COLLEGE PARK — - Two prominent officials in the state university system said Monday that the economy has placed the University of Maryland on sensitive ground as it decides whether to retain football coach Ralph Friedgen or buy out the remaining $4 million of his contract while others endure budget cuts and furloughs.
Friedgen, 62, in his ninth season, is expected to meet with athletic director Deborah Yow as early as Sunday to discuss his job status. Yow has publicly expressed her disappointment with the season so far - the Terrapins are 2-9 (1-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference). Her options include retaining him for the final two years of his contract or buying it out.
Maryland's season, the worst in Friedgen's tenure, ends Saturday at Byrd Stadium against Boston College. He has a 66-45 record that includes six bowl appearances but also four losing seasons in the past six years.
A buyout of any sort - even in the form of a loan from the school's endowment - would raise questions in the current economic climate, said former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, a member of the Board of Regents, which governs the University System of Maryland.
"As a normal practice we don't get involved in the day-to-day," said McMillen, a former Terrapins basketball star and NBA player. "But as a fiduciary, to take on a $4 million liability plus hiring a new coach? Given the economic times we're in, there would have to be an awfully compelling case."
Said McMillen: "We'd have to have a very serious discussion about it - either the [University of Maryland College Park] Foundation or the regents." He said he knew of no such discussions. Another option would be to raise private funds, but six boosters said over the weekend that they knew of no effort to raise money.
Yow declined to be interviewed, saying she does not respond to "speculative" questions. Senior associate athletic director Brian Ullmann said no request "of any kind has been made of the university to borrow money" to fund a buyout.
Yow has said Friedgen, like all coaches, will be evaluated after the season. The Terps have lost six straight games and are trying to avoid their first 10-loss season. As the losses have piled up, so have empty seats at Byrd Stadium. Season-ticket sales have fallen from 28,661 in 2005 to 22,804 this season, the athletic department said, and one-third of Byrd Stadium suites remain unsold. It's uncertain how much of the problem is related to the economy and how much to the team's record.
The state university system has endured more than $100 million in budget cuts, including $26 million in furlough days for its 21,000 employees, since the beginning of the fiscal year. In August, the system eliminated 175 jobs by laying off 24 workers and eliminating 175 open positions. Academic departments such as African-American studies and classics also face the prospect of mergers to consolidate costs. College Park employees will lose about $10.2 million in salary through furlough days. The athletic department has also looked to cut costs, and at one point planned to take buses instead of flying to some games.
Len Elmore, a member of the foundation's board of trustees, said: "I would like to see all of the options [regarding Friedgquien] laid out." He said a buyout by the university would be "extraordinarily sensitive. You're already in an economic crunch as it is." Elmore is a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group that has expressed concern about rising college athletic expenditures - including salaries of coaches.
Elmore, an attorney who, like McMillen, starred in basketball at Maryland and played in the NBA, said Maryland President C.D. Mote Jr. "would certainly have to be involved because he has to balance institutional mission and try to maintain a winning football tradition." Mote declined to return telephone calls from The Baltimore Sun.
In February, Yow signed a contract promising to pay offensive coordinator James Franklin $1 million if he is not elevated to succeed Friedgen by Jan. 2, 2012. She told The Baltimore Sun in April that she was confident that the university could work out any issues relating to the timing of the coaching change, adding: "I don't have a million dollars to give James." Friedgen was hired by Yow and won the ACC championship in his first season in 2001. More than a half-dozen people familiar with Yow and Friedgen - including boosters, assistant coaches and others - say their relationship has deteriorated, even beyond the pressure of a losing season.
Friedgen has declined to comment about his job status and relationship with the athletic department, saying he needs to focus on football. But others said a few incidents have tested his relationship with the department:
•Assistant football coaches hired an attorney because they believed they were contractually owed bonuses based on last season's record of 8-5 (4-4, ACC), said Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the Maryland Senate and an ardent Terps booster.
The university interpreted the contract language differently and the bonuses were not paid, leaving coaches angry.
•Some members of the Maryland Gridiron Network, a 1,000-member booster group that raises money for football items such as X-ray machines and video equipment, have complained to The Baltimore Sun about the use of their donations - such as $22,500 so the band could travel to a road game. Some Friedgen backers with the group consider such expenditures a slap at the football program because the money isn't being used directly on the team.
Ullmann said MGN was not pressured to fund causes it didn't want to support.
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.