It was Sept. 1, 2001, and I was in my fourth year on the Maryland football beat. It was Ralph Friedgen’s first game and what do I remember most?
The food in the press box.
It was hot and good, and servers divvied up meat and vegetables to ink-stained wretches and the like, all as hungry for a good meal as we were for the chance to cover a winning team. We weren’t used to either in the recent history of the program.
Ralph changed all that.
My first true signal, other than what I was hearing around camp from players and coaches, was that food. I don’t remember the exact content — I’m an eat-first-ask-questions-later guy — but I remember how vastly improved it was over the previous press box potpourri. We were just a few years removed from “Debbie Dogs,” a name coined for the hot dogs in water in the flat, metal bins served up pregame and labeled for then-athletic director Debbie Yow.
The 2001 upgrade on my pregame plate was a foreshadowing for football fortunes in then-Byrd Stadium. There was a renewed commitment to getting this pigskin thing right, right down to the food on my Styrofoam plate.
And Friedgen, the long-overlooked college and NFL assistant, was the catalyst, taking the pieces left him by Ron Vanderlinden and tapping into years of frustration to motivate the Terrapins back to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Friedgen and that 2001 team will be honored Saturday at Maryland Stadium, celebrating the 20th anniversary of that championship, Orange Bowl squad and the turnaround it signaled. “Fridge” would lead his alma mater to seven bowl appearances, including a Terrapin record five postseason victories. He had 12 wins against top-25 teams, was 2001 consensus national coach of the year and became the first coach to win the ACC title in his first season.
Michael Locksley was on that first Fridge staff as running backs coach, a holdover from Vanderlinden’s four-year, 15-win, but not entirely unsuccessful tenure. Locksley waxes eloquently about Vanderlinden as a talent evaluator. Locksley was a vital part of stocking the cupboard for Fridegen, who came in with the keys to unlock it.
“One of the first things [Friedgen] said to the team was, ‘I’m not going to teach you how to win, I’m going to teach you how not to lose,’ and from that day on I’ve carried that as my mantra as a coach,” Locksley said at his news conference Oct. 26. “Good teams don’t beat themselves. I learned that from Coach Friedgen.”
But it’s not always that easy. Turnovers, penalties and mistakes have plagued this year’s Terrapins in three straight losses after that promising 4-0 start.
“Right now, that’s what’s killing them, too many penalties,” Friedgen said on Glenn Clark Radio Oct. 26. “I know [Locksley] is frustrated with that. Then the turnovers, they keep mounting and that stops your development. You have to experience success to build confidence. There’s enough talent there. They just have to believe in themselves.”
Friedgen’s strong suit was always in his ability to motivate his players, and they were often amazingly resilient.
The other thing I remember vividly from that first Friedgen game in 2001 was North Carolina’s first play, a 77-yard touchdown dash by Tar Heel tailback Willie Parker. There was a collective sagging of shoulders in the entire stadium, but the next tip that things had changed was Maryland running off 23 straight points in an impressive victory.
The Terrapins would rattle off seven consecutive wins, including the unforgettable 20-17 Thursday night overtime win at Georgia Tech, Friedgen’s previous team. Redshirt freshman Nick Novak kicked a career-long 46-yard field goal on the final play of regulation to tie, and then added a shorter field goal in overtime to win.
Powerhouse Florida State would end the winning streak but not dampen the season-long celebration. Fans took down the goal posts in the final home game, a 37-20 win against Clemson that snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Tigers. In the regular-season finale at NC State, Shaun Hill’s 8-yard scoring pass to Guilian Gary with 41 seconds left gave the Terrapins a 23-19 victory and their first ACC championship in 16 years, ending FSU’s nine-year stranglehold.
“I was very fortunate to inherit a bunch of kids who were tired of losing,” Friedgen told Clark. “They would really do whatever I said to prepare themselves to win. They didn’t get down when everybody was saying this is ‘the same old Maryland,’ but we showed them that we weren’t the same old Maryland.”
Locksley is fighting the same fight now and still turns to his “mentor.” According to Fridge, he and Locks talk “on a weekly basis,” and the former honcho helps in any way he can with advice and encouragement. Like Friedgen, Locksley knew the landscape coming back for his third tour of duty (he was also an assistant under Randy Edsall) at Maryland, and that’s an advantage in rebuilding, one both believe can soon pay dividends.
Friedgen knows. His Terp teams were 75-50 from 2001-2010, with 10 or more wins in three seasons. He was a tough act to follow. A 1970 Maryland grad, and then an up-and-coming assistant for revered Bobby Ross and his three ACC championship teams in the early ’80s, Friedgen wore his heart, his liver and his spleen on his sleeve at Maryland.
The man had trouble not telling the truth to his players and they loved him for it. He did the same for the media and fans, and when things turned sour for him with the administration at the end of his tenure, he had a lot of friends.
Immediately following, Edsall and DJ Durkin never heard a media question they felt they could meet with a straight answer, and that hurt them more than they understood. No matter the quality of food, those of us trying to unearth nuggets and truth on the beat, suffered. But I digest, I mean digress.
Fridge was such an easy target for questions you could wrap a story around. And I have a confession to make. I was among a small, veteran cabal of reporters who specifically asked questions later in Ralph’s career we thought could get the Big Softy emotional or ready to charge out on the field. “Border” rivalries with West Virginia and Virginia would elicit great stories and you could see Ralph’s blood starting to boil in the recollection.
What Maryland fan wouldn’t love that passion for the Terrapins?
I once worded a question about the injuries and adversity his beloved offensive line had faced in such a way that Ralph teared up and cried a little answering me. It made for great copy but now that I’m older and a little more emotional myself, I feel bad I did it.
If I get to see him Saturday, I’m keeping my mouth shut about the whole thing.
A lot because I may be so emotional seeing the man who made my job and Maryland football so much fun.
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox