End of Friedgen's time at Maryland comes earlier than expected

'Straight shooter' will coach last game with Terps in Wednesday's Military Bowl

December 28, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — The parents of Alex Wujciak, who would go on to become an All- Atlantic Coast Conference linebacker, were once asked why their son had entrusted his college football career to Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.

After all, Friedgen was hardly polished. He doesn't move well, owing partly to his weight. He barely follows the news during football season, so he's not expert with chit chat. He can be politically incorrect.

But that's just it, replied Wujciak's mother, Erin. Friedgen won Alex over precisely because he wasn't slick. Rather, he was the antidote to slick. "A straight shooter," she said.

Friedgen, 63, who ends his Maryland coaching career Wednesday against East Carolina in the Military Bowl at RFK Stadium, will be remembered by Terrapins fans not only for seven bowl games in 10 seasons, but for authenticity. He seemed almost incapable of putting on airs.

Friedgen was the same guy — tough, competitive, but also prone to tears, particularly when talking about his players — whether on the sidelines, on television or in a bar.

A few summers ago, he was finishing a weeknight reception with Terps supporters at a Bethesda restaurant when a fan approached him to talk about the football program. Friedgen indulged him for a time. But as the conversation continued, it became evident that the fan had been drinking and was making progressively less sense.

Finally, Friedgen could take it no longer. The football coach in him rose up and he stared directly at the fan. "You know," said Friedgen, nodding his head as if daring the fan to resist, "it's time for you to go." And the fan did.

In November, Friedgen — a former Maryland offensive lineman with an artificial hip — was slammed to the ground in a sideline collision with Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. The coach emerged with scratches and a bloody finger. "Hit my head pretty good," Friedgen said. "I've been hit harder, but not in 40 years."

In his tenure at his alma mater, Friedgen began dozens of sentences to the media with, "I probably shouldn't say this, but …"

He couldn't help but speak his mind. It was a quality that could be both endearing and occasionally damaging to his own interests.

After Maryland — midway through a disastrous 2-10 season in 2009 — beat Clemson, Friedgen said: "I've been at this 41 years. If they don't want me here, I'll go somewhere else."

Not everyone knew at the time how much Friedgen's relationship with former athletic director Debbie Yow had deteriorated. The coach's supporters said he felt undermined by her public and private lack of vocal support.

This season, Friedgen was not shy about expressing his belief that he had earned a contract extension after his team rebounded to go 8-4 and he was named ACC Coach of the Year. His contract expires following the 2011 season.

"One thing I don't want anybody doing is negotiating in the newspaper," said athletic director Kevin Anderson, who announced a buyout of Friedgen's contract on Dec. 20 but thanked the coach for taking "a struggling football program and [turning] it into a good one. He has raised the bar for our expectations."

Friedgen enters Wednesday's game with a 74-50 record. He has the third-most wins in program history.

Maryland supporters say they will remember him for more.

"He was a fighter for his kids. He was a true supporter of the student-athlete," said Larry Grabenstein, chairman of the Maryland Gridiron Network, a booster group that raises money for special football projects. "He was amazingly consistent and honest and frank. His players never had to wonder what they needed to do in order to be more productive. Ralph valued the truth, and was trusted in return."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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