Wed Jul 14 04:21pm EDT
Part of the Doc's ACC Week.
The first point of order in any assessment of Ralph Friedgen's tenure at Maryland is his place among the best coaches the Terps have ever had: Since H.C. "Curley" Byrd's 23-year tenure ended in 1934, only Jerry Claiborne (1972-81) has lasted as long in College Park as Friedgen, and the Fridge will pass into first place if he hangs on through the remainder of his contract in 2011. Friedgen has significantly more wins in nine seasons (66) than his than his three most recent predecessors had in 14 seasons (55), along with a seemingly impossible conference championship in 2001. He engineered the only back-to-back ten-win seasons in school history in 2001-02, then did it again in 2003, in a far more competitive version of the ACC than existed for most of that span. Certainly he's in the Terp Hall of Fame.
Yet Friedgen's seat has been at least mildly simmering for most of the last four years, amid an increasingly stagnant run that had Terps fans almost visibly cringing for the inevitable crash. Rock bottom finally came last year with the Terps' second straight loss to Middle Tennessee, followed by a seven-game ACC losing streak to seal the first 10-loss season in school history. If not for an overtime survival against I-AA/FCS James Madison and an inexplicable upset over eventual Atlantic Division champ Clemson, the Terps would not have won a game, and the 63-year-old Friedgen would surely be gone.
In fact, it's widely assumed he'd already be gone, if not for a buyout that guarantees him $2 million for every year remaining on his contract through the end of 2011 and a reportedly good relationship with athletic director Debbie Yow, who hired Friedgen in 2000 and decided to bring him back for year 10 last December.
Yow's impending departure for the AD's chair at N.C. State, then, is an ominous sign for Friedgen's chances of finishing that deal without engineering a miracle akin to the turnaround that made him an instant success out of the gate. (A five-game improvement to 7-5 would match the improvement from 5-6 in 2000 to 10-2 in Friedgen's debut.) The new boss already has one incentive to employ an itchy trigger finger: Offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting James Franklin, who's set to make $1 million if he's not in Friedgen's chair by Jan. 2, 2012. Franklin reportedly has options in the NFL (hence the carrots to keep him in the fold), and may be inclined to take advantage of them if the new regime is leaning toward a complete overhaul in its own image.
The good news (from Friedgen's perspective, anyway) is that there's nowhere to go from 2-10 but up, and the transition can probably be delayed another year with a return to .500 and, say, the Music City Bowl. The bad news is that almost nobody thinks that's going to happen: UMD is expected to finish last in the Atlantic Division for the second year in a row. The Terps are replacing their quarterback and six starters on defense from a team that, as usual, wasn't particularly good at anything – they finished in the bottom half of the ACC in every major stat category in '09, and have only finished in the top 30 nationally in any major category twice (24th in both scoring defense and turnover margin in 2007) in the last five years. Unless junior Jamarr Robinson or one of the younger quarterbacks on the depth chart is a revelation, there's nothing in this lineup that suggests a turnaround for the moribund offense. And the outlook for the defense – dead last in the ACC last year in scoring D and next-to-last in yards allowed – is even bleaker still.
Of course, with the exception of Yow's presence in Friedgen's corner, this is almost identical to the situation he faced going into last season, and he survived despite a worst-case scenario on the field. If he's up for seeing his contract through to the end next year, the Fridge should have at least a three or four-win improvement to help make his case, just by the law of averages. And the Terps have been nothing over the last six years if not very, very average.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.