Ralph Friedgen and a remembrance of things past
Many years ago, on a warm summer afternoon, Ralph Friedgen and I took a road trip together.
He drove while I sat in the passenger seat of his Cadillac Escalade and peppered him with questions. He couldn't quite figure out how to work his GPS, but it didn't much matter. He was confident he knew the way. I was 25 years old, and still trying to find my footing as a journalist. I'd been the Maryland football beat writer for a year, but we'd never spent significant time together away from the field.
That's not unusual for newspaper reporters and the people they cover, especially in this era. We try our best to paint a picture of their personality, show you their quirks and illustrate their desires, but so often, the material we gather has to come from regimented, pre-scheduled interview sessions, an authentic moment is hard to come by.
I had been eager to write a story for several months about Friedgen and his father, a legendary high school football coach in Harrison, N.Y., who died of a heart attack years before his son became Maryland's head coach. Friedgen's father, also named Ralph, was a big man just like his son would turn out to be. So big, in fact, that his nickname was The Bear. He had the temperament of one, too. He once smashed a wooden clipboard over the helmet of one of his players in anger.
But listening to stories, I knew The Bear was cold and stern in ways his son was not, and hearing tidbits about their relationship brought to mind countless scenes from my favorite Pat Conroy novels. Friedgen often told the story of the day he called his father to explain that he was quitting the football team at Maryland, and that he was going to transfer. His father responded that Ralph could do whatever he wanted, but he was changing the locks, because quitters were not welcome in his home. In a rage, the younger Friedgen tore the phone off the wall.
I knew the specter of The Bear hung over Friedgen's head, long after his father had passed away, and that it was something that motivated him all the time, even if he couldn't quite put it into words.
When I inquired about doing a lengthy interview with him, Freidgen suggested I join him on drive to Lancaster, Pa., where he had agreed to speak at a high school football banquet. Assistant coach James Franklin had convinced him it was an opportunity to solidify Maryland's recruiting progress in the area, and while the art of sucking up to fuzzy-cheeked high school all-stars did not come naturally, he understood it was a job requirement.
"I'm not going to call kids and be like 'Yo dawg. Are you my dawg?' " Friedgen said, as I tried not to laugh. "But I work pretty hard at it."
On the drive from College Park to Pennsylvania, on a day with very little traffic, we each talked about our fathers, as well as our own disappointing college football careers. Football, at least for me, is often a story about fathers and sons. In 1978, my father held me in his arms as he watched the Dallas Cowboys defeat his beloved Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII. The Cowboys, that day, were led by Maryland defensive tackle Randy White. I was three weeks old. My paternalistic indoctrination to the game came early.
But even when fathers are absent, football coaches often end up filling the role of father figure in the lives of many young men. A good high school football coach who keeps his kids focused on going to college is worth what it costs to pay the salaries of 10 extra police officers in a place like West Baltimore. I truly believe that. I'm not a fan of screamers, but I do believe toughness and respect are two essential character traits you can be taught if you're not born with either.
Friedgen believed much of that as well, which gave us a lot to talk about as we headed north. When his speech was over, he invited me to the hotel bar to have a drink, where our conversation continued. He ordered a double scotch on the rocks, something I considered very much a man's drink. I ordered a Budweiser, because I was still a kid, uncertain about everything, including what drink to order. He sipped his scotch while I asked him questions, and I scraped away the red and white label on the beer bottle with my thumbnail as I listened to his answers.
He had big plans for Maryland -- stadium expansion, luxury boxes, better recruits, an active booster club. The program had essentially been irrelevant prior to his arrival, but he was slowly changing the culture of football in College Park. When I told him my girlfriend, a Maryland alum who is now my wife, had never been to a Terps football game, he looked at me incredulously.
"Kevin," he said. "We're going to have to change that."
He told me another story about a time he felt basketball coach Gary Williams tried to embarrass him in a talk he gave in front of some prominent boosters. One of Friedgen's graduate assistants had recently been arrested for DWI, and Friedgen, even though he liked the coach, decided he had no choice but to fire him. When Williams made it a point to mention to boosters than none of his staff had been in trouble, Friedgen read it as a direct shot at him. Later, Friedgen said he and Williams had a drink together, and the football coach leaned in and told the basketball coach if he ever did something like that again, they'd have to go out back and settle it like men. Williams simply nodded. As far as I know, they got along fine after that.
