In Bear's tracks

Ralph Friedgen, the QB, had a no-nonsense coach known as The Bear. He also called him Dad.

Ralph Friedgen


With trembling hands, he reached for the phone and dialed the number. He was nervous, but his mind was clear. He was done with Maryland football. Finished. Three head coaches in three years had told him 300 different things, and none of them seemed able to give him a straight answer. He was going to put College Park in his rearview mirror and never look back. There were other schools that would take him, maybe even let him play quarterback again. He just needed an opportunity. Ralph Friedgen had only one thing left to do. It was time to break the news to The Bear.

For as long as he could remember, people had given his father nicknames like "Big Ralph" and "Ice Box," but "The Bear" seemed most fitting, and with good reason. Ralph Edward Friedgen was a huge man, well over 300 pounds, but his presence, the weight he carried, went beyond just the physical. When he was angry, his voice was part roar and part thunderclap. He had been a college teammate of Vince Lombardi's at Fordham, long before the legendary Green Bay Packers coach became a paragon of toughness and discipline in an era that embraced those values with open arms.

They were different, Lombardi and The Bear, though kindred spirits when it came to molding young boys into grown men. The Bear was a coach, too, but his domain was high school football, not the pros. During his 30-year career - which included stops at Iona Prep, Blessed Sacrament, Port Chester and Harrison, his alma mater - he was respected, revered and, in some cases, even feared across the state of New York.

Friedgen had seen his father break wooden clipboards in anger, seen him smash them into pieces over a player's helmet after a particularly egregious mistake. But even if they trembled in the presence of The Bear, all of them, son included, would run through walls at his behest. He was a tyrant, but he was also an orator, instilling fear with a whistle and a playbook. And he won games. Hundreds of them. His son was the quarterback for many of those victories, and if he knew one thing, it was that his father detested weakness.

"Dad," Friedgen began that day on the telephone, "I talked to Coach [Bob] Ward like you said. He says if I want to transfer, he'll give me a good recommendation. I want to. I think I want to go to Connecticut."

"That's fine," The Bear said. "If that's what you want to do, come home and we'll work it out."

As his father's words trickled out, relief began to ripple through Friedgen's body. I am out of here, he thought.

"OK, well I'm going to pack up my stuff and come home," Friedgen said.

"All right," The Bear said. "But just so you know, you'll probably have to get a new key. Yours won't fit anymore."

"How come?" Friedgen said.

"I'm changing all the locks," The Bear said. "Quitters don't live in my house."

The son said nothing. If his father kept speaking, he never heard a word. He dropped the receiver, and with a violent twist, he ripped the phone right off the wall.

Ralph Friedgen has told that story many times: to reporters, to his wife, to his three daughters and to his friends. He told it again this past May, sitting behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade, his large hands gripping the steering wheel as he guided his car north toward Pennsylvania. He had been asked to speak at the Manheim Touchdown Club, told his presence at the annual dinner would further help Maryland's recent recruiting gains in the area, and so he carved out time to make the trip.

Some of the story's details have been sanded down by the 3 1/2 decades that have passed since that day, but not the two key lessons the phone call represents. First, The Bear did not raise his only son to be a quitter, and second, sometimes tough love is the most important love of all. It is, in that respect, maybe the most important Ralph Friedgen story.

There are others, though. It's a long drive, and on the open road, Friedgen likes conversation. He may be one of the best college coaches in the country - the man who in just three years has made football matter again in College Park - but at the heart of it all, he is a storyteller. His stories are told in a deep baritone and interrupted often by Friedgen's own laughter. His wife, Gloria, chimes in from the back seat to remind her husband of a name or a detail that has faded over the years, and as the miles pile up, so do the memories. The stories are often serious, occasionally crude, frequently funny and sometimes inspirational. A few are all those things at once.

He does fine in front of big crowds, poking fun at himself to put the audience at ease. But standing behind a podium is not Friedgen in his true element. In small groups, where he can make eye contact, he excels. His is a maestro.

"He's never afraid to speak his mind," says Central Florida coach George O'Leary, one of Friedgen's close friends. "Ralph is going to tell you what he thinks. I think that's why we get along so well."

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