When I was a young beat writer covering the University of Maryland football team in 2003 and 2004, I convinced Ralph Friedgen to let me take a road trip with him.
I've always been fascinated by origin stories (which is probably why Batman Begins is one of my favorite movies in recent years) and I wanted to better understand Friedgen's relationship with his dad, a legendary high school football coach in upstate New York. All successful people are driven by something, and for Friedgen, it was the desire to prove to his father (even after his father passed away) that he was as tough, as smart, and as prepared as anyone who had ever held a clipboard and a whistle.
College football coaches have become increasingly guarded about the media in the last 10 years, with so many of them under the (mistaken) impression that what they're doing deserves a level of secrecy on par with the military or the NSA, but Friedgen is one of the rare coaches who, in the right situation, is willing to open up and bare his soul a little bit. I rode shotgun as he piloted his Cadillac Escalade north to a football banquet in Pennsylvania, peppering him with questions as we wove our way through freeway traffic, away from Baltimore and into Maryland farm country. Our conversation continued that night after his banquet was over, just the two of us sitting in a hotel bar drinking scotch and talking about fathers and sons. (You can read the story I wrote about he and his dad here.)
I asked Friedgen a few times about doubt, perhaps in part because it's something I struggle with occasionally in my own career.
Did you ever, I asked him, worry about whether you'd be any good at this when you finally got your shot? During all those late nights studying film, did you ever think, I wonder what people are going to say if this doesn't go well at first?
Friedgen sipped his drink and smiled. "Kevin," he said. "If you hang around me long enough, you'll probably begin to see that one thing I don't lack is confidence in myself."
I was reminded of this quote often during Maryland's lean years, especially when I'd peruse the Terps Internet message boards and read that every Joe Sixpack with keyboard courage wanted him gone. Football coaches get entirely too much of the credit and too much of the blame these days. Friedgen isn't the sole reason Maryland lost to Middle Tennessee State earlier this year, and he isn't the sole reason the Terps defeated No. 17 North Carolina this weekend, putting themselves in position to reach the ACC Championship Game with two more victories (and maybe just one, depending on what Boston College does). But that unwavering self confidence, the belief that he knew what he was doing even in bad times, is probably the main reason why the Terps are back where they should be.
Let's be honest: This is not a program that is ever going to morph into a national power. Maryland doesn't have the facilities, the fan base, the recruiting prowess or the budget to fulfill that fantasy, not when football in the SEC and the Big 10 is treated with religious devotion by their fans and school presidents. What it can do, and should do, is run a clean respectable program that has more winning seasons than losing seasons.
Regardless of what happens during Maryland's final two weeks, this will be the sixth time in eight seasons Maryland has gone to a bowl game. They're 63-34 during his time as head coach. He is not Urban Meyer, Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel or even Frank Beamer, but that's nothing to be ashamed of. He's never had the athletes to work with those coaches have, and he likely never will. (Recruiting does not occur in a vacuum, despite what some people believe.) He's done a pretty decent job graduating the athletes he does get (almost 70 percent), and every indication is that he runs a clean program.
Friedgen can be ornery and grumpy at times, and his teams can be frustrating to watch, especially when he has a quarterback who is still struggling to grasp his complex schemes. But he has done exactly what was asked of him when he was hired in 2001. He has given Maryland football credibility again, not just in the short term, but over the long haul.
Maryland's program can, and should, continue to make strides. But it's probably time our confidence that he knows what he's doing begins to mirror his own.
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