With soaring expectations, Friedgen, UM reach for sky

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK - With so much of Maryland's aspirations riding on what happens the next two weeks, one might wish the Terps entered this season of sky-high expectations a little more healthy.

That would include the coach.

The hip replacement surgery, carefully scheduled in May to not interrupt spring football or the start of fall camp, was tough enough for Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen. He was hoping that two months after the operation, he'd get in a little golf.

Leg elevated and held tight in post-operative stockings, it has definitely been no dice, even on a short round.

The only golf-cart driving Friedgen's doing is around the College Park practice fields. Yesterday, he maniacally floored the electric buggy to maximum speed across two gridirons to scream holy hell at a walk-on center who wasn't where he should have been.

Poor walk-on.

Poor Friedgen.

"My doctor just looked at me and said, 'Work on your short game,' " Friedgen said with a laugh.

Now, with the Terps' season opener at Northern Illinois on Thursday night, there are complications that make his recovery no joking matter. The blood clots above and below his left knee have Friedgen downing blood thinners. It's potentially dangerous enough that Friedgen gets weekly checks of his coagulation levels.

"I used to stand right behind the quarterback [during drills]. Now I stand off on the hash marks, out of harm's way. If I get hit in the leg, there could be swelling. If I get hit in the head, I could get bleeding on the brain," he said.

He's concerned, he said, but not enough to recuperate away from the Maryland team that he has, in two dynamic seasons, guided to a stellar 21-5 regular-season record, and a No. 15 Associated Press ranking this year.

With gallows humor, Friedgen again laughed about his healing tactics.

"I told my wife, 'I don't want to rust out.' I want to live doing what I do. Besides, I think it's already on the calendar. It's pre-ordained. When it's time to go, it's time. I like winning. I like winning football games and graduating kids. That's what I do."

Let this statement from Friedgen serve as a preamble for the Terps' 2003 season. The coach is as focused, as committed and as prepared as ever, even as Maryland enters this season the subject of the highest expectations since the Bobby Ross days.

Not that Friedgen cares about polls that say Auburn, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State, Miami, North Carolina State and Ohio State are contenders.

"I think it makes pretty good water cooler chatter for our alums and our fans. They get jacked up. I'm more excited about how we end up. I don't know why they do [preseason polls]," he said.

Likewise, Friedgen is wary that expectations can have both a negative and positive effect.

"It can be a problem when you're losing, and there can be problems when you're winning," he said.

"I've got people telling things in these kids' ears - things they shouldn't hear. I've got 12 kids with a chance to be drafted, and there are agents talking to them. I've already seen some of those guys don't want to push, they're 'saving themselves' for the league. Well, that's not how we've done things around here, how we've won. We've had a common goal," he said.

If the specter of unwanted attention toward his top players is an issue (Friedgen has pulled some of those players aside and showed them tape of poor practices) and if the preseason polls bug him, there are other issues.

Who would dare mention that there's talk about the Terps being in the hunt for BCS consideration?

That seems a bit of a stretch, considering the Terps' relatively soft schedule as compared to the ACC's two other ranked teams.

Florida State gets its built-in ratings boost from matchups against Florida and Miami.

N.C. State, ranked ahead of Maryland in most polls and a sleeper pick for BCS consideration, plays defending national champion Ohio State on Sept. 13.

There's no discernible jealousy in College Park about N.C. State, but the Wolfpack could be the pick of this conference, if it lives up to its preseason billing. N.C. State certainly could prove a worthy opponent for the Buckeyes, who will be without Maurice Clarett, the embattled sophomore tailback set to sit out multiple games for NCAA violations.

For whatever stock can be taken from preseason prognostications - and we know where Friedgen stands on this topic - the Terps would pretty much have to go undefeated to get into a big-money bowl.

All this conspires to place even greater emphasis on the Terps' second game of the season at Florida State.

"I don't think there's been a Maryland team around here that has gone down to Florida State thinking it has a chance to win in a long time. That's something we think we can do," Terps quarterback Scott McBrien said.

Of course, unlike his players, who are pleased with their new status as a rising football power, Friedgen refuses to mentally visit Tallahassee. The Terps are hampered by injuries and the mood doesn't quite suit Friedgen, who smilingly reminds us that he is never happy.

"Someone sent me a tape of a preseason TV show from Northern Illinois," he said. "They were calling this the biggest game ever to come to their stadium. That has me concerned a little. We don't have all our bullets, and they're going to be flying high. They've got good coaching."

Same goes for Maryland.

It's probably going to take running the table for the Terps to get to the next level. With Friedgen at the helm, even in his golf cart, even nursing his post-operative hip and troubled knee, it could be time.

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