The last time Ralph Friedgen was at Maryland for a game, he was the offensive coordinator at Rutgers in 2014. With the Scarlet Knights trailing 35-10 late in the first half, Friedgen was momentarily distracted after looking up from his play-call sheet to see a montage of highlights from his 10 years as coach of the Terps.
"I said, ‘Why the hell are they showing that stuff for?’ ” Friedgen recalled in a telephone interview Monday. “We were 25 points behind when they did the tribute.”
Rutgers went on to win that game, 41-38, and Friedgen retired from coaching after serving as special assistant to former coach Kyle Flood in 2015.
When the Terps play No. 13 Penn State in their Big Ten opener Sept. 27, Friedgen will be back at Maryland Stadium, this time as his alma mater’s honorary game captain.
First-year coach Mike Locksley, who served as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Maryland under Friedgen in 2001 and 2002 after working on Ron Vanderlinden’s staff the previous four years, announced at his weekly news conference Tuesday that he wanted to give his former boss a more fitting send-off.
“I can’t tell you the impact Ralph has had on Maryland football, the community, as well as college football,” Locksley said. “He’s a guy I have the utmost respect for, that I’ve always looked to as a guy that loves and has passion for this place like I do. To be able to bring him back and honor him in the right way, I know I’m excited as well as our team and our fans.”
Locksley said one of the first things he asked of athletic director Damon Evans after being hired last December was to bring back Friedgen, now 72.
“Damon was all on board with it and felt very strongly, like I do, that Ralph should be honored in a [better] way. … I don’t think he got honored on the way out like he should have, in my opinion,” Locksley said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun on Monday.
“He restored Maryland football. He brought some consistency back. Just all the effort he put in to get it back to being a strong program. If he was up to it — whether it was health-wise or just energy-wise — to be utilized in a fashion that can just keep pushing the Maryland brand.”
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In Friedgen’s first three seasons after replacing Vanderlinden in 2001, the Terps were a combined 31-8 and had double-digit wins each year.
No coach in school history did better in their first three years than Friedgen, and only two, Jim Tatum and Jerry Claiborne, had a higher winning percentage over any three-year period than Friedgen’s first three seasons (.795).
Maryland went 10-2 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference title in Friedgen’s first season, when he was named ACC Coach of the Year, losing to Florida in the Orange Bowl. The Terps followed up with records of 11-3 and 10-3, beating Tennessee in the Peach Bowl in 2002 and West Virginia in the Gator Bowl in 2003.
Friedgen’s last Maryland team went 9-4 in 2010, when he was named ACC Coach of the Year for the second time. He was fired toward the end of that season by former athletic director Kevin Anderson, coaching his final game (a 51-20 win over East Carolina in the Military Bowl) as a lame duck. Friedgen’s overall record at Maryland was 75-50.
Locksley said Friedgen should be revered as an “ambassador” by the school and its fans, similar to former men’s basketball coach and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Gary Williams, who retired in the spring of 2011, a few months after Friedgen was fired after refusing to step down.
“I said, ‘Look, Ralph Friedgen is a guy that in my opinion is what Gary is to basketball, he is to football here,’ at least to my knowledge,” Locksley said. “He was here during the successful run with Coach [Bobby] Ross as his coordinator [from 1982 to 1986]. Then he came back in kind of what I call the renaissance years of Maryland athletics.
“Basketball won the national championship. We played in the BCS bowl game and won an ACC championship. Being an alum that wore the Terps uniform [from 1966 to 1968] and coming back as a coach and his passion for Maryland football and Maryland athletics in general, he’s kind of transcended all the generations of Terps football.”
Friedgen said he had initially planned to be at the Indiana game Oct. 19, when players and coaches from the 1984 team, which won the second of three straight ACC titles and is most remembered for its “Miracle in Miami” comeback win, will be honored.
Kevin Glover, who was an All-American center on that team and now serves as the director of player development on Locksley’s staff, first broached the idea of Friedgen being the honorary captain for the Penn State game about a month ago.
It took Friedgen a couple of days to figure out why.
“The more I go on, it’s a little bigger than I thought it would be,” Friedgen said.
There’s a bit of irony for bringing back Friedgen for a game against the Nittany Lions.
Penn State coach James Franklin had been set to be Friedgen’s successor at Maryland. Franklin, Friedgen’s offensive coordinator, had been named “coach in waiting” by Anderson’s predecessor, Debbie Yow, before the 2009 season. At the time, Friedgen had three years left on his contract.
Part of the promise from Yow included a $1 million payout to Franklin if he was not named Friedgen’s successor. Franklin wound up leaving Maryland to become the head coach at Vanderbilt shortly before Friedgen was fired.
Along with the Penn State game being the home game when all former Maryland lettermen, including Friedgen, are being invited back, Locksley said: “It’s also probably the most exposure we’ll get for our program this year, this early. To me, it’s the best time to honor a guy that’s done more for Maryland football as far I know.”
Friedgen had a rocky relationship with his alma mater for several years after his ouster.
In a 2011 interview with a Baltimore radio station, Friedgen said he burned his diploma and was flying a Georgia Tech flag — he had been the team’s offensive coordinator in two different stints for a total of nine years before returning to Maryland as its coach in 2001 — outside his home in Charleston, South Carolina.
But things began to soften when DJ Durkin reached out to him after being named Maryland’s coach following the 2015 season.
Friedgen has remained close with Locksley since keeping him on the staff after replacing Vanderlinden. Locksley said he talked with his former boss as he was deciding whether to leave his job as Alabama’s offensive coordinator after last season.
“I’ve always felt like Mike was destined for the job,” Friedgen said Monday. “It’s definitely a different feel [coming back this year] because he made it a different feel. I think DJ started it, but it kind of ended when he [got fired]. It’s definitely different with Mike, because we’re in touch quite a bit right now and he’s asked my opinion on a lot of things. I don’t hesitate to give him what I think.”