In Bear's Tracks: Ralph Friedgen follows father's footsteps

College FootballFootballCollege SportsHealthFitnessMaryland TerrapinsRalph Friedgen

With trembling hands, he reached for the phone and dialed the number. He was nervous, but his mind was clear. He was done with Maryland football. Finished. Three head coaches in three years had told him 300 different things, and none of them seemed able to give him a straight answer. He was going to put College Park in his rearview mirror and never look back. There were other schools that would take him, maybe even let him play quarterback again. He just needed an opportunity. Ralph Friedgen had only one thing left to do. It was time to break the news to The Bear.

For as long as he could remember, people had given his father nicknames like "Big Ralph" and "Ice Box," but "The Bear" seemed most fitting, and with good reason. Ralph Edward Friedgen was a huge man, well over 300 pounds, but his presence, the weight he carried, went beyond just the physical. When he was angry, his voice was part roar and part thunderclap. He had been a college teammate of Vince Lombardi's at Fordham, long before the legendary Green Bay Packers coach became a paragon of toughness and discipline in an era that embraced those values with open arms.

They were different, Lombardi and The Bear, though kindred spirits when it came to molding young boys into grown men. The Bear was a coach, too, but his domain was high school football, not the pros. During his 30-year career - which included stops at Iona Prep, Blessed Sacrament, Port Chester and Harrison, his alma mater - he was respected, revered and, in some cases, even feared across the state of New York.

Friedgen had seen his father break wooden clipboards in anger, seen him smash them into pieces over a player's helmet after a particularly egregious mistake. But even if they trembled in the presence of The Bear, all of them, son included, would run through walls at his behest. He was a tyrant, but he was also an orator, instilling fear with a whistle and a playbook. And he won games. Hundreds of them. His son was the quarterback for many of those victories, and if he knew one thing, it was that his father detested weakness.

"Dad," Friedgen began that day on the telephone, "I talked to Coach [Bob] Ward like you said. He says if I want to transfer, he'll give me a good recommendation. I want to. I think I want to go to Connecticut."

"That's fine," The Bear said. "If that's what you want to do, come home and we'll work it out."

As his father's words trickled out, relief began to ripple through Friedgen's body. I am out of here, he thought.

"OK, well I'm going to pack up my stuff and come home," Friedgen said.

"All right," The Bear said. "But just so you know, you'll probably have to get a new key. Yours won't fit anymore."

"How come?" Friedgen said.

"I'm changing all the locks," The Bear said. "Quitters don't live in my house."

The son said nothing. If his father kept speaking, he never heard a word. He dropped the receiver, and with a violent twist, he ripped the phone right off the wall.

Ralph Friedgen has told that story many times: to reporters, to his wife, to his three daughters and to his friends. He told it again this past May, sitting behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade, his large hands gripping the steering wheel as he guided his car north toward Pennsylvania. He had been asked to speak at the Manheim Touchdown Club, told his presence at the annual dinner would further help Maryland's recent recruiting gains in the area, and so he carved out time to make the trip.

Some of the story's details have been sanded down by the 3 1/2 decades that have passed since that day, but not the two key lessons the phone call represents. First, The Bear did not raise his only son to be a quitter, and second, sometimes tough love is the most important love of all. It is, in that respect, maybe the most important Ralph Friedgen story.

There are others, though. It's a long drive, and on the open road, Friedgen likes conversation. He may be one of the best college coaches in the country - the man who in just three years has made football matter again in College Park - but at the heart of it all, he is a storyteller. His stories are told in a deep baritone and interrupted often by Friedgen's own laughter. His wife, Gloria, chimes in from the back seat to remind her husband of a name or a detail that has faded over the years, and as the miles pile up, so do the memories. The stories are often serious, occasionally crude, frequently funny and sometimes inspirational. A few are all those things at once.

He does fine in front of big crowds, poking fun at himself to put the audience at ease. But standing behind a podium is not Friedgen in his true element. In small groups, where he can make eye contact, he excels. His is a maestro.

"He's never afraid to speak his mind," says Central Florida coach George O'Leary, one of Friedgen's close friends. "Ralph is going to tell you what he thinks. I think that's why we get along so well."

Friedgen can regale you with tales of Maryland in the late 1960s, when football players like himself got in daily fights for no good reason, when Jane Fonda showed up for a rally on campus wearing a see-through T-shirt and no bra, when the National Guard used pepper spray to quell political unrest.

