In the stands by her man

Gloria Friedgen, the heart of her husband's UM team, stays busy

December 28, 2006|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

To hear them tell the story, it was a classic case of love at first fight.

In the early 1970s, Ralph Friedgen and Gloria Spina were graduate students at the University of Maryland, both pursuing master's degrees in education. They had mutual friends, and a mutual interest in each other.

They had flirted a bit, shared a cup of coffee in the student union, and eyed each other during a badminton match in one of their physical education classes. She had grown up around sports, considered herself a jock, and though she lacked confidence, this guy made her laugh. And so Gloria, a spirited Italian girl from Long Island, asked Ralph, a coach's son from upstate New York, if she could cook him and his roommates her fabulous lasagna for dinner.

He was an unpaid assistant football coach, often overwhelmed by grunt work, and his schedule was in constant flux. The night of the big meal, he showed up late, exhausted. She reheated his food, asked him about his day, then convinced him to play an innocent game called "Feelings." He had to close his eyes and answer questions, get in touch with his emotions.

After a few minutes, Ralph could barely stay awake. Enough of this, he told her. Then, in his typical, smart-aleck way, he added: Look, why don't we just go to bed? He swears, to this day, he wasn't suggesting anything lurid. He was simply spent and wanted to crash. But Gloria, full of innocence, was horrified.

"She ran out of the apartment," Ralph said recently. "She was so upset."

A few days later, they both wanted to smooth things over, give it another shot. She invited him over to her place, and promised to serve a little cake. But when Ralph showed up, she wasn't alone. There was another guy sitting on her couch - an old boyfriend who came over uninvited - reading the newspaper.

"I was so flustered," Gloria said recently. "I didn't know what to do. I was such a silly girl."

If there is one thing Ralph Friedgen has never lacked, though, it's confidence. He sat down next to the old boyfriend, looked him up and down, then asked if he was done with the sports page. A few awkward minutes later, he turned to him and said: Isn't your time about up? How about hitting the road?

"He got up and left," Friedgen said. "And I never did."

An important piece

Had things played out in some other manner more than three decades ago, it's safe to say that Maryland's football program would look drastically different. It's possible that Ralph Friedgen might have still worked his way up the ranks and earned his first head coaching job, and possible his team would still be in Orlando, Fla., this week, preparing to play in the Champs Sports Bowl, its first bowl game in three seasons.

But without Gloria Friedgen, something would definitely be missing. What other football wife, really, would do what she does? Who else would: sit in the stands, yell at the refs, help tutor the players with their biology and kinesiology, raise money for the university and the program, monitor and post on the team's unofficial message board, shake every hand and remember (almost) every name, throw together a giant tailgate before every home game, stick up for the team when the hecklers get too fierce, make small talk with the President of the United States when her husband is named national coach of the year? All while holding down a job as the coordinator of Alumni Affairs and Outreach in the College of Health and Human Performance?

No one, really. At least not in the opinion of the head coach, as well as countless others. Which is why it's fair to say that, though Ralph Friedgen remains the brains behind Maryland's football program, Gloria Friedgen may very well be its heart. Spend any time with the two of them, and you'll soon realize she finishes half of his sentences. And she's the only person who can get away with that.

"I have the perfect football coach's wife," Ralph Friedgen said. "I can't even tell you all the things she does, from working with the [Maryland Gridiron Network], to meet and greets, to tutoring kids. It's not something I've ever asked her to do; it's just something she wanted. And I think sometimes she enjoys her job more than I do. She will talk to anyone. She'll talk to the dead practically. Occasionally she sticks her foot in her mouth. Sometimes I tell her, just let the other person talk. You don't have to respond to everything."

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