It's been a slow, sad march toward Ralph Friedgen's final game as coach at Maryland.
"Being with the players one last time is pretty special," Friedgen said. "You know, it's kind of like you died. It's a slow death. Everything you experience is for the last time. It's been a very stressful week for me."
Friedgen was on the verge of tears at nearly every question at this week's official news conference for the Military Bowl, which matches the Terrapins (8-4) against East Carolina (6-6) on Wednesday at RFK Stadium. This was already a game Maryland didn't want to play -- the school felt it deserved a better bowl fate after tying for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- and now it's taken on a feel that's more funeral than festival since the announcement last week that the ACC's coach of the year was being fired, effective after the game.
"I think I have enjoyed practice more than they have," Friedgen said, "because I just don't know if I will be doing it again. I have been savoring the moment."
The Terrapins decided to part ways with Friedgen after offensive coordinator James Franklin, long tabbed to be Friedgen's eventual successor, accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt and offered jobs to several Maryland assistants. Athletic Director Kevin Anderson bought out the final year of Friedgen's contract rather than retain the 63-year-old coach as a lame duck or offer an extension.
Friedgen is 74-50 in 10 years at his alma mater, leading the school to the Orange Bowl in his first season in 2001 but never duplicating that success. He led the second biggest regular season turnaround in the country this year -- 2-10 to 8-4 -- but the Terrapins have struggled to fill seats at College Park, and the Military Bowl bid merely added to the perception that Maryland has slipped mightily in prestige.
The Military Bowl, trying to establish footing in just its third year of existence, was tabbed to get the No. 8 selection from the ACC, but more enticing bowls kept picking other conference schools ahead of Maryland, landing the school in a game played only a few miles from campus. The team even got to practice at its regular field over the last few days while commuting from the team's bowl hotel in downtown Washington.
"Finishing third in the ACC, we thought we were going to a better bowl -- not a better bowl, but a warmer bowl," Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak said. "We're from around here. The good thing about bowl games is you get to go to a place you'll probably never go again. People were a little disappointed at first, but once the decision was made, there was nothing we could do but get ready."
East Carolina should be happy to be playing in any bowl, given that the school has the worst defense in the country -- ranking 120th out of 120 FBS teams. The Pirates give up 478.8 yards per game and have allowed at least 45 points in five straight games, largely the product of losing an FBS-high 34 letterman from their 2009 Conference USA championship team.
"You couldn't ask for a better Christmas present," first-year coach Ruffin McNeill said.
The Pirates are a bowl favorite because their fan base travels well -- it wouldn't be surprising if Maryland fans are a minority in their own back yard at RFK -- and the purple-and-gold always relish any chance to knock off a team from the ACC.
For years, some ACC teams wouldn't schedule East Carolina -- this is the first meeting with Maryland -- but this season the Pirates are 1-2 against the conference that dominates their region.
"I asked Ralph at our first press conference, 'Can we be honorary members of the ACC?'" McNeill said. "This is our fourth ACC team. Maybe he could help us join that thing."
McNeill has an understanding of Friedgen's situation. He was Texas Tech's defensive coordinator a year ago and coached the Red Raiders to a win in the Alamo Bowl after Mike Leach was fired.
Intriguingly, Anderson has said Leach is on the preliminary list of candidates to succeed Friedgen. If Leach gets the job, it would be expected that he would try to lure to Maryland some of his old Texas Tech coaching staff -- several of whom followed McNeill to East Carolina.
"That's something I can't control," McNeill said. "My main purpose is our kids here and our preparation. Coach Leach is a really good coach and so is coach Friedgen. I know it's probably a tough camp over there _ I went through the same thing last year at the Alamo Bowl. ... We know we are facing a team that is going to be emotional."
Key Matchup: Maryland WR Torrey Smith vs. East Carolina's defense:
Smith set a school record with 272 all-purpose yards vs. N.C. State in Maryland's regular season finale, and ranks seventh in ACC history in career all-purpose yards. He'll be going against the nation's worst defense. East Carolina's cornerbacks have only two interceptions this season.
Players to Watch:
- Maryland QB Danny O'Brien is the ACC rookie of the year. He threw for 417 yards against N.C. State, and his 21 touchdown passes make him just the second Terrapins QB to throw more than 20 touchdowns in a season.
- East Carolina WR Dwayne Harris is nicknamed "The Playmaker" for good reason. He's accounted for 3,841 yards of total offense, averaging 7.8 catches per game. He has four 200-yard all-purpose yard games this season.
Facts and Figures:
Only Miami of Ohio has a bigger increase in wins (7) this season than Maryland. ... The Terrapins are outscoring opponents 152-70 in the second quarter. ... Maryland's ground attack hasn't exactly been consistent: It has three games with 200-plus yards rushing and two games with a negative total. ... Maryland hasn't played a Conference USA opponent since beating UAB in 1996. ... East Carolina went 1-2 against the ACC in the regular season, beating N.C. State and losing to North Carolina and Virginia Tech. ... The average score of an East Carolina game this year: 43-38 (with the other team averaging 43). ... Pirates QB Dominique Davis ended the regular season leading the nation in completions per game (29.8) and tied for first in TD passes with 36. ... The Pirates lost 34 lettermen from the 2009 team, most among FBS schools.