He can tell you about winning a national championship, about feuding with an NFL general manager and about the bright lights of the Super Bowl. He can paint you a picture of the recruiting trail, fill you in on the tiny towns with dirt roads and one stoplight, and he can take you inside the greasy spoons and the cheap motels where he spent so many nights away from his family, worrying his girls were growing up too fast.

If there's time, he can tell you what it feels like to wear a tuxedo and shake hands with the president, which he did after he was honored as the National Coach of the Year in 2001. He can explain the satisfaction of winning 30 games in three years and going to three straight bowl games, but even better, he can tell you what it feels like to stand in the living room of a modest house and convince a mother that if she trusts him with her son, he'll see to it that her son is the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

And if you're lucky, if the stories continue even after the car stops, Friedgen might invite you to have a drink in the hotel bar. If you want to know why Friedgen has stayed in College Park when the NFL has offered him chances to leave - none more appealing than the offer from the New York Giants last spring that Friedgen quietly considered long and hard before finally turning it down - then you have to listen closely while Friedgen sips his double scotch on the rocks.

You have to hear more about The Bear.

In the Friedgen household, there was no clear division between religion and football. Both required daily devotion and hard work, and both provided the structure and the discipline a man needed in his life. On game day, the line between the two wasn't just blurry, it was nonexistent. In the morning, the family would go to Mass, and hours later, The Bear would be stalking the sidelines with a rosary in his hand. On crucial plays, he'd ask anyone who wasn't out on the field to join hands with him and pray. Faith, he believed, could help accomplish anything, even if what you were asking for was a crucial fourth-down stop from your defense.

"He would light a candle before every game," Friedgen says. "Even for my Little League games, he'd light one."

In another life, The Bear might have been a lawyer. He loved to argue, wanted to hear every side of every issue, but a stint in the Army during World War II steered him into teaching history and from there, coaching. He liked the influence he had on the lives of young men, and he loved the challenge of matching wits with other coaches on the gridiron. He would diagram plays in the margins of newspapers and fill up notebooks with ways to attack a defense. Soon, his only son was mimicking that behavior and throwing a football through a tire suspended from a tree in his yard, eager to be a part of his father's world.

"I can remember being in the third grade and sitting on the kitchen floor, designing plays with checkers," said Friedgen, who was soon a ball boy for his father's teams. On the rare occasions when The Bear's teams failed to win, the family would come home and the lights would go out. There was no talking, and usually no dinner.

In time, Friedgen and his father would take trips to New York City to watch the Giants play at Yankee Stadium. On the train ride home, The Bear would quiz his son, reconstructing plays from memory. The lesson would stay with Friedgen forever: Strengthen the mind, not just the muscles.

In high school, The Bear treated his son the same way he did his other players - rough. He stalked the hallways during his free moments, especially in the offseason, eager to catch one of his players involved in some form of mischief.

"He loomed," says Perry Verille, Friedgen's classmate and teammate at Harrison, and one of his best friends today. "He loomed just like Ralph does now. He'd walk by you in the hallway, and sometimes he'd just give you a look that would stop you in your tracks. As a kid, if you did something wrong, your first thought wasn't, `I hope my Mom and Dad don't find out.' It was, `I sure hope Coach Friedgen doesn't find out.'"

It was a different time, of course. The Bear ruled with fear, and was not the kind of coach who worried about things like his players' feelings. Cross him, and his temper would flash white hot. On occasion, he would even use force to get his point across.

"He would punch guys in the chest," Friedgen says. "He used to punch me, too, and not always in the chest. The last time he punched me, I looked at him right in the eye and I said, `Don't you ever do that again.' He never did. You kind of reach that point where you cross the line because you don't want him to mess with you anymore."

Harrison, which had a long and proud tradition of success, was struggling when The Bear took over the program. But soon, the school was a power again, and the coach's son was at the heart of the revival. Many players resented it when Friedgen's father named him the starting quarterback his sophomore year, and opponents taunted him with cries of "Daddy's little boy" after tackles. But they couldn't argue with success, and in time, Friedgen became a cult hero in Harrison, a town of 18,000.

As a senior, his father had him calling his own plays, running an offense most teams had never even seen. The Bear's philosophy called for multiple wide receivers in numerous formations, and it meant throwing the ball more often than running it, which was unheard of back then. In 1964, Friedgen became the first high school quarterback in Westchester County to throw for 1,000 yards in a season, and he led a squad that went undefeated and averaged 44 points, then a county record.

