First, I want to preface this by saying this discussion seems to have at least partially divided Terrapin Nation. Regardless of where you come down in this debate, please remember to keep it civil.
I started off my freshman year at Maryland during Ralph's first year. I still have my "Fridge Fever - It's Red Hot. Catch it!" tee shirt. It was a magical season - traveling to Georgia Tech to see Novak kick that game winner in OT, going to NC State to see us clinch the ACC and have students throw oranges onto State's field, and even going to the Orange Bowl (even though the result sucked) was amazing. So were both the Gator and Peach Bowls. Ralph has done a lot for this program and regardless of where you come down in this debate, every Maryland fan should thank him for making football relevant at Maryland again. But even after an ACC title, 7 bowl games and 2 ACC Coach of the Year awards, Maryland knew it had to move on from Ralph Friedgen. And while it appears this is the first time a BCS school has let a coach go after they won a coach of the year award, that doesn't mean this decision was wrong.
As I said, I like Ralph and I think he did a tremendous job quickly turning a dormant Maryland football program and making it relevant again for Terps fans. But while Ralph did a lot of good for the program, last season was arguably one of the worst in Maryland football history, with the program suffering double-digit losses for the first time ever. And while Ralph and the staff did a lot to bounce back from that 2-10 season, the program really should have never been in that position in the first place. And had that 2-10 season not happened, there is no way Ralph wins the ACC Coach of the Year award this season. Thus, I think you can dismiss the argument that Ralph should have stayed because he was this season's Coach of the Year. If you don't lost 10 games in 2009, he's not winning that award for going 8-4 in 2010, it's as simple as that. But aside from that argument, there are still several other reason why Maryland needed to move on without Ralph.
1. Without an extension, Ralph was a lame-duck coach in 2011 after Franklin departed for Vanderbilt.
Kevin Anderson seemed to not want to extend Ralph beyond 2011, the year in which his contract was set to expire. Anderson had to be worried and weary about extending Ralph, since Maryland's record over the last five seasons was 33-30 under Friedgen. With unsold suite and unsold seats in Byrd, Anderson couldn't commit to extending Ralph beyond 2011 for fear that he wouldn't be able to win enough to re-capture fan interest to sell more tickets and suites. And if Friedgen didn't continue to perform at a high level, he was probably worried he'd have to buy out Ralph and presumably a new coaching staff, on top of not selling enough tickets, which would have put the Athletic Department in a bad situation financially. Thus, Anderson made the judgement that extending Ralph was too risky. But since Franklin was gone, there was no coach in place for after the 2011 season. That makes getting and maintaining recruits hard. And add in the fact that Maryland's best recruiter just left for Vandy and you're looking at a disaster waiting to happen on the recruiting front. Once Anderson decided it was too risky to extend Ralph, he in essence made him a lame duck and Anderson knew he couldn't have a lame duck coach for an entire year without having a successor in place. So the best solution was to make that change now, rather than wait.
2. The Fan Support for Ralph was Lacking
In Ralph's first game at Byrd in 2001, just over 44,000 fans showed up to watch Maryland beat North Carolina. As the team kept winning that season, those numbers kept increasing. By the last game of the season against Clemson in 2001, when Maryland had a chance to clinch at least a share of the ACC title, 52,462 filed in to pack Byrd. People were again interested in Maryland football. Even in 2004, when Maryland was mathematically unable to become bowl eligible and had a somewhat meaningless home game against Wake to close out the season, over 48,000 turned out for the game. People were willing to forget one disappointing season after experiencing 3 straight great seasons. But since then, fan interest has started to fade when it comes to Maryland football. The Terps haven't had a dominant season since Ralph's first three years in College Park. And fan attendance has started to trickle down. This season, in the final home game, with the Terps playing for their 8th win of the season, just over 35,000 showed up at Byrd. In the previous game, against FSU, at night, with the ACC title on the line, just over 48,000 showed up for the game, well short of a sell out. That game should have been a sell out. When it wasn't, I feared it could spell trouble for Ralph because if that didn't create enough buzz to sell out the stadium (a stadium which is on the smaller side compared to other ACC schools), what was going to? That lack of fan support has left the athletic department with less money than they probably anticipated from football ticket sales and leaves the newly added suites at Byrd unfilled. No fans = no money. And football is the biggest money maker in college athletics.
3. Franklin's Departure Forced Anderson' Hand
Had James Franklin not become the head coach of Vanderbilt, he likely would have taken over for Ralph after next season. And having Franklin lined up to do that meant Maryland didn't have to worry about a "lame duck" excuse when talking to both recruits and fans. But once Franklin bolted, that immediately changed. And Franklin's departure also meant he would likely take some of the current coaches with him. That matters for two reasons. First, if they were to buy out Friedgen, they'd also have to buy out his assistant coaches, since the new coach they hired would want to bring in their own staff. Franklin's departure gives them a great advantage to do the buy out now, as they'd have to pay a lower number of coaches,since several are following Franklin to Vandy. Second, assuming some coaches do follow Franklin, that would mean Ralph would have to hire new coaches to replace them. And most coaches wouldn't want to go somewhere for a year, not knowing if their boss would still be there the following year. And even if they did, if Maryland let Friedgen go after 2011, that would mean Maryland would be responsible for buying out all of those coaches who he hired in 2010, assuming they were given multi-year deals when hired to work on Ralph's staff. So with Franklin's departure, this was yet another reason Anderson had to move forward without Ralph. Financially, this was the best time to make a move and in terms of the good of the program, this was the best opportunity to make a change.
I don't think this is how Kevin Anderson pictured this who situation developing. I think once information got out that hinted at Ralph possibly not being back next year, that caused a snowball affect that leaves us sitting here tonight still trying to catch our breath. Do I think this situation has been handled as well as it could have been? Probably not. But I have no doubt that this was the correct move to make for the Maryland football program and for the athletic department at the University of Maryland. The opportunity was there and, presuming they do indeed hire Leach, his name will likely put more butts in seats in Byrd next year. His hire is a commitment that Maryland wants this program to take that next step, up from mediocre/occasionally relevant to a national football power.
I wish Ralph the best and thank him for everything he's done to put Maryland football in this position. I hope he'll stay on in some capacity at Maryland. But if Maryland wanted to make their program more relevant, this was the time to act, for a variety of reasons. I'll be going to the Military Bowl to give Ralph his one last hurrah and send him off in style with a "W." I hope others will do the same. But I also hope others see why this was necessary for the overall outlook of the football program at Maryland.