Originally created 12/31/01

'Fridge Fever' melts Maryland's football struggles



MIAMI -- He's a jolly looking fellow with a Michelin Man-sized belly, a sharp football mind and a vision hardly anybody else could have imagined at Maryland.

He is coach Ralph Friedgen, the author of the most impressive turnaround in college football this season, and the inspiration for what has become known around College Park simply as "Fridge Fever."

Friedgen, aka "The Fridge," says the scope of his popularity hit home well before the sixth-ranked Terrapins (10-1) made this unexpected trip to the Orange Bowl, where they'll play fifth-ranked Florida (9-2) on Wednesday.

"People want to congratulate me, our program, get autographs, take pictures," Friedgen said. "I was in the car the other day and a woman started beeping her horn. I rolled down the window - I thought there was something wrong with my car - and she said, 'Fridge!"'

Indeed, Maryland fans have been starving for success on the football field for a long time. The school that produced Randy White in the 1970s, Boomer Esiason in the 1980s and not a ton of household names else since, is enjoying just its second winning season in the last 10. It has been 11 years since the Terps last made a bowl game.

The Maryland players want their share of the credit for this turnaround. After all, they're the ones out there making the plays.

Still, when asked to really stop and think about all the reasons for their startling success, the answer always comes back to Friedgen, a 54-year-old lifetime assistant who viewed the return to his alma mater as his big - and maybe only - chance to make it as a head coach.

"Every new coach comes in and says you're going to win," senior defensive tackle Charles Hill said. "But it was the way he said it, and his actions. From the first meeting he said we're not just going to a bowl game, we're going to pick the bowl we go to."

That was a little too much for some to stomach. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd be here," linebacker E.J. Henderson said. Still, to hear Hill tell it, there really were actions behind Friedgen's words.

Like so many predecessors, Friedgen believed an upgrade of football facilities was crucial to success. Within a couple of months, however, Friedgen was producing plans for a new $6 million football headquarters and other improvements.

He also put a bigger emphasis on classroom attendance.

"He changed a lot of other little things, and when you do that, it can turn into a big thing," Hill said. "The conditioning program. The food situation, he changed that. We started having mandatory breakfast so players wouldn't lose weight during the season."

Ah, the weight thing.

It is, without a doubt, part of the Fridge Fever phenomenon. Tipping the scales at somewhere around 350 pounds - nobody's really counting anymore - Friedgen has brandished the reputation lately as the funny, huggable big brother this Maryland program has never really had. After all, how many other coaches can say they went to college to play quarterback and wound up on the offensive line?

But the weight issue may also be why Friedgen was passed over for so many head-coaching jobs - including twice at Maryland - while others, two decades younger, were getting them.

Too gruff, some critics said. Not slick and skinny enough to get the big-money alumni pumped up, others believed.

"My dad's big, my uncles are big, my family is big," he said earlier this season. "I can't change what I can't control."

Nobody's really asking him to anymore. In fact, having a coach with such heft is now something of a hoot.

Safety Tony Jackson recalled the first time Friedgen joined the team in a post-game celebration, after a 23-19 victory over North Carolina State last month clinched the team's first Atlantic Coast Conference title since 1985.

"We all get in the middle of the locker room and jump up and down," Jackson said. "He was in there hopping with us. He wasn't getting a lot of air, but he was getting up and down."

It's those kind of stories that help a coach build not just a program but a cult of personality. It's sort of like the atmosphere his counterpart in this game, Steve Spurrier, has built at Florida. To many, Spurrier is Florida football, and Friedgen is quickly becoming synonymous with the Terps.

The similarities don't end there.

"Friedgen is a perfectionist, just like Steve Spurrier," Jackson said. "He's an offensive coach, but he expects both sides of the ball to do well. He demands more out of us. That's just how he is. It's how he coaches, and it grows on us."