ATLANTA - Two years ago, University of Maryland athletic director Deborah Yow looked at football coach Ralph Friedgen and swore she saw a winner.
Last night, the rest of the country saw just what she was talking about. For the first time in 17 years, Maryland's football team earned a postseason victory, trouncing the University of Tennessee 30-3 to win the Peach Bowl in front of 68,330 fans at the Georgia Dome and a national television audience.
Maryland's victory, one of the biggest in school history, represents a new high for Friedgen, who in two years has turned a program mired in years of mediocrity into a winner. Maryland won the Atlantic Coast Conference title last year, going 10-2 in its first year under Friedgen, and earning a berth in the Orange Bowl. The Terps finished 11-3 this year.
"I think there is an overwhelming sense of pride in what he's accomplished." Yow said. "I think it really shows that we're building a foundation at Maryland for something special. But what I keep telling people is: Stay tuned. We"re just getting started."
The game, which was supposed to feature two evenly matched teams, turned into a second-half waltz for Maryland, thanks to two rushing touchdowns by quarterback Scott O'Brien and an interception return for a touchdown by defensive back Curome Cox. It was the biggest margin of victory in the Peach Bowl since 1972.
About 15,000 Maryland fans made the trip to Atlanta, and though they were considerably outnumbered by Tennessee fans, they had considerably more to cheer about. The Volunteers, considered by many to be a contender for the national championship at the start of the season, had very little success moving the ball against Maryland's defense, led by All-American linebacker E.J. Henderson, who was playing in the final game of his career.
"When we went to Maryland, the team was sorry, but we went anyway." said Josh Rivers, a 1997 graduate of Maryland who made the trip with friends. "When they hired Coach Friedgen, we said, "OK, this is it, he's going to be the one to turn the program around." But we also said the same thing about [former coach] Ron Vanderlinden, so what did we know?'
Yow said she always knew Friedgen, a 1970 graduate of Maryland and a football player for the Terps from 1966-1968, was the right man for the job.
"I just loved his passion and love for Maryland." Yow said. 'He was an All-ACC academic pick when he played here, and that was very important to me, too. I think a big part of what I'm proud of is how we're regarded as an academic institution. Right now we have 67 programs ranked in their respective Top 25 in the country, and we're starting to get five-star athletes who are tremendous students as well."
The game was the culmination of a week of festivities, including the Peach Bowl Parade yesterday, which Maryland sophomores Jenni Zobler, Toni-Marie Calabrese and Michele Sternberger drove 10 hours Monday from New Jersey to attend.
"It was a lot of fun, but we have to get on [university President C.D. "Dan"] Mote because he wasn't there." Sternberger said. "I mean, you can't be in a bowl game and not attend the parade?"