The point of the story seemed obvious. Friedgen was not going to be walked on by anyone.
Eventually, he brought up the subject of his weight, and what a burden -- physical and emotional -- it had been to hear it was the reason it took him so long to get a head coaching job. He told me his friends had been encouraging him to get gastric bypass surgery, but he was reluctant. He feared he might die during the operation, right on the table. He told me the story of his father's death, and the things he knew his dad had missed. If that happened in an operating room somewhere, he would feel cheated at having missed so much.
"If it's my time," he said. "Then it's my time."
We sat there in silence, neither of us certain what to say next.
We drove back to College Park the next morning, and eventually I wrote one of the longest stories I've ever written for The Sun. It was a story about Friedgen and his dad, and about football, but also about the things fathers wish they could say to their sons, but often never can. It was the kind of story I envisioned crafting when I decided I wanted to be a writer. It made me feel a little less like a kid and a little more like a man.
Friedgen never quite knew what to say about the story. He didn't hate it, but he couldn't put much else into words. I eventually wondered if it was somewhat unsettling to see his life laid bare like that on the pages of the newspaper. But his wife, Gloria, had it framed and hung in his office. She assured me that one day, he'd see it for what it was.
Friedgen and I had our squabbles down the road. He was once furious with me when I asked him a prickly (and in retrospect, somewhat unfair) question in a press conference about the program's decline after a late-season loss to North Carolina State, which kept the Terps from going to a bowl game for the second straight year. But he didn't hold a grudge. He seemed to understand that, like one of his young players, I too was learning on the job. It's been quite awhile since we've spoken, but I think of him every time I have to ask John Harbaugh a difficult question. Coaches are people, too, and there is a way to ask honest, but respectful questions.
Over time, the ground shifted beneath Friedgen's feet as well as mine. Maryland struggled to sustain its initial success after three straight 10-win seasons, and newspapers began losing money and cutting space. It was hard to justify running 100-inch stories about a football coach and his complicated relationship with his father. Friedgen needed to recruit better, and I needed to learn how to express myself in 140 words, not inches. Past success was not as important as the ability to swallow your pride and adapt.
Even though Friedgen dragged Maryland football out of the dark ages and into the modern era, I understand why the university is forcing him out. College sports isn't about shaping the lives of young men and acting as a surrogate father for many of them. Those notions are probably as naive as my romantic attachment to long newspapers stories. College sports are about generating revenue and excitement for the school, first and last. Whatever happens in between is just icing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You can't look at Maryland's declining season ticket sales and pretend it doesn't matter. You can't pretend a 2-10 season doesn't matter, just like I can't pretend circulation declines don't matter to newspapers. The reality is right there, in cold, unforgiving numbers.
Maybe Maryland fans have forgotten how irrelevant they were during the Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden era, and now the prospect of Mike Leach and his swashbuckling ways has them dreaming of bigger things than going 8-4 and ending up in the Military Bowl. It might be a dance with an unfamiliar devil, but it's one a lot of Maryland fans can't seem to resist. That's understandable, I suppose. People want success, not complacency. Maybe Friedgen took the Terps as far as he could take them, and his reluctance to call up kids and tell them "you're my dawg!" is proof that a proud man can only adapt so much to the changing world around him. He could be prickly with boosters, administrators and underlings, which I suspect gave him few allies in the end. He did not suffer fools gladly.
I'm glad, however, that he's refusing to retire quietly. I want him to get every cent Maryland still owes him, even though that's probably more money than I'll make in a lifetime. If they no longer want him, they'll have to pay to change the locks on his office, and the price is $2 million. Friedgen's father did not raise his only son to be a quitter.
I am older now, with a kid of my own, and I'm often uncertain of what the future will bring. I still prefer beer, but I always keep scotch in the house. It's a man's drink, after all. Tonight I will pour myself a double on the rocks in honor of Ralph Friedgen, and wish him well as he navigates the open road ahead.