The report of offensive coordinator James Franklin accepting an offer to become the head coach at Vanderbilt provides conflicting feelings if you’re a supporter of Maryland football.
On one hand, the coach-in-waiting was the program’s heavyweight recruiter, a charismatic 38-year-old who can make the connections with young football players that current head coach Ralph Friedgen cannot at the age of 63. Franklin was entrusted to revitalize recruiting after the program plateaued — or regressed — in recent years after Friedgen’s success at the beginning of his 10-season tenure.
Following a 2-10 season in 2009 when it looked like the futures of both Friedgen and Franklin were in doubt, it was redshirt freshman Danny O’Brien — heavily recruited out of Kernersville, N.C. by the offensive coordinator — who stabilized the quarterback position and led the Terps to an improbable 8-4 season and trip to the Military Bowl against East Carolina on December 29. It likely saved the jobs of both men as new athletic director Kevin Anderson was settling into the job formerly held by Debbie Yow, who orchestrated the coach-in-waiting agreement nearly two years ago.
And here is where feelings begin to conflict regarding Franklin’s departure for the Commodores and the SEC.
That coach-in-waiting designation included a $1 million bonus for Franklin had he not been named head coach by Jan. 2, 2012. At the time, Yow viewed it as a necessary measure to insure the program would not lose its young figurehead of the future after an aging Friedgen would retire from his alma mater.
However, for a program struggling to sell tickets and operating on a shoestring budget in relation to its ACC counterparts, the agreement began looking more like a brick wall than an insurance policy as the Terps struggled through that disastrous 2009 campaign. As much as many fans don’t want to hear it, money was the biggest factor in the decision to retain both Friedgen and Franklin for the 2010 season.
Whether you’re an affluent program or not, $1 million is a lot of money to pay someone not to become your head coach, not to mention the two years of salary each coach was owed at the time.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Terps appear to be in better shape on the field after a six-game turnaround and pending “trip” (the game’s being played in Washington, D.C., after all) to a bowl game. Maryland announced last month that Friedgen would return in 2011, and now the head coach seeks a contract extension beyond next year.
It’s a tough decision that looms for the new athletic director, the man left to deal with a precarious situation in his first few months in College Park. Anderson publicly expressed his disdain for coach-in-waiting agreements back in October, not an indictment of Franklin at the time but not exactly a ringing endorsement either.
The sheer fact that Franklin was willing to take the Vanderbilt job in the cutthroat nature of the SEC speaks volumes about where he thought he stood at Maryland in regards to his future as the potential head coach. If Franklin thought it was tough getting recruits to come to College Park, he’ll have a difficult time persuading top players to join a program that’s played in two bowl games in the last 36 years to get their brains beaten in by the college football royalty that exists in the SEC annually.
The writing was on the wall for the young coach. If the Terps would flourish again, Anderson would have little choice but to offer Friedgen some type of extension, leaving Franklin $1 million richer, but with no guarantee of a head job elsewhere.
If Maryland were to fall on hard times again, Franklin likely would have found himself unemployed (along with Friedgen) and no longer in a position to pursue a top gig, even with a fatter wallet.
Through it all, the new athletic director remains the wild card of Maryland football, with no one knowing exactly what Anderon has in mind for the future.
It was a gamble that Franklin, apparently, was not willing to take with the current opportunity to become a head coach elsewhere.
With the $1 million coach-in-waiting clause no longer a factor, Friedgen might now feel he’s in a better position to coach beyond the 2011 season, even though he no longer possesses his top recruiter and offensive coordinator. Or Anderson may view the veteran coach as the only obstacle blocking a fresh start for a program that’s fallen on hard times after a brief renaissance early in the Friedgen era, this year notwithstanding.
Franklin’s departure will certainly impact recruiting and the offensive product on the field, but it also creates the financial flexibility for Anderson to wipe the slate clean and start anew should he decide Friedgen is not his man beyond the 2011 season.
Whatever the case, its impact on the future of Maryland football cannot be argued.
Time will only tell whether it pays off for the parties involved.