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Keeping Friedgen was the right decision, and there are millions of reasons why

In the late 1990s, when Ralph Friedgen was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, he used to dream about one day becoming the head football coach at the University of Maryland for a number of reasons. The school, Friedgen's alma mater, was in his opinion, a sleeping giant. From what he'd been told, there were more University of Maryland graduates just in the Mid-Atlantic region than there were Georgia Tech graduates in the entire United States. It was a huge untapped fan base, he thought, and the potential for fund-raising was enormous.

All they needed was a little success to start believing in the football program. From 1985 to 2000, Maryland went to one bowl game, and posted only two winning seasons.

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When he finally got the job, Friedgen gave that same fan base a small taste of success. He won 10 game in each of his first three seasons, and was named the Coach of the Year by four different organizations in 2001. I covered some of those early teams, and it's kind of humorous now to read some of my old clips, and see quotes from players boasting that they wanted the program to compete not just for ACC Championships but a National Championship.

But that success was harder to sustain than anyone thought it would be, and this year injuries, inexperience and poor execution led to a frustrating 2-10 record. It's the kind of season that often leads to a coach getting fired.

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The past few days, athletic director Debbie Yow was reportedly evaluating the program, and possibly mulling whether or not to bring Friedgen back. Perhaps it's naive of me, but I never seriously believed for a second that Friedgen would be gone. Most people don't really think about the hard economic realities of college athletics at a public university, especially one with a fanbase that's always had sort of lukewarm feelings about its football program. They simply react with emotion.

Fire the coach! they squeal. He's a bum! We can do so much better.

The truth is, Maryland can't do any better. At least right now.

Firing Friedgen with two years left on his contract would cost millions of dollars. (Whether than number is closer to $2 million or $4 million is debatable, because it's unclear how many of the incentives in Friedgen's contract the school would have to fork over.) Plus, on top of that, you'd need to cough up millions more to either sign James Franklin to a multi-year deal, or buy him out of the $1 million clause that he got when he was named the head coach-in-waiting. If you didn't want Franklin, you'd have to pay him and Friedgen to leave, then conduct a lengthy search, and then hand another coach a four-year deal worth between $6 million and $8 million for a multi-year deal.

Maryland simply does not have the kind of money, nor does it have the kind of fan base that could raise that kind of money, especially in this recession. (It's too bad Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a University of Maryland grad, doesn't seem to be much of a college football fan.) If you think otherwise, you're in total denial. Notre Dame can do this, and so can a school like the University of Alabama. But Maryland cannot.

Both Yow and Friedgen are in a bit of a difficult spot right now, and as is often the case, there are plenty of supporters and detractors lining up on either side. Some people blame Yow for signing Friedgen to a long-term deal back in 2004, while others think it's Friedgen's fault for not building on his early promise.

But the more honest assessment is that the two of them both created this uncomfortable situation. And that's why they should be forced to try and make it work for another two seasons.

Yow is in a tough spot because she has luxury boxes in Byrd Stadium and season tickets that she needs to sell, and coming off a 2-and-10 season, that's going to be a miserable sales pitch. As awful as Maryland's football program was before Friedgen, she's clearly of the mind that it needs to continue to grow, or a change needs to be made. And that's fair. Maryland can't be paying Friedgen millions of dollars to go 2-10.

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But Friedgen didn't offer himself that lengthy contract extension either. That was Yow, when she feared the NFL was sniffing around College Park a bit too often to see if her football coach was interested. In retrospect, yes, maybe she could have called that bluff. But that's an easy call in hindsight. Everyone thought it was the right move at the time. And you can still argue, even now, that it was.

Friedgen, if you really take a step back and look at it, has been a victim of his own early success as much as anything. He convinced fans they should expect -- and even demand -- more. (And fans gave him money as a result to help the program.) In nine years, he's been to six bowl games. That looks pretty good, although not great, until you compare it to the school's track record. Then it looks outstanding. The 50 years prior to his arrival, the school went to a total of 15 bowl games, and Friedgen was on staff for four of those appearances as an assistant under Bobby Ross. This is not exactly a school that can boast long tradition of sustained excellence, and that was before it raised it academic standards, a dilemma that shuts out a few potential recruits each year.

But Friedgen knows failing to crack the final Top 25 rankings for six-consecutive years isn't going to cut it. Friedgen has graduated kids and stayed out of trouble with the NCAA -- save one minor blip with Victor Abiamiri and an X-Box -- but he has to figure out a way to land more of the top local recruits. Seeing them sign with other schools is a morale killer for the fans, especially those who are as obsessed with recruiting as they are with what happens on the field. He has to put a roster on the field that isn't a patch-work assembly of former walk-ons who have beaten out players who were once highly-ranked, but turned out to be busts. And he has to find a top-notch quarterback who can help him overcome other short-comings. Maryland should be in a bowl game four out of every five years. They should never lose to Duke and James Madison.

Those aren't unrealistic expectations.

In fact, I know for a fact Friedgen's own expectations are much higher than that. 

They are, however, greater expectations than the fanbase had when Friedgen first got the job.

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He taught them to ask for more, and so they did.

And now he and Yow have at least one more year to work together and get it fixed.

Sun photo: Karl Merton Ferron


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