COLLEGE PARK — — Now that the bloodletting is over, Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson can get down to the real business at hand, which is finding a high-profile football coach who can take the Maryland program to the next level and fill enough seats to make the Terps an attractive bowl team.
That was the basic message of Monday's news conference at Comcast Center, during which Anderson sought to clear up all the "inaccurate speculation and set the record straight" about the circumstances surrounding his decision to replace ACC Coach of the Year Ralph Friedgen after next week's Military Bowl.
Anderson then proceeded to pretty much confirm all the speculation of the past several days, including the fact that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is on his list of candidates to succeed Friedgen.
If the news conference started out on a slightly defensive note, Anderson did make a solid case for the new direction that he hopes to take the football program. The Terps turned a corner this year after going 2-10 in 2009, but the program's inability to fill the stands and the luxury suites at Byrd Stadium — as well as the lack of respect those attendance issues engendered at bowl selection time — helped convince the new AD that he could not afford to double down on the Friedgen era.
"We're all concerned about that, but the thing is, I'm looking long term and if we do the right thing long term, we're going to have people come and support the University of Maryland's football program," Anderson said. "That was just one of many factors that were taken into account in making this decision."
Anderson confirmed that the departure of offensive coordinator James Franklin, who was due a $1 million buyout if he was not hired to replace Friedgen by 2012, was the catalytic event that led him to change his mind after announcing in November that Friedgen would be back to coach the team next season. But he made it pretty clear that he never had any intention of honoring Friedgen's request for a long-term contract extension.
Though the handling of Friedgen's dismissal left a lot to be desired from a standpoint of public protocol, the actual decision to buy out the final year of his contract (for his full $2 million salary) makes sense on a number of levels. It's hard to argue with Anderson's contention that Friedgen's lame-duck status would have made it very difficult to reel in top recruits and to find quality assistant coaches to replace those who are going with Franklin to Vanderbilt.
It's also fair to make the case that the program simply needed a new face to re-energize the alumni and the diminished fan base. Franklin's departure just absolved the athletic department of that $1 million obligation and made it easier to stomach Friedgen's buyout, which — Anderson was quick to note — would not require a dime from Maryland taxpayers.
Friedgen deserves a ton of credit for leading the Maryland football program out of the wilderness when he replaced Ron Vanderlinden after the 2000 season. He took the Terps to the Orange Bowl in 2001 and won 10 games in each of his first three seasons. The invitation to the Military Bowl at RFK Stadium marks the seventh bowl bid for the Terps during his decade as head coach, but the circumstances that dropped Maryland to the bottom of the ACC bowl pecking order obviously did not enhance his job security.
The Terps finished second in their ACC division and would have been in line for a more prestigious bowl if not for doubts about their ability to sell tickets. Anderson alluded to that when he recounted his conversations with some of the Maryland players after informing them of Friedgen's dismissal, which he repeatedly referred to as "a business decision."
He acknowledged that Friedgen presided over another dramatic turnaround this season, but clearly was not fully satisfied that the program is on the threshold of returning to national prominence.
"I took that into account,'' Anderson said. "What we're doing now, is that…this was a good football team and I believe it can be great and we're going to bring the best person in here to get to that greatness and to sustain it. So, that's what we're looking at and that's why the decision was made at this time."
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.