WASHINGTON — — Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown held his thumb and index finger a half-inch apart. "We were this close," he said.
The media gathered around Brown last week in a downtown Washington hotel conference room understood the reference.
He meant that the Terps had appeared close this season to challenging for the Atlantic Coast Conference title and advancing to a warm-weather bowl. He mentioned a game that got away — a last-minute loss to Miami in November. Perhaps a few more wins could have saved head coach Ralph Friedgen's job. There is no way Brown could know for sure.
As Maryland (8-4) prepared Monday for East Carolina (6-6) in Wednesday's Military Bowl at RFK Stadium, the coaches seemed slightly haunted by what might have been.
Friedgen and his team have focused on beating the Pirates, who have lost four of their last five games. "He's one of the most competitive coaches. He wants to leave on a good note," said senior linebacker Alex Wujciak, for whom the bowl game is also a farewell.
But players and coaches — Friedgen in particular — have also been balancing competing feelings. There is the strain of undergoing a coaching transition. And there is their desire to focus on the game and not allow the peculiar situation to spoil the final contest for Wujciak and 15 other seniors.
It may also be the last game for standout receiver-returner Torrey Smith, who has one more year of eligibility but may leave early for the NFL. Smith graduated earlier this month, and has often noted that he has a single mother to look after.
Friedgen's public appearances have produced difficult moments. The coach's comments alternate between the diplomatic ("It's going to be a great opportunity to go against East Carolina") and the emotional.
The truncated farewell tour — his last practice was Monday afternoon — was beginning to wear on the coach, who paused several times to compose himself.
"It's kind of like you died and it's a slow death," Friedgen said. "Everything you experience is for the last time. It's been a very stressful week, especially from an emotional standpoint."
Friedgen, 63, who once weighed more than 400 pounds, was expected to be carried off the practice field ("maybe with a forklift," he said) by his players.
'I've had a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that field," he said. "It'll be tough today. It'll be the last time I'll probably be on that field." The practice was closed to the media.
Friedgen's job became jeopardized when athletic director Kevin Anderson decided it would hurt the program — particularly in recruiting — to have a lame-duck coach. Friedgen's contract expires at the end of next season, and Anderson opted not to grant the extension that the coach had publicly and privately sought. Maryland said the decision on Friedgen was expedited when offensive coordinator James Franklin — who had been designated as Friedgen's successor — left to become head coach at Vanderbilt.
"To do this, we might as well do it now so we have that longevity," Anderson told the Baltimore Sun after Friedgen's ouster was announced on Dec. 20. "And the next class that comes in here — the intent is to have a coach here that will see them through graduation."
A search committee is looking at candidates to succeed Friedgen. In the meantime, Anderson said he saw no problem with Friedgen coaching in the bowl game. "He played here, went here, great family. They love Maryland," Anderson said.
Friedgen's players reminisced Monday about the coach.
Wujciak recalled Friedgen briefly disappearing in the days before Maryland played in the Champs Sports Bowl in 2006. "Ralph disappeared for a half-hour and nobody knew where he went. All of a sudden, Santa Claus showed up," the linebacker said.
"Santa" Friedgen handed out bowl gifts. "That was up there with one of the funniest times," Wujciak said.