WASHINGTON — With the backdrop of Maryland’s dominating 51-20 victory over East Carolina in the Military Bowl serving as a final act, it was obvious who the day was really about.
For just a few hours on Wednesday afternoon in front of 38,062 at RFK Stadium, Ralph Friedgen was able to put aside the sleepless nights and disappointment and do what he loves one more time: coach his Maryland Terrapins to victory.
There were no mentions of Mike Leach and his potential arrival in College Park.
The day wasn’t about athletic director Kevin Anderson who so clearly exercised his clout over the last two weeks.
Declining season-ticket sales and unsold luxury suites were afterthoughts as the Terps rushed for 297 yards against a porous Pirates defense.
And even his assistant coaches were able to go out and do their jobs despite not knowing where their future lies — in College Park or anywhere else for that matter.
For the last time as head coach of the Terrapins, Friedgen coached his team to victory in convincing fashion, finishing a 9-4 season and a seven-win improvement from the disastrous 2-10 record of a year ago. The Powerade coolers received plenty of use as Friedgen and several assistants — defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Dave Sollazzo and defensive coordinator Don Brown among them — were doused by jubilant players wanting to send off the coaching staff as winners.
However, reality set in as the final seconds ticked away, and there was only one thing left to say to the man who leaves the Maryland football program in better shape than he found it 10 years ago:
Surprisingly, the emotional head coach was composed through most of his post-game press conference despite all but two questions focusing on his departure as the game took a backseat to the real story of the day.
“It really kind of got to the point where I just wanted to get this game over with and try to get on with the rest of my life,” said Friedgen, who was overwhelmed by the amount of support he received over the last two weeks.
“I had some really special memories here. The biggest thing is I’m not going to be able to be around these kids. I really cherish being around them. Being there when we were 2-10 [in 2009] and now we’re 9-4 and hopefully we’re in the top 25. When you go through something like that, with pretty much the same individuals, you get pretty close. I really think they have a chance to be special. That’s what I’m going to miss.”
Putting aside the disappointment of being invited to the ACC’s eighth-place bowl and traveling only a few miles to Washington, D.C., the Terps made the most of their opportunity against an inferior opponent, containing one of the most prolific offenses in the nation while also accumulating 478 total yards of offense.
As convincing as the performance was and the optimism that exists for next season with so many key offensive players returning, even the seniors realized this game was about their head coach and sending him out on a high note.
“We just wanted to make a statement,” said senior running back Da’Rel Scott, who rushed for 200 yards on 13 carries and was named the game’s MVP. “It was good to play at home — we could have gotten a better bowl — but it is what it is. We just tried to go out with a bang and make sure coach Friedgen went out as a winner. I think that was the team’s main focus.”
Despite the win, the hurt feelings remain apparent in such a tenuous situation. Rarely do coaches have the opportunity to knowingly coach their final game at a school — other than retirement situations. The reality is even tougher to swallow when that coach is finishing a 9-4 turnaround season.
That pain will linger for a long time, as Friedgen said he gave his best for 10 seasons only to find out he wasn’t wanted anymore.
“Everybody has their own opinion,” Friedgen said. “Obviously, the powers that be didn’t feel like I was good enough to go to the next level. Only time will tell whether that was accurate or not.”
Time is running short as Maryland has set January 4 as the deadline to have its new coach in place. The fate of the assistant coaches — including Brown who masterfully frustrated the East Carolina offense all afternoon — remains in limbo.
Whether the new man is Leach or one of the other names thrown around by various media outlets, the bar will be high as Anderson’s “good-to-great” proclamation will bring pressure and obstacles that Friedgen never faced when he arrived on campus 10 years ago.
“I can tell you this, it’s not an easy job,” Friedgen said. “There’s a lot of things that really have to change to help [the football program] reach its potential. To be honest with you, I don’t know if the university is willing to do that. You kind of have to know that going in, and I did. I think that was a benefit to me.”
After coaching at his alma mater, Friedgen must now face the uncertainty that goes with being an unemployed 63-year-old football coach, a reality that even he has labeled as surreal.
“Everybody thinks that I can’t live without football,” said Frieden, who received a call from former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer assuring him there is, indeed, life after football. “I don’t know. This is what I’ve done for 43 years, going to be 44. It’s probably what I do. We’ll have to see.”
It had to be sobering coaching his final game in the unspectacular Military Bowl — with memories of the 2001 season, an ACC championship, and a trip to the Orange Bowl in the back of his mind — but closing his career with a win for the players he’s repeatedly called his favorite group to coach should count for something.
“If you have to go out, this is the best way to do it. I am happy to watch this team and I wish them the very best. I am with them in spirit every step of the way.”
NOTES: D.J. Adams ran for four touchdowns, a career high as well as a season high for Maryland. … Scott’s 91-yard touchdown run was the longest by a Maryland running back since an 80-yard scamper by Bruce Perry in 2003. … Scott’s 200 yards was a personal best and season best for the Terps. It was the best running performance by a Terp since Perry ran for 237 at Wake Forest in 2003.