More than 20 colleges recruited him, including Maryland, on the recommendation of assistant coach Lee Corso. Friedgen made visits to a few schools, but The Bear was not a patient man, and by the time the Friedgens traveled to College Park, his patience had run out.

"You like it here?" his father said.

"Yeah," Friedgen said.

"OK. Sign."

The next fall, his parents dropped him off on campus. As they drove away, having sent their only son out into the world, his mother, Iris, wept.

Friedgen was one of seven quarterbacks Maryland coach Tom Nugent signed that season.

He didn't quit, much as he wanted to. He wouldn't let his father brand him a quitter. Ever. His first year, he was practically ignored, despite throwing three touchdowns in a freshman game. Nugent was replaced by Lou Saban in 1966, and Saban moved Friedgen to fullback as a sophomore. He tried him at defensive end next, then shifted him to linebacker, and stuck him on the scout team. It was torture. He was so frustrated, he picked a fight every day, either in his dorm or with one of his teammates in the wrestling room, where they often worked out. He didn't win every fight, but he won more than his share.

When Saban left after just a year, Bob Ward, who noticed Friedgen's penchant for fighting, turned him into an offensive lineman.

"I had never blocked anyone in my life," Friedgen says. "I really wanted to be good, but the more I tried, the worse it got."

He rarely played, but he did graduate in 1970 with a degree in physical education, and had the highest grade-point average on the team two years in a row. But when his playing days were finished, he had no clue what to do with his life. He didn't want to be a coach. Not yet anyway. Both his parents were teachers, so he enrolled in a student teaching program. One day, in one of his physical education classes, he found himself across a badminton net from another aspiring teacher, a talkative girl from Long Island with pretty legs and an even prettier smile.

Once, twice, three times she missed the shuttlecock when they tried to start a rally.

"I'm so sorry," she said, bending over to scoop the shuttlecock off the ground for the fourth time. "I really am."

"Honey, you don't have to apologize," Friedgen told her. "Just keep bending over. I like watching you pick that thing up."

Gloria Spina laughed. How could she not laugh? In his own way, he was charming. Before long, she was making him dinner, listening to his stories and eventually finishing his sentences. (And why not? She talked faster, anyway.) She told him it was better that his football career didn't work out, because if he'd gone on to stardom in the NFL, they'd never have met. He could see that she meant it.

She was fearless, too. When he brought her home to meet his parents, his father, who loved to sing, sat down at a piano and started to play. Gloria Spina shuffled up next to him and belted out every note of the song.

"My father smiled and looked at me like, `Where the hell did you find her?'" Friedgen says.

He would marry the girl from Long Island, but not be a teacher. Not an academic one, anyway. The pull of the game was simply too strong. He found himself daydreaming during his classes, and much like his father, doodling plays in the edges of newspapers, napkins and notebooks. He spent three years at Maryland as a voluntary graduate assistant under coach Roy Lester, and with Gloria's help, he sent 100 letters to coaches across the country, begging for some kind of paying job. No one was interested.

But when Lester was fired and replaced by Jerry Claiborne, Friedgen got his break. One of Claiborne's assistants, Bobby Ross, hired him to coach linebackers. For years, wherever Ross went, Friedgen would follow.

He was never good at dealing with the losses, though. Ross brought Friedgen along when he became The Citadel's head coach in 1973, and when the team struggled, Friedgen would come home in silence, uninterested in eating dinner and unwilling to say much to his wife for three and sometimes four hours. That didn't sit well with Gloria, especially after their oldest daughter, Kelley, was born in 1977.

"I'm sure she wondered what the hell she'd gotten herself into," Friedgen says.

The Bear was retired now, but every weekend, he was right there, watching his son, who became Ross' offensive coordinator in 1977. After the games were over, Friedgen's father would pepper him with questions: Why did you run that play? Why are you playing that kid? What were you trying to do in the third quarter when you turned it over? His father meant well, but often, the questions would just deteriorate into an argument between two proud men.

In a coach's life, very few things are permanent, especially residence. After seven years at The Citadel, Friedgen moved his family to three states in three years, coaching for a season at William and Mary in Virginia, then for another at Murray State in Kentucky. But when Ross got the top job at Maryland in 1982 and asked Friedgen to be his offensive coordinator, it seemed like his life might finally settle down.

The pay was steady and the team was good. Maryland was soon experiencing one of its best stretches in school history. Friedgen and Gloria decided they wanted a second child. After some difficulty, they saw doctors, talked to a specialist at Johns Hopkins, but nothing worked. "We decided, well, we're going to buy a house," Friedgen says. "We figured, we're blessed as it is. So we're about to close on the house and Gloria finds out she's sick. The next day, she goes to the doctor and finds out she's pregnant. I said, `We can't get this house now. We can't afford it.'"

