off North Carolina State and seal the victory, and ultimately the Gator Bowl invitation.

They capped it with a victory over Wake Forest to finish 9-3.

"We wouldn't have won the last two games if we had not come together," Friedgen said. "They never gave up. Everyone said we weren't supposed to win (the N.C. State) game and we didn't cooperate. Then we came back for Wake. It says a lot about how this team handled the situations and a lot about why we are 9-3."

And why Maryland is now full steam ahead for the Gator Bowl.

The Herald-Mail Articles