To hear them tell the story, it was a classic case of love at first fight.
In the early 1970s, Ralph Friedgen and Gloria Spina were graduate students at the University of Maryland, both pursuing master's degrees in education. They had mutual friends, and a mutual interest in each other.They had flirted a bit, shared a cup of coffee in the student union, and eyed each other during a badminton match in one of their physical education classes. She had grown up around sports, considered herself a jock, and though she lacked confidence, this guy made her laugh. And so Gloria, a spirited Italian girl from Long Island, asked Ralph, a coach's son from upstate New York, if she could cook him and his roommates her fabulous lasagna for dinner.
He was an unpaid assistant football coach, often overwhelmed by grunt work, and his schedule was in constant flux. The night of the big meal, he showed up late, exhausted. She reheated his food, asked him about his day, then convinced him to play an innocent game called "Feelings." He had to close his eyes and answer questions, get in touch with his emotions.
After a few minutes, Ralph could barely stay awake. Enough of this, he told her. Then, in his typical, smart-aleck way, he added: Look, why don't we just go to bed? He swears, to this day, he wasn't suggesting anything lurid. He was simply spent and wanted to crash. But Gloria, full of innocence, was horrified.
"She ran out of the apartment," Ralph said recently. "She was so upset."
A few days later, they both wanted to smooth things over, give it another shot. She invited him over to her place, and promised to serve a little cake. But when Ralph showed up, she wasn't alone. There was another guy sitting on her couch -- an old boyfriend who came over uninvited -- reading the newspaper.
"I was so flustered," Gloria said recently. "I didn't know what to do. I was such a silly girl."
If there is one thing Ralph Friedgen has never lacked, though, it's confidence. He sat down next to the old boyfriend, looked him up and down, then asked if he was done with the sports page. A few awkward minutes later, he turned to him and said: Isn't your time about up? How about hitting the road?
"He got up and left," Friedgen said. "And I never did."
An important piece
Had things played out in some other manner more than three decades ago, it's safe to say that Maryland's football program would look drastically different. It's possible that Ralph Friedgen might have still worked his way up the ranks and earned his first head coaching job, and possible his team would still be in Orlando, Fla., this week, preparing to play in the Champs Sports Bowl, its first bowl game in three seasons.
But without Gloria Friedgen, something would definitely be missing. What other football wife, really, would do what she does? Who else would: sit in the stands, yell at the refs, help tutor the players with their biology and kinesiology, raise money for the university and the program, monitor and post on the team's unofficial message board, shake every hand and remember (almost) every name, throw together a giant tailgate before every home game, stick up for the team when the hecklers get too fierce, make small talk with the President of the United States when her husband is named national coach of the year? All while holding down a job as the coordinator of Alumni Affairs and Outreach in the College of Health and Human Performance?
No one, really. At least not in the opinion of the head coach, as well as countless others. Which is why it's fair to say that, though Ralph Friedgen remains the brains behind Maryland's football program, Gloria Friedgen may very well be its heart. Spend any time with the two of them, and you'll soon realize she finishes half of his sentences. And she's the only person who can get away with that.
"I have the perfect football coach's wife," Ralph Friedgen said. "I can't even tell you all the things she does, from working with the [Maryland Gridiron Network], to meet and greets, to tutoring kids. It's not something I've ever asked her to do; it's just something she wanted. And I think sometimes she enjoys her job more than I do. She will talk to anyone. She'll talk to the dead practically. Occasionally she sticks her foot in her mouth. Sometimes I tell her, just let the other person talk. You don't have to respond to everything."
Anyone who has spent any time around the Terps' football program can likely tell you a Gloria Friedgen story. For years, she held tailgate parties behind the Gossett Team House next to Byrd Stadium before every home game (with home-cooked Italian food, not catered), and anyone who wanted to show up was welcome. The NCAA, she says, told her she could no longer make it open to everyone because recruits and their families often attended, a potential rules violation, so this year it's been open only to MGN members. She and her best friend, Debbie Bebee, start shopping and cooking every Wednesday, and it is one of her favorite things to do.
There is no denying that Gloria, like her husband, is as genuine as they come. In the past, she has gotten into shouting matches with fans from North Carolina State and West Virginia; she's fired back at criticism directed at Ralph on one of the Terps' popular Internet message boards, www.terrapintimes.com; she's cried openly on the radio when Maryland won its first game under Friedgen in 2001; she's hosted Thanksgiving dinner for numerous football players who couldn't go home for the holiday; and she's won over hundreds simply by walking through the stands every home game, shaking hands and listening to stories. Her three daughters, Kelley, Kristina and Katie, beg her not to talk to the media at times, but she doesn't listen. A wallflower, she is not.
"I've mellowed some in recent years," Gloria said. "I used to get into it a lot more with fans. Ralph is always saying, `They pay for a ticket, and that's their right to say what they want.' But it's hard. I don't like criticism of my husband. He'll bring home letters sometimes from people that are just terrible. And I'll feel like, unless you've walked in his shoes and seen how hard he works, I don't see how you can say that."
It's hardly news that a football coach's wife would stick up for her husband. It's a tough business, and strong marriages are built, at least in part, on loyalty. But few, if any, in the country are willing to do it so publicly. When Antonio Logan-El, a highly sought offensive lineman, picked Penn State over Maryland last year at a televised news conference at the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore, Gloria Friedgen silenced the booing crowd by blurting out, "We'll win with him or without him," before walking out.
'You tell 'em, Ralph!'
At a game earlier this year against Middle Tennessee State, Ralph Friedgen was stalking the sideline with a sneer on his face, and he got into a heated discussion with a referee over a clipping penalty called on the Terrapins. Gloria, sitting with her daughters in her usual seats behind the Maryland bench, could be heard above the rowdy crowd noise, shouting, "You tell 'em Ralph! You tell 'em!"
When Friedgen hears the second story months later from a reporter, he throws his head back and laughs.
"Sometimes I wonder if maybe it wouldn't be better if she sat in the press box," Ralph Friedgen said. "I'm just afraid someone is going to shoot her one day. My father told me one time, 'Have you ever sat with her in the stands? Wow. She's out of control.' But I wouldn't want her to be anything else. She's like me, I guess. I am what I am."
There is a softer side to Gloria Friedgen, as well, seen up close by plenty of Maryland players. When Terps running back Josh Allen injured his knee in 2004 and needed major surgery, Gloria came to his house every day to help him study for his finals.
"She was there for me, pushing me a little bit," Allen said. "It was very helpful. She's a very loving and caring person. You can see it in everything she does - in the tailgates she does after the game, how she knows all of the players personally. She treats us as if we were her little boys."
Before each road game, Gloria Friedgen stands at the top of the steps of Byrd Stadium, touching each player before he climbs onto the bus. "I want them to know how much I appreciate their hard work and effort," Gloria said. "They're part of our family, and I want them to know that. I love having my three girls, because I have all the sons I could ever want."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun