Friedgen playing it smart as he builds

College Football

October 15, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

SINCE the juggernaut in College Park took off, the ride has been a blast.

The Terrapins' ascent has been fueled by hunger, pride and talent made good by blood, sweat and tears - and anything else Ralph Friedgen has asked for.

We all know what's happened at Maryland since Friedgen came back home. It has been all about winning games, Top 25 rankings, bowl appearances, sold-out Byrd Stadium, facility upgrades and big TV money.

Now, with the stakes permanently higher, the potential for misery is that much more miserable.

Senior kicker Nick Novak looked up at the Byrd Stadium crowd last Saturday. He wondered, for a confusing split second, if he was in some hostile, foreign place, like Morgantown or the Orange Bowl or Bobby Bowden's football palace in Tallahassee.

In his five years at Maryland, Novak is one of the few players who has been part of the Terps' rise from the ashes to become a football program just a notch below elite.

So much has been accomplished in such a short time. Now, this: "They were booing and cheering when we put in a new quarterback," the Maryland kicker said about last weekend's embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech, when starter Joel Statham was lifted for freshman Jordan Steffy.

Something had to give, but not because the fans demanded it.

"We're only college athletes. You don't expect it at a home game. We want to be as successful as the fans want us to be, but that's not right," Novak said.

It's not right. Novak is right. These are college kids, not first-round draft picks like Kyle Boller making big-time money while trying to deliver Super Bowl promises issued by the front office.

Still, much has changed at Maryland since Novak signed on. Big-time college football isn't far behind the NFL, especially in an ACC now positioned as a football super conference.

Virginia Tech and Miami are in. Boston College and a conference championship game worth extra millions in TV money to the ACC arrive next season.

This is big business - a transition from off-the-radar to center stage that won't be accomplished without some pain and suffering.

"When I came into the program, we were going 5-6. When Coach Friedgen came here, we were hungry to win. Maybe some of the young guys don't think that we can lose. I think it's our [job] as seniors to show how to work, what it takes to be hungry," Novak said.

Maryland has a standard to uphold now. This is what happens when you post winning records, including two seasons when you're undefeated at home.

This is what happens when your coach is featured in a pulsating Under Armour athletic wear advertisement admonishing his team to "Protect This House."

What tempers these lofty football expectations and attitude in College Park is Friedgen's approach. It varies according to the needs of the personnel and the mood of the moment.

This takes Friedgen directly out of the category of monolithic football kings who will win games at any and all costs - including the psychological well-being of his players.

To see the way Friedgen is building this program, even through rough spots, is what makes this season of struggle feel far less alarming than what first meets the eye.

There's nothing more reassuring than a football coach who laughs in the face of a quarterback controversy - except maybe a football coach who so adroitly and thoroughly dismantles the accepted paradigm for what exactly constitutes a quarterback controversy.

Stratham has had a horrific time as starter for the Terrapins so far this season. They booed him at his own stadium last week.

Steffy is Maryland's talented freshman quarterback who saw action last Saturday when Georgia Tech held the Terps to 81 total yards, an NCAA defensive best for this season so far.

Probably, Friedgen will start Statham tomorrow against North Carolina State. He's unwilling to risk losing the kid's confidence.

Probably, Friedgen will insert Steffy, maybe early in the game, maybe often. Friedgen is willing to give the freshman a chance to prove his touchdown drive against the Yellow Jackets was a sign of things to come.

With this scenario, Friedgen doesn't only refuse to play the quarterback controversy game, but he also invites all of us to understand the delicate balancing act his job requires: being a teacher good enough to help young players get better and being a good coach who wins football games.

One can't be sacrificed for the other, even when the stakes and expectations are so high the boo birds come to roost at Byrd Stadium.

"I'm selfish, as you all know. I'm hoping to come out with two good quarterbacks. I think that's still a very big possibility that I would have for a couple years," Friedgen said this week.

"I have confidence in both kids. If I make a change too early, I may lose a guy and never get him back. ... It's about winning, but it's also about them. It's about people."

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