Gov. Martin O'Malley waded into a brewing controversy over football coach Ralph Friedgen's contract at the University of Maryland, saying that public money shouldn't be used to buy out his contract if that's what officials in College Park decide to do.
"Were they to decide that there needed to be a change, I would hope that they not use public funds to buy out that contract," O'Malley said Tuesday in a response to questions from reporters.
Maryland senior associate athletic director Brian Ullmann said Tuesday night that "no request has been made to use University of Maryland funds for a buyout." Ullmann said the athletic department is a "self-supporting auxiliary unit of the University of Maryland expected to balance our budget annually through revenue streams such as Terrapin Club membership and ticket sales." He said the budget - $55 million this year - has been balanced for 16 consecutive years.
O'Malley declined to define what he meant by "public funds," saying he didn't want to weigh in on a "hypothetical" situation. The university, which receives state funding, also could fund a buyout in the form of a loan from the school's endowment or with private funds. Friedgen earns $2 million annually and has two years remaining.
Maryland (2-9 overall, 1-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) will be looking to avoid the first 10-loss season in school history when it meets Boston College (7-4, 4-3) Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
The Democratic governor insisted he's not involved "in any way" in the contract discussions or in evaluating the coach's performance. O'Malley, who graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, attended the recent game with rival Virginia Tech that Maryland lost. He said he's aware it has been a "disappointing" season so far for the Terrapins.
Two prominent officials in the state university system - former Terrapins basketball stars Tom McMillen and Len Elmore - said Monday that it would be difficult to fund a buyout of a coach when the state is dealing with academic budget cuts and furloughs.
"I leave it to the university to manage its sports and most everything else," O'Malley said in Annapolis. "The thing I'm most focused on is making sure that we make the investments necessary to keep a high level of excellence and make college more affordable."
An emotional Friedgen declined to discuss his future on several occasions during his weekly news conference Tuesday in College Park, but the embattled coach made it clear that the Terps have the necessary tools - and motivation - for a turnaround season in 2010.
"We took our lumps this year," Friedgen said. "But we're not going to take our lumps next year."
Athletic director Debbie Yow, who has said repeatedly that she wouldn't evaluate Friedgen until after the season, attended Tuesday's news conference but declined to comment on the coach's status.
While Saturday's game will be the final one for the team's 13 seniors - and possibly for their 62-year-old coach - Friedgen said that fans have a lot to look forward to next season. Asked what he would tell fans who have supported him during his nine-year tenure but are now considering canceling their season tickets, Friedgen said: "I would say 'Keep the faith. We have a lot of guys coming back and I believe in this team very much. They've got a lot to look forward to because we're going to grow from this experience.' "
With his voice wavering slightly and tears welling, Friedgen continued. "We're going to appreciate winning maybe more than we have in the past. I think the future's pretty bright," he said.
Friedgen wouldn't comment on how his players have responded to rumors about his job security.
"I'm not going to get into that," he said. "That is what it is. I told them [Monday] night, 'Focus on what we can control,' and what we control is preparing for Boston College."
Friedgen also declined to talk about possible staff changes should he remain.
"I'm going to evaluate that after the season. We'll do everything after the season. Let's finish the season first," Friedgen said.
Friedgen said he has been surprised at how resilient his players have been.
When he met Monday with the team to go over a change of schedule because of Thanksgiving, Friedgen told his players that they could go home after practice Wednesday and spend a good part of the holiday with their families. In the past, Friedgen said that "25 to 30" players would take him up on the offer.
"When I asked who was going home, two kids stood up," Friedgen recalled. "So I said, 'Did you not understand the question?' After practice, I said, 'Maybe some of you misunderstood, it's OK to go home after practice on Wednesday.' I said, 'Stand up again.' Now only one guy stood up. That's unbelievable. Here were are 2-9 and these kids are staying."
Wide receiver Adrian Cannon said he hasn't noticed any difference this week in Friedgen's approach to Saturday's game. As for Friedgen showing some emotion Tuesday, Cannon said: "Coach is always emotional. That's one thing we like about Coach. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. We love him for that. He's keeping us up, telling us how proud he is of us. We're trying to work hard for him and get him this last win."