By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (July 24, 2014) – The first time Ralph Friedgen was coaxed out of retirement following his successful 10-year run as Maryland’s head coach was January, when he was asked to coach one of the teams in the Medal of Honor Bowl, a college all-star football game in Charleston, S.C.
No pay was involved, but Friedgen still took the responsibility seriously.
“My wife saw how I prepared for that game. I prepared like I did for every other game as a coach – I put together a playbook, got a staff together, met with them and went over the playbook with them,” he said. “When she saw how involved I was she wanted me back in coaching. She thinks I’m destined to do this.”
Shortly after, the man affectionately known as “the Fridge” was hired by Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood to be the Scarlet Knights’ new offensive coordinator heading into the school’s inaugural Big Ten season. Few assistants in program history have come close to the impressive resume Friedgen arrives with.
Despite being named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year for leading Maryland -- his alma mater – to a 9-4 season in 2010 that was capped by a bowl victory, Friedgen was let go by the Terrapins.
He left with a 10-year record of 75-50 that included a 5-2 bowl mark and appeared to be done with coaching following a 42-year career that saw him serve as the offensive coordinator at Maryland, Georgia Tech, with the San Diego Chargers during a Super Bowl season, at Murray State, William & Mary and The Citadel.
At age 67, and off his three-year retirement, Friedgen says he is energized again.
Scarletknights.com recently sat down with Friedgen for a wide-ranging interview with his first pre-season camp as offensive coordinator at Rutgers set to begin Aug. 1.
Q. How has it been returning to active coaching?
“I like the football part of it. There are some things I like and some things I don’t. It’s an adjustment not being a head coach any more. There’s some good and some bad about that too. I see Kyle some days and I’m glad I’m not doing it. Other days I wish I was doing it. I like the people I’m working with. Rutgers has treated me extremely well. I feel very much at home. I’m very appreciative of the way the people have accepted me. I don’t know how that will be after the season but we’ll see.”
Q. After going through a full spring practice, and with pre-season camp set to start, has it been what you expected?
“There are some things that are different. You have to understand I worked for Bobby Ross for 20 years. Then I went with George O’Leary, who was with Bobby Ross. And then I was a head coach for 10 years. So I’ve kind of done the same things on the same schedule my way for almost 40 years. Now I’ve come in and things are totally different. Some things I like, some things I don’t like. But I do like the people I’m working with. So I’m kind of anxious to see how it works.”
Q. What’s the biggest adjustment about being a coordinator again after spending 10 years as a head coach?
“I coordinated while I was the head coach at Maryland for three years. I found that to be difficult because of dealing with all of the head coaching responsibilities you have. At Maryland I had to be a fundraiser too. So being the head coach and also being the offensive coordinator … we went to two bowls during that time but I didn’t think I was doing as good a job as I could have because I was – if you can believe this – spread too thin.
“The issue is, when you’re the coordinator as well as the head coach and something comes up, you’ve got to be out of that offensive meeting room as the head coach and nothing is going on in that room without your okay. So everything comes to a standstill.”
Q. So the transition has been a smooth one?
“I think it has been fine. It probably took the offensive staff two or three months to get comfortable with me. They didn’t know what to expect. I think I’m a lot different than (former offensive coordinator) Ron Prince was. I’m a guy who likes to use every resource that he has. I don’t think I know all of the answers. I like debate. I like people to voice their opinion. I don’t have a problem making the final decision. But I think it’s us, it’s not me. And I’ve told them: I am not looking to go anywhere. This is my last stop.”
Q. What will this offense look like? Will it deviate much from what we’ve seen of recent Rutgers offenses?
“Yes, I think it will. Last year they were in a lot of tight formations. I like spreading things out a little more. The strength of the offense is our running backs. I think we have three pretty good running backs. I think we have a very good fullback in Michael Burton, who is very versatile, smart and someone who can catch the ball and block. I’m someone who likes using what we have. So when people have asked `what will the offense be like?’ I’ve answered by saying `that depends on what kind of talent we have.’ I have always worked around the talent.”
