Closing door to 'The Fridge'

Our view: The end of Ralph Friedgen's career at College Park was handled poorly, but don't feel too sorry for the coach — college football is big business, and he wasn't filling the seats

December 21, 2010

There was a busted play at College Park this week. Ralph Friedgen, the likable head coach of the University of Maryland football team, was forced out after 10 years on the job. His ouster came shortly after he was named Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year, his quarterback was named the conference rookie of the year, and the university's athletic director, Kevin Anderson, had said Mr. Friedgen would be back next season for the final year of his contract.

There was plenty of finger-pointing over what went wrong. Defenders of Mr. Friedgen — or "The Fridge," as he is known — point to his winning record (8-4 this year and a .600 winning percentage over the last 10 years) as evidence he should have kept his job. His team is headed to a bowl game this year, albeit the less than glamorous matchup against East Carolina in the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 29.

But all that is beside the point. Despite all the romantic notions about scholar-athletes and molding boys into men, teaching honor and loyalty and all that, college football is a business — a big one that helps fund the rest of the athletic department. Despite Mr. Friedgen's good year, attendance was dropping at Maryland football games, and rental of luxury suites at the stadium was sagging. Part of his job, filling Byrd Stadium, was not happening. Moreover, while his first three years at Maryland were highly successful, his record for the past seven years was just one above breaking even.

The game-changer occurred earlier this month, when James Franklin, the assistant coach who had been designated as the head coach in waiting, essentially stopped waiting. He accepted the head coaching post at Vanderbilt in Nashville. A string of other coaches from the Maryland staff are likely to follow Mr. Franklin to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Mr. Friedgen pushed for a contract extension.

Faced with a head coach who changed his mind about retiring, and with a decimated football staff, Mr. Anderson announced Monday that the university was buying out the last year of Mr. Friedgen's contract and was starting the search for a new head coach. It was ugly. Maryland's football program likened itself to a family, and the family was feuding in public. But it was necessary.

There is plenty of pleasing pageantry connected with Maryland football. The image of "The Fridge" leading his players in singing the Maryland fight song after their victories is memorable and stirring, and it may feel disloyal to throw him out. But we shouldn't feel too sorry for him. He was paid handsomely to lead the team for the last decade, and will walk away with another $2 million. There's probably not a laid-off worker in Maryland who wouldn't trade places with him, no matter how nicely they were fired.

One lesson here is that the coach-in-waiting scheme is a nonstarter. It hasn't worked at Maryland or at the University of Texas. Having the leader and his successor under one roof leads to tension. William Shakespeare figured that one out a while back, and wrote a play about it called "Macbeth." In addition, delaying a tough decision doesn't make the outcome better. Last year, when the football team was 2-10, was the time to thank Mr. Friedgen for his years of good service and bring in new blood. Now the university is making the same play call in a much more hostile environment.

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