Friedgen is judged by house he built

November 29, 2005|By RICK MAESE

I went online and unearthed an old Under Armour commercial, featuring Ralph Friedgen and the University of Maryland. It ends with a player barking, "We must protect this house!"

You didn't hear that much this year, did you? And the Terps, they didn't do that much last year, either. Protect the house? They treated the place like a time-share and routinely allowed visitors to get a bit too cozy. (I still swear I saw Frank Beamer wearing Friedgen's bathrobe a few weeks back.)

Maryland finished 1-4 at Byrd Stadium, en route to its second straight 5-6 season. It was disappointing, yet Friedgen still snapped at a reporter after Saturday's season-ending loss at N.C. State for questioning the state of the Terps program.

Surely by now Friedgen must realize that he set his own trap. He took over a program that had just two winning seasons in the previous 15 years. He won 10 games, then 11, then 10 again. Three straight bowl appearances.

Fans were rushing to get Friedgen canonized. He could've run for public office or sold his own mini-grill on TV.

Here he is, though, suddenly vulnerable. The Terps haven't struggled like this since ... well, since before Friedgen took over.

That 10-year contract he signed back in December 2001 means nothing right now. Four seasons removed from an ACC championship, Friedgen is staring in the eyes of a make-or-break season.

It probably shouldn't be that way, but it's our Pavlovian nature. Terps fans used to have an intimate understanding of patience, watching bad football games throughout the 1990s. They were grateful for whatever they received then.

Friedgen changed all that. He turned around the program in a ridiculous amount of time, and now he's facing the consequences: Success breeds expectations.

"I've been coaching 36 years. I think I've had seven 10-win seasons," he said yesterday. "They don't come along every day. The fact we did it three years in a row was probably a pretty high standard to set."

Yet it is the standard. It might be completely fair to suggest that Terps fans should be patient right now. But that's not reasonable in today's sports climate. You don't pay Friedgen all those zeros and commas to instill a sense of patience.

His job is to win, and he has shown that he's capable - at least when it was somebody else's recruits.

"I always have high expectations," he says. "If you think we're going to win 10 games every year here, that is high. That is tough to do. In this league, it's really tough."

Friedgen remains optimistic for next season, which is kind of the mandate for a losing coach. The best way to draw attention from that rotting carcass behind you is to direct attention somewhere else. "Look over there! It's next season!"

His optimism is only partially warranted. There's a good nucleus coming back, but it's not the sure thing some around College Park would have you believe. Friedgen couldn't tell you right now who will be his starting quarterback. And he's not sure who will be the defensive coordinator, either.

Even if next year goes as well as some hope, the damage of two mediocre seasons won't show itself for another year or two. It's easier to recruit a player when you have a conference championship trophy in the lobby. A box of Under Armour shirts isn't as enticing.

"It's not going to help it, obviously," Friedgen says. "What I think we have to do is rely on our players and our program, so people know what we're all about and the sincerity with which we go about our work."

Not sure how that one is going to fly in the living room of Jimmy Highstepper, but you never know.

It isn't time to lower expectations. Friedgen built a winning culture around the football team. The culture still exists, even if the winning doesn't.

The coach has already showed us once how drastically things can change in a single season. He has to do it again.

"We must protect this house!" the commercial said, and that's still the goal - preserving what's been constructed these past five years. Friedgen can get defensive all he wants, but it's his house to protect. After all, he's the one who built it.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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