Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Farewell to Friedgen, hello to the future

After ten seasons and a 74-50 record as head coach of the football program Ralph Friedgen will be coaching his last game in the Military Bowl against East Carolina. I felt that Friedgen would be back as head coach in 2011 because Maryland lacked the resources and profile to attract a top tier college coach to replace him. The dominoes began to fall when offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting James Franklin was told that he would not be guaranteed the head coaching position in 2012 and as a result Franklin decided to search for other offers. When Vanderbilt gave their head coaching position to Franklin and it became apparent that Franklin would poach from the Maryland staff AD Kevin Anderson felt he had no choice but to accelerate his plans to find a replacement for Friedgen. While it may not have been pleasant I think Anderson made the right move. Who he hires to replace Friedgen will clearly influence how people look at this decision but putting feelings aside it was the correct "strategic business decision" as Anderson put it in his news conference.

Once Franklin departed and took a significant number of the staff with him having Friedgen serve out the last year of his contract became untenable. Friedgen would not have been able to recruit any competitive assistants to replace Franklin and the other staff that would have departed and it would have likely ruined what has the potential to be a successful season in 2011. Extending Friedgen would have only temporarily alleviated the uncertainty around the program. Giving Friedgen more than three years was not an option and a shorter extension would have done little to help recruiting assistants or players. The only misstep that Anderson made was to announce that Friedgen would return in 2011 during the season. It was a mistake because it did not allow for the scenario of Franklin departing and taking staff with him. In college football these days a flimsy resume like Franklin's is no impediment to a head coaching position. Circumstances changed since Anderson made his statement regarding Friedgen's status for 2011 and he was within his rights and in the right to say that he had to go in a different direction a that point.

The economic reality of a football program that is losing money also forced this issue. Maryland fans, fickle though they may be, were voting with their wallets. They gave their thumbs down on the future of Ralph Friedgen by failing to show up for a pivotal game against Florida State with the Atlantic division on the line. Faced with a program that was hemorrhaging a half a million dollars a year the last two seasons and the debt service on Debbie Yow's expansion of suites at Byrd Stadium Anderson would have been irresponsible to continue in the same direction. For all the fans who expressed outrage and disappointed at how Anderson has handled this situation if they did not buy season tickets then they had a hand in this decision. Had fans come out in force for the last two games it may have gone a long way towards helping Friedgen save his job. They didn't. Anderson needs to hire a coach that will be better with boosters and fans while elevating local interest in the football program and creating a level of excitement that hasn't been felt in College Park in seven years. With the expansion of the ACC, the money structure of college football, the deemphasis of basketball in the conference treading water as a program isn't an option. Since the ACC title game was created only N.C. State and Maryland have failed to appear as winners of the Atlantic division. There is no reason why Wake Forest and Boston College should hold that distinction over the Terrapins. The football program needs to be both successful and profitable. Neither was guaranteed under Friedgen's continued leadership.

I guess I should not be surprised that there have been sanctimonious comments in the media regarding this move by Anderson. I didn't notice this outrage when former AD Debbie Yow tried to oust Friedgen last season but failed only due to a lack of money. If Yow had her way she would have gotten rid of both Friedgen and the reigning ACC coach of the year in basketball. Very few in the media, except those with close ties to Gary Williams, expressed much disgust over Yow's maneuvering. At least Anderson, while being blunt, has been honest with his coaches. The candor in his press conference about Fridgen not returning is a breath of fresh air compared to the conniving and back stabbing that went on under the previous AD.

Ralph Friedgen did great things as coach at the University of Maryland. Seven bowl games, three seasons of ten or more wins, an ACC Championship, he graduated a good proportion of his players and he revitalized a downtrodden football program. Unfortunately Friedgen leaves behind a record that has just as much on the negative side. The only 10 loss season in Maryland history, four losing seasons in the last seven years, no appearance in the final polls since 2003, a 3-18 record against teams that finished in the AP top 25 since 2004, a 24-32 record in the ACC the last seven seasons and only two winning conference records since 2003. Once things started going south in 2004 Friedgen developed a habit of throwing his players under the bus (Sam Hollenbach for example) or blaming everything from inexperience, injuries and even the weather to explain the constant losses in pivotal games. It is true that his first three seasons were the best three year stretch in recent memory, perhaps ever, for Maryland football. After his 2001 season he used to specter of the Tampa Bay Buccaners head coaching job to get another raise and then again after 2003 he pushed for an extension that will end with his buyout after the bowl game. Friedgen's constant haggling for raises and extensions won him few supporters at the university and he was paid handsomely for relatively mediocre results the last seven season. His lack of charisma and ability to alienate even his supporters certainly played a factor in eroding support for his position and in the football program as a whole. The last seven years of his contract were more than fair compensation for the first three fantastic seasons. Maryland isn't the kind of athletic department that can spend $2 million a year on a coach while the program is losing a half a million a year. Of the coaches who were Friedgen's peers when he arrived in the conference or coached a significant amount of time during Friedgen's tenure only Wake Forests Jim Grobe is still around. Chuck Amato, Tommy Bowden, Al Groh, Chan Gailey, Bobby Bowden, and John Bunting were all either fired or forced out of their jobs. In many cases they had better records overall or in their final seasons than Friedgen. Tommy Bowden never had a losing season at Clemson and went to 8 bowl games in his 9 full seasons. Chain Gailey had six straight winning seasons at Georgia Tech and played in an ACC title game before he was fired. After the 2003 season you could argue that Friedgen was the best coach in the ACC but who would argue that today? Should Maryland expect less than programs like Virginia and N.C. State? With no real powerhouse programs in the ACC right now why should Kevin Anderson look at the recent mediocrity and declining revenue and preserve the status quo?

If it wasn't for a lack of funds Friedgen would have been fired after last season's 2-10 debacle. The modest talent on that team should have at least a few more games but they were lucky to have avoided going 0-12 after winning in overtime against James Madison and squeaking by Clemson at home. The fact that Friedgen was given coach of the year for a turnaround that looked better than it was because of his terrible job the prior season seems absurd. Three of the five conference wins this season were against Wake Forest, Virginia, and Duke who combined to go 3-21 in conference play. The 8-4 record by Maryland is a bit of a mirage and speaks more to the poor quality of the ACC this season than it does about how good a team Maryland had under Friedgen.

Friedgen should be proud of what he accomplished at Maryland and fans should always be grateful to him for reminding them that Maryland can be a great football program. While there were some dark days due to some horrible hiring decisions by prior athletic directors Anderson should be aware that Maryland has a good football tradition and was very competitive under Jerry Claiborne and Bobby Ross in the past. I commend Anderson for daring to be great. Other administrators might have been timid and afraid to make a change, preferring to keep Friedgen and hope that the issue would take care of itself knowing they would probably not be blamed for the mediocre results. Anderson took a big risk and I hope he makes the right choice to replace Friedgen, for his sake and Maryland's.

1 comment:

Shawn said...

This is basically a spot-on analysis.

As far as the top coaches, don't forget Tatum and the 1953 National Championship either.