"No, Ralph," Gloria told him. "We have to get this house. For our family."

Friedgen's second daughter, Kristina, was born eight days before Easter in 1986. The next day, Palm Sunday, Friedgen was on the phone with his parents, letting them know they had another granddaughter.

"Son," his father said, teasingly, "when are you going to put a handle on one of these kids?"

"What do mean?" Friedgen said.

"You've got two girls now. When are you going to have a boy?"

"Dad, I'm doing the best I can," Friedgen said, laughing.

"All right," his father said. "Talk to your mother for a little bit."

Friedgen spoke to his mom for a few minutes, but near the end of the conversation, his father got back on the line.

"Son?" The Bear said.

"Yeah?"

"I just wanted to make sure I told you goodbye."

"Thanks, Dad," Friedgen said. "Goodbye."

That night, The Bear woke up and asked his wife if she could get him some water. Iris Friedgen went to the bathroom and filled up a glass. By the time she came back into the room, he was gone, dead of a heart attack at age 69.

That story hurts the most, and so it doesn't get told often. In the dimly lit hotel bar, Friedgen gets choked up as he pieces together the sentences. When he is finished, his jaw is clenched and he is quiet. He stares at the ceiling, lost in thought. Eighteen years have passed since The Bear died. He is wealthy now, making close to $1.5 million a year, and he has more houses - one in Silver Spring, one in Atlanta, another in South Carolina - than he knows what to do with. Every 10 minutes, someone walks up and asks to shake his hand. It's hard to fathom sometimes all the things his father has missed.

There would be more jobs, more moves, some wonderful, some frustrating. His third daughter, Katie, was born during the whirlwind of it all. Friedgen followed Ross to Georgia Tech in 1987, and in 1990 he won a national championship. He followed Ross again to the San Diego Chargers, and two years later in 1994, Friedgen was the offensive coordinator on a team that went to the Super Bowl. It was a grind moving the family so much, but that was life if you wanted to be a head coach, and more than anything, that's what he wanted.

In 1997, after Ross and his staff were fired, Friedgen's friend O'Leary, now Georgia Tech's head coach, hired him to be the Yellow Jackets' offensive coordinator. When he left to take the job, he told his daughters, who would be moving later, he would miss them while he was in Atlanta.

"Don't worry, Dad, you're never here anyway," said Kristina, his middle daughter.

His daughters, in respects, have sacrificed so that he could be a father figure to 100 young men every year. Those men come to him for advice, and come to him for discipline. For some, he is the only father figure they have ever known. And they, in turn, are the sons he never had.

It was one of the things he loved most about college football. He made a difference in his players' lives. In the NFL, it was different. It was a business relationship. It was just as exciting, more even, but less intimate. The players were already formed. He told them where to line up and where to run and not much else. The lessons he had absorbed from his father and tried to pass on - the ones about growing up, taking responsibility and being a man - seemed to fall on deaf ears or get drowned out by agents, fans, wives and general managers.

For that reason, he longed for a head coaching job in college. He could see kids get their degrees and counsel them when they had fights with their girlfriends. He could stalk the sidelines and carry a rosary in his pocket during every game, just like The Bear. There are times when Verille sees Friedgen now, glaring across the field, and just for a second, it feels like he's looking at The Bear.

"He does this thing where he puts his hand on his hip, but his palm is facing outward," Verille says. "It's identical to what his father would do on the sidelines. There are so many things like that, his mannerisms especially, that remind me of his dad. It's eerie sometimes."

He is a big man, just like his father was, and that is one trait he wishes sometimes he did not share with The Bear. His wife and his friends worry about his weight, which he has battled now for years. He has done diets, done exercise programs, seen a nutritionist and tried to walk off the pounds, but nothing has worked. Think he isn't trying? Two years ago, he walked so much every morning trying to burn calories, he had to have his hip replaced from the wear and tear it put on his joint.

"A lot of people wanted to point to the weight and say that's why I didn't get a head coaching job all those years," Friedgen says. "Was that a factor? I don't know, maybe it was. That's not for me to say."

He is still heavy, upward of 300 pounds, and may always be that way. The life of a coach is not always a healthy one. He sleeps four hours a night, eats when he can and internalizes stress. During the season, there isn't much time for aesthetic improvements.

