Maryland Terrapins fans hold small signs for outgoing football… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
With 7:19 remaining in Wednesday afternoon's Military Bowl game, the chant "Ralph! Ralph! Ralph!" echoed throughout Washington's RFK Stadium. Two minutes later, another chorus followed: "Let's go, Friedgen!"
For fans, Maryland's victory over East Carolina played out as one last tribute to popular head coach Ralph Friedgen, a gregarious alumnus of the College Park campus. Friedgen was fired last week but stayed on to coach the final game of the season, giving fans an opportunity to vent their frustration with his dismissal after a decade with the school.
At a pregame event for fans of both schools inside the D.C. Armory, Nancy Horstkamp of Bowie carried a "Thanks Fridge" poster she said she crafted Wednesday morning. She and husband, John, are graduates of the College Park campus and have sent two sons there.
They, like others, believe that their school let them down in firing Friedgen.
"We're embarrassed, that's what we are, with the way he's been treated," John Horstkamp said.
As the clock wound down on Maryland's 51-20 win, some East Carolina fans filed out of the stadium, their hopes of a rally well out of reach. But many of Maryland's faithful stayed until the final whistle, capping a daylong tribute to the coach who rallied the program from a 2-10 record last year to a 9-4 mark this year, and was named Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year.
Many Terrapins fans said that a bowl game outside the area, preferably one in warmer climes, would have been ideal. But they said that the local game ensured a large turnout, which is what many wanted for Friedgen's sendoff.
And Terrapins fans turned out en masse. Coupled with a sizeable following by East Carolina, the announced crowd of 38,062 was the largest in the three-year history of the Military Bowl.
The team ended Friedgen's tenure with 75 wins and 50 losses — and the only string of three consecutive 10-win seasons in school history.
Most Terrapins fans didn't mince words when describing their distaste not only for Friedgen's firing but also for the way it was handled.
"He got a bad deal," said Sandy Robinson of Fort Washington. "He still should be here, and they should have honored the rest of his contract. He was coach of the year this year. They had a big comeback year. It just seems unfair."
Some fans, like Mike Beckmen of Bowie, also voiced displeasure with the timing of the firing, particularly with the bowl game remaining on the Terrapins' schedule. He believes the school wants to hire a coach who could boost attendance at Byrd Stadium, where season-ticket sales have declined steadily.
"I know it comes down to selling more of those skyboxes," Beckmen added. "I'm a finance person, and I know it's numbers. But it's kind of hard when you [fire] a coach who is [one of the] Maryland alumni himself."
The Horstkamps said Friedgen has reached out to fans more than any coach who preceded him.
"Ralph and his family and his wife have always been involved with the fans. He has 'Breakfast with the Fridge' before games," said Horstkamp, referring to a dining event Friedgen staged. "He has a big tailgate party where he invites people. I can't imagine why they think they're going to do any better with another coach."
Several fans voiced displeasure with Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, who let Friedgen go after the school earned its seventh bowl in his 10 seasons.
Nancy Horstkamp said she and her husband were shocked when they heard of Friedgen's firing. "The team is going to another bowl game. They hired this new athletic director, and the next thing you know, they want him to resign."
Before the game, some fans suggested that Maryland should have been given a bowl game away from the school's backyard. They pointed to ACC member North Carolina State, which defeated West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla. The Terrapins defeated North Carolina State in the regular season.
The Horstkamps, who have traveled with the team to Florida and California, said they would have enjoyed going to Nashville, Tenn., for the Music City Bowl this year.
But Beckmen preferred that the game was local.
"We have season tickets, so we probably would not have gone to a game down in Florida," said Beckmen, who along with his wife, Elaine, is a Maryland graduate. "Having it here probably prompted us to go to the game."
A few fans speculated about the next coach of the team, with much of the talk centering on former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
Still, they were reluctant to envision a successor to Friedgen.
Asked what coach he would like to see coach the Terrapins next, Beckmen said, "We want Ralph back."
After the Terrapins were presented the Military Bowl championship trophy during postgame ceremonies, Friedgen addressed the throng, thanking the team and the fans for support in what he characterized as a "very tough time in my life."
He added: "If you got to go out, this is the best way to go out."
An earlier version of this article misstated Maryland's record in 2009. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.