When a Division I college football team struggles, the most vocal portion of the fan base tends to make itself heard.
That's the case at Maryland, where coach Ralph Friedgen and his staff have been a target of criticism in blogs and on message boards as the Terrapins have slipped to 2-6 overall (1-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) - his fewest victories this late in a season since taking over the program in 2001. While Friedgen has the support of a number of prominent boosters, his critics say Maryland's football program, which had a bye this weekend before playing Saturday at North Carolina State, needs new leadership.
But the situation in College Park is different from that at most schools. That's because the university signed an agreement Feb. 6 promising to pay $1 million to offensive coordinator James Franklin if he is not elevated to head coach by Jan. 2, 2012.
As much as the loudest Terps fans might clamor for wholesale change, what they likely will get is Franklin - a protege of Friedgen's once wooed by the NFL who defends his mentor and says the two share many coaching philosophies.
Franklin, 37, is as closely linked to Friedgen, 62, as a vice president is to a president. Like Friedgen, Franklin has endured criticism this season from fans who are frustrated with losing and said they wished Maryland hadn't committed to Franklin.
Franklin said Terps fans should not forget what Friedgen, 66-42 at Maryland, has accomplished for the university. Franklin said there is "no doubt" that the school can be a Top 25 program again given its location in a recruiting hotbed and its academic reputation. "You've got enough things going for you," he said.
Franklin returned to Maryland - where he had been an assistant - in December 2007 after two seasons as offensive coordinator at Kansas State. He said Friedgen "has definitely been a mentor to me."
"From a philosophical standpoint, we're very similar. Obviously there is a generational-gap difference in terms of just certain things he would handle compared with me. But general philosophy, things like that, we're very similar."
Like a presidential running mate, Franklin defers to Friedgen. But he is no Friedgen clone. While both are emotional men, Franklin, known for recruiting and his West Coast offense, is particularly animated. At halftime of last season's California game, Franklin punched an erasable board used to diagram plays, sending it tumbling to the floor. "He's a maniac sometimes," quarterback Chris Turner said with a smile.
Franklin said his philosophy for Maryland prominently involves having a mobile quarterback. With a faltering offensive line, Turner has run more this season to keep defenses honest. But Turner, a fifth-year senior, concedes that running is not one of his strengths.
"I want a throwing quarterback who has the ability to run," Franklin said. "We need a guy that's going to take the 6-yard sack, the negative-yard play, and turn it into a plus-6 or a plus-8. That's got to be a factor."
It has become increasingly popular for businesses and schools to name replacements in advance. Florida State, Texas, Oregon and Kentucky are among the schools that have used the approach with their football coaches to lure and retain talent.
Such arrangements are designed to ensure stability, particularly in recruiting, said ESPN recruiting analyst JC Shurburtt.
"Recruits are concerned with wins and losses, but they are much more concerned with stability because stability directly impacts the relationships they build with their future coaches and teammates," Shurburtt said. "Ultimately, relationships decide recruiting battles when it gets down to crunch time."
Said Maryland freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien: "With coaches moving around a lot nowadays - in and out every year - knowing who your coach is going to be is a positive."
But coach-in-waiting contracts can be risky, said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's certainly a risk when you identify the heir well in advance of his taking the position," Rosner said. "The heir who is part of a program whose decline began after he has already been identified can have some of the bloom fall off the rose, especially if he is thought to be part of the problem - or if the culture within the program is thought to be problematic."
Maryland's most glaring problems this season have been turnovers and its young offensive line. Several linemen from the 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes left school. The line has also been thinned by injuries.
Franklin said his hope for the future is that the current group of linemen - minus starting center Phil Costa, who is in his final season - improves and is pushed by current freshmen Pete White, Pete DeSouza and others. Right now, Franklin said, "we're playing with some young guys who probably aren't ready."
It is uncertain when Franklin will become head coach. Athletic director Deborah Yow said in a July interview that the university doesn't "intend to ever pay the million dollars" that would be contractually owed Franklin if the school doesn't name him to succeed Friedgen by 2012. Friedgen told The Baltimore Sun on the same day that he might not be ready to retire at that point.
Friedgen has two full seasons remaining on his contract after this year. The coach, who makes about $2 million a year, entered the season ranked eighth all time in career winning percentage by ACC coaches. His teams have had losing records in three of the past five years.
Shurburtt called Maryland's recruiting "solid. They always seem to find very good football players in the area they recruit."
At the same time, Shurburtt said, "there are years that other programs come into the state and take the top players."
Friedgen said he appreciates how difficult this season has been on fans, players - and himself. "I'm disheartened right now, but I've got to be strong," he said.
Yow said Friedgen, like all coaches, will be evaluated at the end of the season. Maryland has four games remaining.
Franklin, who was courted by the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well as other colleges, said he doesn't concern himself with the timing of his promotion. "It will take care of itself when the time is right," he said.
Some fans, however, expressed disappointment that Maryland has put its stock in a disciple of Friedgen's and feel that the program needs to go in a different direction.
"I am thinking that they [Maryland athletic officials] made a serious mistake," said Keith Pittman, a season-ticket holder who believes the university should have looked elsewhere and hired someone such as New Mexico coach Mike Locksley, a former Maryland assistant.
Franklin said he's disturbed by fan criticism of Friedgen, who is backed by prominent members of the Maryland Gridiron Network and the Terrapin Club. MGN is a booster group that raises money for special football projects. The Terrapin Club provides scholarships for athletes.
"The one thing I think people forget is before Ralph got here and what the program was like," Franklin said. "I don't think there is enough appreciation for what he's done for this university, for this community. But I guess that's the world we live in."