Postmortem: Remembering Ralph Friedgen and the Decision That Forced Him Out

And just like that, it's over. Ralph Friedgen, it was one hell of a ride.

When Friedgen came into Maryland's program, expectations were not high. The previous decade for Maryland football included one winning season, no bowl games, and an overall record of 37-73. Attendance was through the floor and fan interest was worse. The horrible stretch endured in the 1990s had Maryland football, despite a relatively illustrious history including a national championship and a few decades of ACC dominance, on the verge of becoming another Duke.

In that sense, what Friedgen accomplished in his first few years were nothing short of remarkable. He entered as a determined alumnus, ready to transform a losing culture into something else entirely, and he succeeded. In his first season, Maryland won ten games, an ACC championship, and a berth in the Orange Bowl, their first trip since the national championship in 1955. His next two years were nearly as successful, both reaching double-digits in the wins column and resulting in well-respected bowl victories. Out of nowhere, Maryland football re-emerged as an ACC power.

Quite literally, those first three seasons saved Maryland's program. It saved them from a fourth straight failed hire, from apathy in the fanbase, from continual ineptitude, and from becoming a permanent doormat. Watching Scott McBrien, Shaun Hill, Bruce Perry, Madeiu Williams, E.J. Henderson, and a host of others reintroduced some to Maryland football and gave others their first taste. You can say he didn't do it with his players or that he didn't sustain that success (and you'd be right on both counts), but for those three seasons, none of that mattered. He made Maryland football relevant again, both on a national scale and back in College Park, a task that seemed impossible, or at least highly improbable, when he took the job.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon ended quickly. After the third consecutive 10-win season in 2003, Maryland looked like it was the on the verge of becoming a national power. The leap just never happened, and in fact the opposite occurred. The Terrapins suffered back to back losing seasons and had to endure the Joel-Statham-as-QB era. The six years after the three-year run saw a record of 35-38, three bowl appearances, and a variety of frustrating ends to the season that prevented any serious run at another Orange Bowl.

Things hit their nadir in 2009, when Maryland went 2-10 and Friedgen held onto his job by a whisker of an economic downturn. The ship turned around quickly this season, when Maryland went 8-4 and Friedgen was named ACC Coach of the Year. That appeared it would be enough to keep Friedgen on board after seven rollercoaster years.

And, for awhile, it was. Kevin Anderson, Maryland's athletic director, even came out and said it was, stating that Friedgen would be around for the final year of his contract. But the situation changed dramatically when James Franklin, Maryland's head coach in waiting, left for the head coaching job at Vanderbilt.

Franklin's presence as HCIW allowed Maryland to keep Friedgen around with only one year remaining on his contract without suffering a lame-duck season. But Franklin's absence not only brought a lame-duck year, it also resulted in a few likely openings in the coaching staff, most importantly at offensive coordinator. For Maryland to have any chance of filling those openings or retaining anxious assistants, they would've had to extend Friedgen long-term.

This was a problem for Anderson, who - it is now clear - did not want Friedgen as the coach of the future. He was fine as the coach of the present, of course - Maryland was doing just fine as it is - but Anderson, like much of the fanbase, had his doubts about Friedgen's ability to take Maryland to the next level. Evidently, the same doubts existed about James Franklin, seeing as Anderson didn't hand the job over to him right away, or promise him that it would be his the following year. The original plan seems rather clear and logical, looking back on it: retain Friedgen for 2011, let the contract expire, and conduct a national search, one that included but wasn't limited to James Franklin.

But Franklin's absence disrupted all that, obviously, and Anderson was left with two choices: extend Friedgen long-term, or cut him loose now and begin building. Of course, not believing Friedgen was his coach of the future, he took option B.

Friedgen wasn't happy with the decision, naturally. He mentioned that his final practices felt like a "slow death", which is why I included "postmortem" in the title. He's come out with a barrage of passive-aggressive quotes, quietly indicting Maryland's administration. And it's mostly understandable - no one's been more upset than me about the way he's portrayed the situation, but the anger at being let go by his alma mater is understandable.

Was it the right choice? No one will know that for years, and arguing over it is ultimately an exercise in futility. Friedgen undeniably had greater success at Maryland than his three predecessors, and his overall record, 75-50, is nothing to sneeze at. Neither is having five seasons with at least nine wins.

But Maryland's goal was something bigger than the ten years Friedgen gave them. There are new, likely Oregon-esque uniforms on the way (and potentially a picture of them...look in the background). Byrd Stadium is still sparkling from expansion. Under Armour is getting a stronger foothold in the market each day. Maryland is looking for national relevance along the likes of Oregon, and it's questionable as to whether or not Friedgen is the guy that could take them there. His program-building history is certainly less-than-ideal - Maryland was on this doorstep once before, of course, and the Terrapins promptly had two losing seasons.

Whether the decision is right or wrong - again, we won't know that for years - it clearly wasn't made with emotions in mind. That's brutally obvious, both by the timing of the act and, really, the act itself: the firing of an ACC-Coach-of-the-Year-winning alumnus. The decision was made in a vacuum, looking at the war and not the battle. Friedgen was an unfortunate casualty of it all.

So he'll take his $2 million and become Frank Beamer's offensive coordinator or head down to Atlanta and golf. Both options sound appetizing to me.

I'm not a big "keep Friedgen" guy, as I'm sure you've noticed by this point. Maryland has big dreams, big goals, and big potential, and Friedgen might not necessarily be the guy to get them there. But what he did for the university and for the program, especially early on, can't be overlooked. Should Maryland's next coach, whether it's Mike Leach or Gus Malzahn or someone else entirely, elevate them to that next level, Friedgen will be the coach that made that possible in the first place, that rescued Maryland football.

He was a great Terrapin and a great coach. He just wasn't the coach. So what? Not everyone can be. His contributions are still significant, and I'll remember him fondly even as I welcome the next era of Maryland football.

Thanks, Ralph, for everything.

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