Big Man On Campus

Coach Ralph Friedgen, 'the Fridge,' has lit a fire under Maryland football and football fans.

November 17, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

COLLEGE PARK - Someday they'll make a documentary of all this, call it something sappy like: The Fridge: A Study in Perseverance. Right now, it's the best story in college sports: No-name coach guides Maryland Terrapins to a 9-1 record his first season, breathes life into a football program that was dying on the sidewalk, just waiting for the priest to get there.

The story goes like this: For over 30 years, Ralph Friedgen was an assistant coach, at Maryland and Georgia Tech (twice each), for the San Diego Chargers and at football backwaters The Citadel, William & Mary and Murray State. Got passed over for one head coaching job after another. Why? Who knows? Some said he was too fat. Too bald, too. Can't have a guy who looks like Jack Germond running your football program.

No, they said, you need those tall, lean guys with the anchorman hair, who look like gods whether they're standing on the sidelines in front of a packed stadium or clapping alumni on the back at a fund-raiser for the team's new weight room.

Others said he couldn't handle the media. Too blunt, too politically incorrect. First slick, smiley TV guy who asks a stupid question, ol' Ralph would give him a look that would freeze over a creek in July and say: "Son, your mother know you're this dumb? 'Cause I'm about this close to getting her on the phone and telling her."

Finally, Maryland, his alma mater (class of '69) gave him a shot. Fifty-three years old and the Terps made him their head coach, after passing over him twice before because ... well, let's not go there again.

Now, look what he's done injust a few short months. A win today over North Carolina State would give Maryland it's first outright ACC football title and big bowl shot since the glory years of the mid-80's, when the Fridge was Maryland's offensive coordinator and Bobby Ross was the coach.

All he's done, the Fridge, is turn around a program that was 5-6 last year, with just two winning seasons in the last 15 years. All he's done is make Maryland football exciting again; after years in which the team drew 20,000 fans a game and Byrd Stadium had all the life of a detention camp, 52,000 watched the Terps whack Clemson, 37-20 last Saturday.

"It's been a special year, it really has," the Fridge said the other day at his weekly media luncheon high atop Byrd Stadium. "But I've always had high aspirations. That's just the way I am."

How he's engineered this turnaround is still somewhat of a mystery - 17 starters from the team that slept-walk for Coach Ron Vanderlinden returned.

Oh, the Fridge improved the off-season conditioning program, instituted a more wide-open offense. But mainly, the theory goes, the Fridge got his players to believe in themselves, believe they were better than they'd played.

The Fridge said when he first took over the team, the players told him they had one goal: win six games. One more than last season. That drove the Fridge nuts.

"I couldn't buy into that," said the Fridge, who played here as an offensive lineman in the late '60s. "That's when I got into the whole `Let's play 'em one at a time and not put a number on it and see where we end up.'

"And here we are. And who knows where we're going to be?"

Appealing to the masses

It's a little before 7:30 a.m., the day before the Clemson game and the Terrapin faithful are filing into a ballroom at a hotel near campus for "Breakfast with Fridge."

The Fridge does this before every home game. It's one of the new traditions he's started to connect with Terrapin fans. He got the idea from George O'Leary, the head coach at Georgia Tech, where the Fridge was the offensive coordinator the past four seasons.

O'Leary, who sounds like he could sell ceiling fans in Iceland, got the Chick-fil-A people to sponsor a weekly lunch for the Tech fans. About 150 people showed up for the first one. Four years later, they were drawing 2,500 people. The Fridge made a mental note: If I ever get my own team, I'm doing something like that.

"People said one of the things I wouldn't be able to do as a head coach was meet people [like] this," the Fridge is saying now. "When I'm working, I'm very intense, very locked in, and I don't let distractions bother me. But this is part of my job. So I have to do this. I'm in the role of a head coach."

This morning, around 500 people are filling up on bagels, muffins, coffee and juice. The crowd is mostly alumni and Terrapin Club members, not a whole lot of students.

(To get college kids out of bed at this hour, you'd have to have "Breakfast with the Dave Matthews Band." Or "Breakfast and Get Your Free Cell Phone.")

The Fridge gets a standing ovation as he enters. He takes the mike, gives the crowd a little state of the Terps riff, then launches into a favorite Fridge theme: If we want to be a big-time college football program, we have to upgrade our facilities.

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