It's tough to talk about Ralph Friedgen's job security, and potential replacements, without bringing up James Franklin, Maryland's Head Coach in Waiting. It's one of the most controversial legacies from the Debbie Yow era, and its consequences could be heavy.
Ralph Friedgen will be fighting for the right to leave the program on his own terms. The only way he can do that is to win games. Franklin's situation is a little more complex. He's fighting for the right to be able to take over the program at all, and the ways he can achieve that are varied. But first, some background.
Franklin was originally at Maryland back in the early years of Friedgen's tenure, acting as WRs coach and, after Mike Locksley left, recruiting coordinator. He departed for a job with Green Bay Packers, and eventually left that for an offensive coordinator job at Kansas State. There, he led an efficient, fun-to-watch offense captained by Josh Freeman and Jordy Nelson. After Ralph Friedgen decided to bring the offensive coordinator position back, Franklin returned to Maryland.
That was three years ago, after the 2007 season (2008 was his first year). At the time, his playcalling, motivational, and recruiting chops were highly-regarded. After one season, the results were varied; the team returned to a bowl game and racked up 8 wins. But even with the solid season, the offense he was supposed to rescue showed little change. In fact, he was the biggest disappointment in the entire season.
There were some (perhaps more important, considering his supposed strength) other positives: he appeared to be the real deal in the recruiting world. He outdueled the likes of Georgia, Ohio State, Penn State, and Tennessee for DeOnte Arnett and landed four-star running back Caleb Porzel.
Then along came rumors of higher interest, most prominently from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (for what position I still don't know). A young, ambitious coach like Franklin couldn't remain in one position for too long when better options were available, so Yow, in an effort to keep him on board, made the fateful move, a few months before the 2009 season: a head coach in waiting contract.
At the time, the details were vague. Since then, they've slowly trickled out, the most important being that Maryland is contractually obligated to pay Franklin $1mil if he's not the head coach by the 2012 season (which is to say, the year after next year), and that his contract will be the average of the other eleven coaches in the conference.
Unfortunately, this is problematic; whereas Dabo Swinney, a first-year coach at Clemson, received a little under $1mil per year, Franklin would receive twice that, almost what Friedgen himself makes. The buyout of fthat contract, should he fail, would become outrageous and would probably force Maryland's hand to keep him at least a few years. That especially becomes important if Maryland had to buy out Friedgen's contract as well, as successive buyouts would look bad.
There's also the very sticky situation of firing a black head coach in one of the most racially-aware areas of the country before he "had his chance." You and I know that's not really the case, but you can bet that it'll be played off that way at least once in the national media, or by negative recruiters. Maryland's never mined the local area all that effectively, but trying to recruit PG County after firing a black coach that had deep connections to the area and was well-liked...well, let's just say it would rub the high school coaches the wrong way.
And that $1mil penalty clause means that, if Maryland wanted to go a different direction and had to buy out Franklin's contract as well as Friedgen's, they'd have a lot less flexibility in terms of both firing and hiring coaches. In fact, that's one of the theories as to why both remained on the staff last year; it would've cost too much to buy them both out, but entering into Franklin's contract was little better than the current situation.
That's still seen as the case. After receiving that HCIW title, Franklin's been a decent, if unspectacular recruiter. He did manage David Mackall, Nate Clarke, Javarie Johnson, and Titus Till (all local four-star prospects), but all had mitigating circumstances: Mackall was under the radar, Johnson only ended up Maryland because Miami wouldn't let him in a semester early, Clarke had no other offers at the time, and Till committed extremely early. That doesn't make their commitments worth less than their face value, but he hasn't beaten out any big-time programs for big-time players recently.
Worse has been his on-field results. Despite his supposed playcalling aptitude, Maryland fielded one of the worst offenses in the country last year. It was bad at rushing, passing, and everything else. Worst of all, it was boring and conservative. When the results are terrible, the very least a coach could do would be to mix it up, but there was nothing on that front; lots of QB draws, predictable play-calling, and short passes aren't taking many chances.
The public opinion is certainly against Franklin at this point. The only positive hope is the potential that he could be a "program CEO": a head coach barely involved in the play-to-play aspects, but instead the face of the program. Certainly, the charismatic Franklin would succeed in that type of role, but it's risky nonetheless and not proven to be effective.
But how can Franklin get that chance? If the public against him, the results aren't there, and the recruiting takes a downturn, what can he do?
Well, pretty much nothing. He's really got three options: starting winning games, start recruiting big (like Cyrus Kouandjio and Darius Jennings big), or take a pay cut. In other words, he has to take little enough money for Maryland to feel comfortable offering the job and knowing they can get out of it in two years if they need to. I don't know if he'd be open to that or if he'd just prefer the million up front, but those are his only three options.
In fact, he might need to combine #3 with #1 or #2 to really have a chance of staying on board. Ask yourselves: would any other BCS program hire an above-average recruiting, below-average playcalling offensive coordinator that just turned in a bottom 20 offensive performance for four years and $2mil/year?
Of course not, and Maryland can't hold themselves hostage to this contract if another, better option - like Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin, Ken Niumataololo, Al Golden...anyone else - especially for a good price, they need to take it. We've been over it before, but the program is far too valuable to allow for the potential for another bad year.
Most likely, a new AD will recognize that. Unlike Yow, he could easily and with impunity cut ties loose with Franklin; he could play it off as "not my decision to make this contract, and I won't be bound by my predecessor's mistakes", and that would be that.
If it becomes clear that Friedgen won't be with the program much longer, it'll be time to start watching the recruiting boards. At that point, they could be Franklin's only hope.