Buying into Friedgen's ploy pays off for Terps

October 31, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

COLLEGE PARK - There isn't a coach in America, in any sport at any level, who hasn't tried some version of the "I Believe" motivational ploy on his underdog team. Say it enough times, print it on T-shirts, write it on a sign above the locker room door, even have the players sign a pledge to that effect, and maybe one day it'll happen.

As yesterday's Florida State game approached, Ralph Friedgen pulled out all those stops and a few more (yes, including invoking the Red Sox's climb from a 3-0 playoff hole). In the delirious aftermath of his Maryland team's program-altering 20-17 victory, who can say which one did the trick?

Only one truly made the impossible possible, however. Friedgen simply had his Terps so prepared, victory was all but a sure thing. Even against a team Maryland had never beaten, a coach it had never beaten, and an entire state full of fans that never had considered a program like Maryland's part of their universe.

"Man," said Terps hero Josh Allen, who grew up in Tampa, deep in America's most fertile football soil, "if you're in Florida, you never think about losing to Maryland."

Once Friedgen made it through the mass of gyrating humanity and off the Byrd Stadium field, he could have said "I told you so" to dozens of doubters. He came close, but never did. But he had told everyone so, including his players, especially the most maligned of them all, quarterback Joel Statham.

He told them all week, he told them before the game, he even told them in the locker room after a stunner of a first half, in which everything had gone right - mainly because he'd said it would and made sure it would.

"I said, `You know, we need to finish this,' " Friedgen recalled in a voice hoarse from emotion - and from shouting the fight song in front of the throngs, including the "M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D" capper. "We're not in this for moral victories. You need to walk off the field with a win."

After all the inspirational talks and platitudes and shirts and card-signings, he said it wasn't until he was in that locker room, having witnessed his players on the field and now off, that he was sure what he'd done had taken hold. "I thought at that time, they sensed it. I didn't sense it before then."

Friedgen could have. He had this team ready. "We felt it from the beginning, from the very first drive," Statham said, and his teammates echoed him.

The Terps and Statham never took a trip to what Friedgen called "panic city." There were more than enough chances, more than enough moments in which everyone in the stadium was sure Florida State was about to turn into Florida State - and Maryland would become Maryland again.

Why panic?

In the middle of his toughest season here, Friedgen brought the Terps in to face their toughest opponent, with the highest ranking, with the most legendary coach, without a lifetime win against the school or the coach to bank on - and flipped the script. His team was faster, smarter, more prepared, more composed - and better coached.

Fridge had Florida State figured out. Bobby Bowden might very well still be awake back in Tallahassee, twisting his national championship ring and trying to figure out Fridge's team. Why were those guys getting behind ours so easily? When did that quarterback learn to shake trouble off so easily? We can't outrun guys anymore, can't close on 'em, can't catch 'em? Where can we find a kicker like theirs?

And the most perplexing: Why this year?

Statham in particular was a miracle. Earlier in the week, when things looked most bleak, Friedgen had insisted that Statham was getting more confident every day. Oh, c'mon, exasperated listeners would sigh.

But Friedgen was right. Statham's performance during the first 40 minutes of yesterday's game was the best by an area quarterback all season. (Not that Statham, Kyle Boller or Mark Brunell had set the bar that high.) The last 10 were nerve-racking. Statham survived it because of the foundation laid earlier in the game and the weeks before.

"I really respect that out of him," Statham said of his coach. "He showed a lot of respect for me, and I really appreciate that, for him to stick with me."

Statham couldn't have returned the favor any better. Nor could the rest of the Terps. At the end, Friedgen stopped short of declaring this his biggest win ever, or the school's. He'd been on a national championship staff, he pointed out, and it's hard to top the Clemson win three years ago that clinched the Orange Bowl berth. Heck, the goal posts survived yesterday.

Still, no coach deserved a victory more than Friedgen deserved this one.

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