Q. What are your biggest concerns with the offense?
“What I think we have to be careful about – and I think it happened a little bit in the spring – is we can wear these kids out and not have anything left. So we have to get them some help.
“My philosophy is to have a balance between run and pass. That doesn’t mean I want to run it 50 percent of the time and throw it 50 percent of the time. But I want the capability that if you’re going to play the pass I’m going to run the ball on you. And if you’re going to play the run I’m going to throw the ball on you. If you’re only one dimensional then they’re going to make you play left-handed and I don’t like to play left-handed. I like to take what the defense gives us.”
Q. What are your impressions so far of quarterback Gary Nova?
“I know we’ve had some issues here at quarterback. Gary, from what I’ve seen, has a chance to be a good quarterback, in my opinion, if he can keep it together. What I mean by that is if he stays focused. I think he loses focus.
“People told me certain things about Gary. I think he has been very good with me. I’ve had no problems with him. Every now and then he’ll miss something or not do something. That’s his problem. To me, you’ve got to be a leader all of the time, not some of the time. But as far as a guy who has some ability, he has ability. I’ve made one correction with his mechanics. He threw the ball on his toes, which puts a lot of pressure on your arm and can lead to arm problems. I was always taught, especially when I was in the NFL, to put your heel in the ground and push off like you’re a pitcher and then get your waist and hips right. It seems to have helped him.”
Q. You have a tight end in Tyler Kroft who blossomed as an offensive weapon last year. Has the tight end position generally been a big part of your offenses?
“I had four or five tight ends at Maryland go on to play pro ball. Here’s the other issue. Kroft didn’t go through spring practice. Leonte Carroo didn’t have any contact and didn’t go through spring practice. Ruhann Peele missed spring practice, Paul James missed spring practice and Justin Goodwin got a high ankle sprain. So I was basically playing with the JV. You take out Chris Muller and you take out Taj Alexander, too. I’m without the right side of my line, my tight end, my wide receiver, both running backs. So I’m basing what I know about them off tape and their off-season work. I’ll know more about all of them after pre-season camp.”
Q. How will you work the quarterback situation, knowing the two guys immediately behind Nova – Chris Laviano and Mike Bimonte – have never taken a snap in a game and that you have to get someone ready for next year too?
“The more quarterbacks you have ready to play the better. The question is: Do you have more than one? To me, that’s up to Mike and Chris. They have to start developing and coming on. We’ll have more options next year with (LSU transfer) Hayden Rettig and (incoming freshman) Giovanni Rescigno. So they have to know there are other guys coming. This is Chris’ and Mike’s time to get better. Because if they don’t get better it’s just the way it’s going to be. They’re working hard and I’m working hard with them. I would like to see somebody emerge now.”
Q. Compared to your other years as a college coach how daunting is the schedule Rutgers is facing in its first year in the Big Ten?
“I think this is probably the toughest schedule I’ve ever faced. It should be interesting. To me, the way I look at it is we don’t have anything to lose. We need to go out, have fun and make plays and then see how we match up. I don’t think we can go into a shell. We have to attack.”
Q. You mentioned in a recent Big Ten Network that you have no relationship with your former Maryland assistant and current Penn State head coach James Franklin, even though you worked with him for seven years. Can you elaborate on that?
“The question to me was `Do you have a relationship with James Franklin?’ I said no, not really. That was the truth. That’s it. There’s really not much more I want to say about it.”
Q. Have you given any thought yet to the last game of the season, since it’s at Maryland?
“I had a wonderful run at Maryland. The last game I coached there was the Military Bowl. Most coaches, especially when they’re fired, don’t have people chanting their name and putting signs up saying `Thanks, Ralph.’ Urban Meyer won two national championships at Florida and he left Florida the same time I left Maryland and there was none of that in the stands for him. So I feel pretty fortunate. At least I’ve impacted some people at Maryland, so I should not – and don’t – have any ill feelings toward them.”