It is, perhaps, the simple curse of genetics. He is comfortable with who he is and confident in what he does, so why should anything else matter? After all, the skinny coaches aren't working any harder than he is, and they certainly aren't winning as many games as he is. Though his weight has become an easy crutch for columnists searching for wisecracks, and though it makes him a prime target for ridicule from opposing fans - West Virginia supporters wore fat suits and stuffed pillows in their shirts this year - he laughs most of it off. It has always been easier to make fun of himself first, defusing much of their ammo.

"I have buddies that want me to go have that [gastric bypass] surgery," Friedgen says. "I don't know. I'd probably die on the operating table. Then I'd really feel cheated. ... I saw my mother die slow [in 1995] and my father die quick, and I'll tell you this: I don't want to fade out. If it's my time, then it's my time."

Above all things, understand this about Ralph Harry Friedgen: He does not doubt his own ability. Over the years, it hurt every time an athletic director wouldn't even interview him for a head coaching vacancy, but never once did he waver from the opinion that he would be successful when the chance finally came. All he needed was the opportunity.

For years, though, it looked like it might never come. He waited patiently as Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, and throughout the coaching ranks, he was universally respected. He was even well paid, making $200,000 a year. Nearly every time a job came open, his name was mentioned as a serious candidate. But every time, the job went to someone else. People quietly speculated that his weight was a factor.

In 1996 when Maryland's top job came open - a job he wanted the most because he thought the program was the sleeping giant of the Atlantic Coast Conference - athletic director Debbie Yow didn't even bring him in for an interview. She agreed to talk to him by phone, but the day they were scheduled to speak, Friedgen got another call, informing him Maryland had already hired a young, polished Northwestern assistant named Ron Vanderlinden. When that call came, he had to fight back tears.

When he turned 52 in 1999, he realized maybe it was time he faced reality. Schools didn't often hire first-time head coaches in their 50s. He might never be fulfilled, but he would at least try to be happy. He bought some property on Lake Oconee, about 90 minutes outside Atlanta, and started building his dream house. If nothing else, he could envision himself sitting on his deck, overlooking the lake, laughing and telling stories to his grandchildren.

But when Vanderlinden was fired at the end of the 2000 season, rumors began to swirl that Friedgen was a candidate to replace him. Friedgen's agent, Jack Reale, called him and assessed the situation bluntly.

You can't have your name attached to this job and not end up getting it, Reale said. Don't express any interest publicly until you know they're serious.

When Yow called and asked if she could meet with him in Atlanta, Friedgen made it clear he didn't want to be given a token interview just to appease the restless alumni, who were pushing hard for him from behind the scenes.

"I'm interested," Friedgen told her, "but don't jerk me around."

Even when the official offer came, even when Yow leaned over to him 10 minutes into their interview and said, "You're my guy," he still wasn't sure. He told her he had to think about it, then stayed up until nearly 5 a.m. with his wife and best friends, weighing the decision.

At some point, just before sunrise, he made up his mind. He would be a head coach. He would give the booming speeches. He would lead men onto the field. He would do what his father had done before him.

"I know a big part of the reason why Ralph wanted to be a head coach was to prove to his dad that he could do it," Verille says. "When his father died, I know how much Ralph was going to miss him. But I also knew he'd miss not getting to show him he could do it."

On Sept. 1, 2001, Friedgen led a team that was picked to finish seventh in the league onto the field against North Carolina at Byrd Stadium. He had not slept in a week. On the game's first play from scrimmage, the Tar Heels scored a 77-yard touchdown, but it would be the only points they would score in a 23-7 Maryland victory. Fans rushed the field and Friedgen led his players over to the student section to sing the school's fight song. Someone thrust a headset in Gloria Friedgen's direction and, on live radio, she fought back tears as she struggled to find the words to describe the moment.

All along U.S. Route 1, people listened to their car radios as they drove home from the game, some getting choked up as Gloria spoke, trying to explain how special this was for Ralph, on the field where his parents had watched him play so many years ago. For months, she would receive letters in the mail from fans, telling her how much her words moved them.

When the madness died down, when the crowds trickled out of Byrd and the media quietly retreated to the press box, Friedgen gathered his wife, his three daughters and his best friends in his office. For the moment, he could not find the words. As usual, it was Gloria who knew what to say.

"Girls," she said to her daughters. "I want you to know something. Your grandfather was looking down on us today, and he's very proud right now."

Friedgen said nothing. He sat behind his large wooden desk, put his head down, and let his eyes fill with tears.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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