Ralph Friedgen reminds me he was joking.
"When I told you that, I was sitting on my porch having a laugh," Friedgen said.
He's of course referring to a comment he made on my radio show in 2011 that quickly became infamous. After discussing a breakout game for his former wide receiver Torrey Smith in the NFL, I asked him if he still watched Maryland games or found that too difficult.
"I could care less about Maryland,"
. "I've burned my diploma. I'm flying a Georgia Tech flag right now." (Friedgen had previously served as the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech.)
Throughout our conversations through the years, Friedgen, now retired, has maintained that he was joking. I've always believed him. Taken literally, the thought is absurd. But what isn't a joke are the difficult feelings that have existed between Friedgen and his alma mater since he was fired in 2010.
"I didn't think I was treated right for what I had done," Friedgen said. "I went to that school in 1964, really, when I got recruited, and coached there to 2010. That's close to 50 years, and I gave my all, and I didn't feel like they reciprocated that."
In 10 seasons at Maryland from 2001-2010, Friedgen's teams went 75-50 and 5-2 in bowl games. In his last season, the Terps were 9-4, including a win in the Military Bowl.
Given how Friedgen left, it has long seemed unlikely that we'd be on the cusp of what's about to happen this week. On March 9, Ralph Friedgen will return to the University of Maryland. It's a reunion many people didn't believe would ever happen.
"Myself included," Friedgen said.
The former coach will speak at DJ Durkin's spring coaches clinic at Cole Field House. It will be only the third time Friedgen has returned to campus since being dismissed (the others being his 2014 visit as Rutgers offensive coordinator to face the Terps and a personal visit he made to the campus priest after a family issue). This will be his first return in a formal capacity with the school.
So how exactly did this happen? A football bond between two coaches, who as of this moment, have still never met each other.
"The specifics of exactly the time or day I'd have to really think about, I don't know exactly," Durkin said. "But it was early on I decided to reach out to him. I feel really strongly about in college football, the whole tradition of things and respect to those who came before you, both coaches, players alike.
"Coach Friedgen not only coached here, he went to school here. I think he's a very important person in the history of this program, and so I just thought it was the right thing to do to reach out to him and really just more than anything just he and I to start a relationship. I did not know him or work with him any time previously. So I wanted to reach out and let him know that I had great respect for him and what he did here and wanted him to know that I want him to be part of our program however he would see fit."
Those conversations ultimately came around to one of the traditions Friedgen began while he coached at Maryland. Friedgen created "Boot Hill" near the entrance to Maryland's practice field. When the Terps would defeat a top 10 opponent during his tenure, they'd add a new tombstone to celebrate the victory.
"The reason I did that is I wanted our players to know this was a possibility," Friedgen said.
With the opening of the new Cole Field House facility and the practice fields set to move, Friedgen (who estimated he had spent some $1,500 to $1,800 on each tombstone) wondered if Boot Hill would be no more.
"It was a really cool conversation," Durkin said. "It was almost like he got a little bit emotional about it and what was established here. We walked by that every day, and I kind of knew but didn't know the full story and hearing it from him was the best way to hear it -- how that exactly came about and what it was all about."
The conversation occurred before the start of the 2017 season. Maryland would go on to beat No. 23 Texas on the road to open the season, and the relationship between the coaches continued to blossom as Durkin decided to extend the tradition to any win against a Top 25 team.
"And then they beat Texas, and I texted him congratulations, and he came back and just said, 'You know, I think that really helped my kids,'" Friedgen said.
Added Durkin: "Obviously, we've now moved to carry on that tradition after hearing that from him and I talked to our team about it and that was a pretty special deal.
Said Friedgen: "So the relationship developed, and then I texted him after the Wisconsin game [Oct. 21]. I thought it was a tough game; they got beat. I said, 'If there's anything I can do to help you' and he called and he said, 'What did you think,' and I gave him my critique. And then they came back and they beat Indiana [Oct. 28]. Then he called me about guys that he was interested in hiring that had worked for me, and I would give him an honest appraisal. So we kind of developed a relationship."
Friedgen said it wasn't the first time he had attempted to forge a relationship with a Maryland head coach that came after him.
"You know, I had reached out to [Randy] Edsall when he was there, but he didn't want to hear anything," Friedgen said.
Durkin envisioned bring Friedgen back to campus every time the two talked.
"I wanted a good relationship with him and just see where it goes," Durkin said. "Obviously, all along the way I just kept extending and try to make sure he understood, 'Listen, I'd love for you to come back, hang out, watch a practice, just whatever' to keep trying to get him involved.
"He was great from the get-go with me. That's been fantastic all along. The only kind of thing that had to be worked or developed I think was just his openness to coming back around."
Durkin said he knew a bit about how frosty things were between Friedgen and the school but learned more as his conversations with Friedgen went along. Durkin continued to press the former coach about the possibility of returning, finally using the coaches' clinic as an opportunity to formally ask him to participate. Friedgen still experienced trepidation from the treatment he received at the end of his tenure -- the most successful tenure of any Maryland football coach since the 1986 death of basketball star Len Bias that re-shaped the entire athletic department.
"He called me and said he wanted me to speak at the clinic," Friedgen said. "I had reservations to whether I wanted to do it or not. I said, 'Can you give me the weekend to kind of think about it.' He said 'sure.'
"So then he kind of called me back and he said, 'You know, if you're not ready to do this, that's fine, but I'm going to keep asking.' So of course my wife wanted me to do it, so I told him I would do it. I don't know how it's going to go. I really questioned whether I'd ever set foot on Maryland's campus again. Maybe after I talk it would be the last time, we'll see."
One particular issue still would have remained in the way of a reunion between Friedgen and the school. Athletic director Kevin Anderson remains on a rather confusing sabbatical through the academic year. Friedgen did not hesitate to say that if Anderson (who was in his first season as athletic director when Friedgen was fired) was still present at Maryland, he wouldn't return.
"No I wouldn't do it," Friedgen said sharply. He also admitted he tried to get more information about the missing AD.
"I don't know where Anderson is now, they say he's on sabbatical," Friedgen said. "I've never heard of an AD being on sabbatical. That might be the greatest secret kept in Maryland's history. I did ask DJ, I said, 'I'll do it if you tell me what happened to Anderson.' Of course he wouldn't do it."
Durkin is hoping the speaking engagement will lead to even more involvement for Friedgen moving forward with Maryland football.
"Things just happen the way they're supposed to," Durkin said. "Ralph's supposed to be part of this program. He's supposed to be still involved and engaged and whatever happens, however you get to that, I'm just certainly happy that we're moving back in that direction. He should be part of our Hall of Fame; he should part of the University of Maryland and part of University of Maryland football forever. And so if this can somehow be a good first step, maybe a giant first step in that direction, then I'm happy -- whatever part I played in it -- to be part of it."
Said Friedgen: "I don't even think about all of that stuff. DJ hasn't really brought that up to me other than what he had said at the time. I would be willing to help him in any way that I can because even though I haven't personally met him, we've talked on the phone a number of times, so I feel like I'd like to help him."
Friedgen said he'd even be willing to consider a more formal role in the athletic department, similar to what Gary Williams has as "senior managing director for alumni relations and athletic development," but he admits he has no idea if the school would have such an inclination. In the meantime, he'll continue to make himself available to a coach he's developed a fondness for.
"If they want my opinion I've never been shy about giving my opinion," Friedgen said. "He seems like a really nice person. To me, I appreciate the fact that he did reach out, which is kind of refreshing in a way. If I can help him out, I'd be more than happy to help him out. I don't have a problem with that."
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen and Mitch Stringer/PressBox