For Univ.of MD., keeping Friedgen the safe business move

Posted: 7:45 pm Tue, December 1, 2009
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

Maryland’s football team has a 66-46 record in nine years under Ralph Friedgen, but four of the last six seasons have been sub .500.On the heels of a 2-10 season, one high-profile college football coach being fired and another resigning under pressure, University of Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen was given another shot Tuesday in what many are calling the safer business decision.

Friedgen, who has $4 million and two years left on his contract as head coach of the Terrapins, said he was thankful for the opportunity to continue as coach and was optimistic for the future of the program.

“Hope I wasn’t just judged on this year, and I think this shows the confidence the administration has in me,” he said.

But it’s likely a short leash he’s been given.

“The real challenge is how much longer can they have it like this?” said Mark Westerman, a former Fila marketing executive and founder of West33 Consulting in Baltimore. “The buyout reduces to $2 million next year. … If it’s costing twice that much in [lost] revenue then it comes to a point where you may have to exercise the buyout instead of [Friedgen] returning for a final season.”

Maryland football, which has been to six bowl games and boasts a 66-46 record in nine years under Friedgen, has struggled recently.

On the field, four of the last six seasons have been losing efforts. Charlie Weis was fired as head coach of University of Notre Dame football after going 35-27 record in five seasons. Bobby Bowden, who won two national championships as head coach of Florida State University football, has gone 28-22 since 2006 and resigned Tuesday.

Following the completed renovation this year of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium, the school has been unable to sell long-term leases on one-third of the 64 luxury suites. The suites sell for between $40,000 and $50,000 annually.

Total attendance at Byrd Stadium was down this year by 7 percent (or about 24,500) to 311,163, according to numbers given by the athletics department. Most notably, the final home game of the year against Boston College drew just 35,042 fans — about two-thirds of the stadium’s capacity.

Maryland sold 22,804 season tickets this season, down more than 20 percent from the 28,661 sold in 2005.

Westerman said the recession can be blamed in part for the attendance drop. But he pointed to other schools with strong football traditions — and more than 90,000-seat stadiums — like the University of Michigan and University of Alabama that are still going strong.

“In all sports the record, for the most part, is directly related to attendance,” he said. “Sometimes it can take several years to take full effect, sometimes it’s immediately.”

While much of Maryland’s struggle with attendance this year can be attributed to the team’s play on the field, he said the school is also in a competitive market compared with other schools that are “the only game in town.”

Within 30 miles of campus are two pro football teams, two pro baseball teams, an NBA team and an NHL team — not to mention the handful of other colleges and universities in the  region, Westerman said

He and others said the decision to keep Freidgen was not (and should not have been) based on the last season. Other factors such as team graduation rate, recruiting and the team’s prior success under the coach are important.

Rick Jaklitsch, president of the Terrapin Club, which raises money to fund scholarships for all 27 of the university’s intercollegiate teams, pointed to Friedgen’s history with Maryland as a player and a coach, and credited him for turning the program around when he arrived in 2000.

Jaklitsch, who was traveling Tuesday with other major school donors, said his group erupted in cheers when they heard Friedgen was staying.

“A lot of top donors were saying, ‘You’ll never get a penny from us if you sack Freidgen,’” Jacklitsch said.

But keeping the coach for at least another year has its risks. While some season ticket holders say they support Friedgen, this year was tough.

Jim Ruth, a member of the Terrapin Club and Maryland Gridiron Network, the official booster group for the football team, said he didn’t attend all the games this year.

“I would have if they had delivered a better product on the field,” said Ruth, who played with Friedgen on Maryland’s 1965 freshman football team. “But I have a beach house in Delaware and I just knew there were some games I’d rather watch from the beach.”

He and other Terrapin Club members said they still planned on renewing their season tickets but they expected a winning season next year.

Another risk in keeping a tenuous coach is in recruiting.

“If Friedgen’s coming back and [the school is] voicing support, is it support for one year or is it the rest of the contract? Does [assistant head coach James] Franklin still have the support of being the coach in waiting?” said Westerman. “Recruits … want to know who the coach is going to be next year. These kids want stability as well.”

Freidgen said that shouldn’t be a factor this off season and his method of recruiting goal-oriented athletes would stay the same.

“I’ll be telling them [what we’re about], if they want to be a part of that, they’ll come onboard,” he said.